Top 100 IGCs: #heyswansons, how did you get so good at social media?

Top 100 IGCs: #heyswansons, how did you get so good at social media?

Features - Cover Feature: Top 100 IGCs

How a hashtag and other unconventional marketing efforts helped Seattle-based Swansons Nursery start real conversations with customers online and increase sales.

December 19, 2014
Michelle Simakis

Social media efforts can often feel like a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants strategy with little feedback, leaving garden centers with the uncertainty of whether they’re reaching their target audience and if that precious time is worth the investment. The hot, popular platform often changes, as do the best practices for using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and other websites that have sprouted up over the years. Even more difficult is having a plan and a vision so that digital efforts evolve into more profit and customers for the business.

Swansons Nursery, which is No. 27 on our Top 100 Independent Garden Centers list, seems to have it all figured out.

The 90-year-old, Seattle-based garden center drastically revamped its marketing and advertising efforts this year, funneling more dollars to ads on Pandora, a streaming music website that allows listeners to tailor their music preferences based on artists they like, and more time to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram than to traditional venues like newspapers and billboards. They also put an emphasis on shopping, community and charitable events and efforts, such as their landscaping project with the local Boys & Girls Club. These diverse but not disparate efforts, collectively called the “Grow With Us Project,” aimed to reach new gardeners, or “freshmen gardeners.”

President Brian Damron says he was tired of the same old tried but not true promotional ideas he and other garden centers have rotated through. He wanted something fresh. So he hired PR firm Curator to guide him through the process and help create, manage and launch the project.

“I personally have become frustrated over the years with our industry in general and seeing ideas recycled over and over again,” Damron says. “In this industry, it’s wash, rinse, repeat.”

#heyswansons, how did you create real conversations with customers online?

This past spring, Damron, Curator and Aimée Damman, director of marketing for Swansons, decided to turn the company’s focus to Twitter, a strong social network in the Seattle area, and Instagram, a photo-sharing site popular with millennials, their target demographic for the project. They created the hashtag #heyswansons, the central aspect of the Grow With Us Project. If Seattle-area gardeners want to know the best time to harvest their tomatoes or when to plant tulip bulbs, all they have to do is snap a photo of their project or yard, send a message via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram with that hashtag, and they’ll generally receive an initial answer or follow-up questions from Swansons within one to two hours. (The company installed software to help track the activity.)

A hashtag is only effective if it is widely known, however. So Swansons reinforces the strategy and reminds customers that there is a resource for gardening questions after they leave the store. Employees wear bright, grass-green T-shirts with the hashtag right in front. Damron and Damman spoke with just a handful of staff members at a time and explained the importance of the project. They installed signage branded with #heyswansons at the top throughout the nursery with common and clever questions such as “How can I keep my neighbors’ lovely cats out of my beds?” The cover photo on Swansons’ Facebook page reads, “Just ask #heyswansons. We’re listening.” They use Pandora ads to promote it as well, and track what happens on Twitter when the ad airs. As expected, activity spikes.

Customers who send messages about specific planting projects or areas they want to garden receive a personalized Pinterest board within 24 to 48 hours with pins of plants, care and growing suggestions, and a 10 percent off coupon to encourage them to shop at Swansons.

“We’ve started over 120 Pinterest boards, which are full project inspiration boards for people with questions about plant care, pest control or when to harvest different vegetables,” Damman says. “It’s been very popular.”

One of the most common questions Damron is asked, however, is “What if people use the information on the boards and take their business somewhere else, like Home Depot?”

“That’s not necessarily the goal of what we’re trying to do here,” Damron says. “We’re not looking at it in the short term, in terms of driving sales. We’re looking to develop new, long-term customers. We want revenue for the next 10 to 20 years, not for money just to come in tomorrow.”

Besides, the conversations are seen by people’s social media followers, and Swansons' staff are seen as the gardening experts in Seattle.

Damman and two other marketing team members, who work 30 hours a week, man the social media pages and handle the initial contact with customers. Damman, who has worked at Swansons since April 2013, moved to the marketing department full-time in February to focus on Swansons social media presence, its blog and the partnership with Curator. Some money that would have been used for traditional advertising was allocated to the marketing department to help fund their efforts and the larger staff.



The social media strategy has helped spur conversations with potential and current customers in the area and engage folks curious about plants, says Damman.

“Loyal customers and new customers alike are getting so excited about these new projects,” she says. “We’re seeing that enthusiasm for gardening grow.”

And they’re being invited into customers’ homes, at least digitally.

“One of the most beautiful things about the program is that it gives us a window into our customers’ yards,” Damron says. “They’re sending us photos and descriptions, which are windows into the market, and I see a lot of opportunity with yards that hardly have anything planted in them.”

Twitter has been most successful, which makes sense, as it was the birthplace of the hashtag. Before Swansons launched the campaign, they sent eco-friendly gift boxes to about 30 influential people in the area on social media, both gardeners and non-gardeners. Green thumbs received Hori Hori knives, and non-gardeners received Felco pruners, both in a plantable Lifebox. Swansons encouraged them to participate in the project by sending photos of their trouble spots and asking Swansons for help.

“Customers have felt this is a positive thing, and they see it as a free service. There’s been a lot of good will in the community with that,” Damron says. “Social media in general and in our own company was really scattershot and very reactive. We very much wanted to have true conversations with our customers on social media. The focus of this is all about talking to customers, not just telling them information.”

#heyswansons, how do you retain all of those new customers you chatted with online?

Finding and keeping loyal customers and creating excitement about autumn planting is not easy. Curator and Swansons created a Digital Botanical Lookbook to promote Autumn Project Month with professionally shot photos of gorgeous fall plants posing in the studio and planted in the earth. It was just one way they tried to reach customers and encourage them to sow after spring and summer.

The lookbook had two purposes. One was to inspire gardeners, the other was to advertise the beautiful and often hard-to-find varieties that would be featured at Swansons fall kickoff sale, The Autumn Project Month Preview Event. The exclusive fall preview is only offered to eGarden Club members, or customers who signed up to receive Swansons e-newsletter and promotions, including information about other exclusive events offered throughout the year. Those customers were invited a few days early to shop the new fall perennials, trees and shrubs at 30 percent off, a storewide discount that is offered during September. Shoppers could also imbibe local brew and grab grub from a food truck parked out front while they browsed the store.

The tidy, buyer-curated group of 20 perennials, trees and shrubs are showcased in the lookbook in various stages of bloom to reveal how they change throughout the seasons. The pictures have a soft, filtered look. But what resonated most with shoppers were the stories buyers told about the plants.

When you click to get a larger view of the Purple Prairie Clover, for example, there is a blurb from Alex LaVilla, perennial plant buyer, who describes the plant:

"I was traveling in NYC a few summers ago and stumbled onto this plant while walking The High Line, an innovative public park built on a historic freight rail line above Manhattan’s West Side. I was struck by the unique shape and flood of color it provided to the design … This perennial isn’t easily available in the Seattle area, so we worked with a local grower to source and bring this to the market here for the first time.”

To tie it all back to that original #heyswansons campaign, shoppers who attended the preview event received an additional 10 percent off if they showed their Pinterest project boards.

About 300 eGarden Club members attended, Swansons estimates.

“This preview in particular was by far the most successful of the events in terms of sales,” Damron says. “Historically the best is the holiday premier night, but we blew that out of the water.”

#heyswansons, what were the results of these efforts?

Before 2014, sales from the annual fall sale had been trending down, according to statistics from Swansons. The fall preview was a success, as was the number of customers who signed up for the newsletter. The lookbook launched Aug. 17, and on Sept. 30, when Autumn Project Month ended, they had 515 new eGarden customers. In other words, a quarter of the 2,113 new signups in 2014 occurred during that six-week window. Their holiday premier night, also exclusively offered to eGarden members, was more successful than in years past. They planned for 350, but 200 additional people showed up.

“We printed about 350 programs and within the first 20 to 25 minutes, we had to print more,” Damman says. “We are more decorated for the holiday season this year. We have more lights and it just looks amazing. We had live music. It was kind of a magical evening.”

Curator also tracked the success of social media efforts. The website received 1 million impressions, or views that were referred from social media posts, just four weeks after the campaign launched.

What may be the most impressive number, Damron says, is their sales growth. Swansons hovered around $8.5 million in sales in 2012 and 2013, and though they don’t have final figures for 2014 yet, things are looking good.

“We’re up about 13 percent year-to-date,” Damron said back in September. “We’ve set all kinds of records: our largest sales day, our largest sales week, of all the years we’ve been in operation. And this reestablishes Swansons as the dominant experts in our region.

“A lot of garden centers have had a good year, but I get a strong sense that our success is above and beyond that. The average ticket is up over $5 for the year, and that’s every single month, not just May.”

In November, he provided an update.

“We will break $9 million this year,” he says. “It’s hard to point to one specific thing and say that’s what did it. If anything, it’s that we’ve been working really hard in marketing all year.”

And chances are the Christmas season will be equally profitable. Swansons’ next big endeavor is called “Pick the Perfect Tree.” Customers can visit the website and read about two of the farms where Swansons acquires its trees and stories about the families who operate them. They can also browse the five varieties of Christmas trees Swansons carries with options for styles like alpine or forest edge.

To reserve a tree for pickup, customers post a message to Facebook or Twitter with their height/style requirements and/or a photo of their space, and the #heyswansons hashtag. Swansons then helps them pick the perfect tree for that space. Trees are tagged especially for the customers, and they can pick them up during weekday business hours.

Just like last time, Swansons sent a holiday card to social media influencers, asking them to participate in the project.

“One thing I learned is that the customer service and experience that we're known for can be expressed [online]. Being a destination garden center that's so heavily focused on what happens in store, it's tricky to talk about that externally,” Damron says. “We were able to reach people who our traditional advertising was completely missing.”