Perhaps the best known name in this growing field is Patch. Owned and funded by AOL with offices in New York, its high-quality, journalistic website/blogs are in 20 states so far (plus D.C.), and when they cover a state, they cover it. (My small state of Maryland has 52 of them, and California has over 130.) Patches are established in towns with populations between 15,000 and 100,000 that are “underserved by media and that would benefit by having access to local news and information about government, schools and business”. They’re run by professional editors, writers and photographers who live in or near the communities they serve, and I was happily surprised to discover how transparent they are. Here’s their About Page, which includes the bio’s for an impressive staff. Click here to find all the Patches (so far) in the U.S.
It wasn’t long after the Potomac, MD Patch launched that their editor contacted the one garden center in Potomac to ask if she could republish some of the garden center’s blog posts on the Patch. It’s part of the business plan for Patches everywhere to solicit (unpaid) blog posts to publish front and center on all the Patch sites under the headline “Local Voices”, and local businesses with blogs are invited to contribute, too. Behnkes Nursery was quick to say yes, and you see their green logo twice here on the Potomac Patch – actually, their very first “Local Voice” entries. One is a teaser to a longer article on the Behnkes website and the other is an introduction to the garden center itself - what it sells, etc. – the editor asked for that one specifically!
It’s clear from Patch’s guidelines for local bloggers that they’re looking for professional writing, including the use of standard journalistic punctuation, etc. All submissions are subject to editing, and may be rejected outright if they require a lot of editing or outright rewrite. Like any respected news source, Patch also cares about copyright law, so both the text and photos in blog contributions need to be in compliance.
How many garden center owners and employees have the time, inclination or experience to produce content like this? Not many (if any), but you know who can produce it? Local garden writers, especially if they have experience and proven success at blogging.
Content-wise, what is Patch looking for? According to the Potomac Patch editor, they want really useful stories, like the “What to Do in May” blog story submitted in full to another Patch site (shown here on the left). See, it’s fine to either publish the whole story on Patch or just post a short teaser that sends readers to your blog to read the whole story. The editor also suggested blog stories announcing the store’s specials! Notice this is FREE to the garden center – not paid advertising.
You can even post the same stories to several different Patch sites, as long as they’re local to your customers. It’s a way to get great reach for your blog stories for almost no extra effort (it takes 5 minutes or so to post the content to each Patch).
More super-local news sites
Patch is just the largest of many local news sites springing up all over the place. There’s also Village Connector and Main Street Connect and lots more that are unique to each town, rather than national in scope. No doubt Patch isn’t the only one looking to republish blog posts by local companies.
Other ways to use Patch and other micro-local news sites to promote IGCs:
- Offer your in-store expert to be interviewed by Patch writers, producing stories like this one.
- Add your events to their Events calendar – all by yourself (and it’s easy to do). They’ll appear not just on the calendar but front and center on the main page of the Patch site. Again – this is FREE of charge.
- Post announcements (like job openings).
More opportunities on government websites and blogs
The Washington, D.C. Council of Governments funds the Metro DC Lawn and Garden Blog, with an excellent gardenwriter at its helm, but they want guest posts, too – and get them. Like this one by a garden center manager listing his favorite native plants. (The introductory language about how wonderful the garden center is was written by the Metro DC Lawn and Garden editor, not by the garden center itself.)
And Plant More Plants is another government effort – this one without funds for their own blog editor (they allocated most of their grant money to two TV ads instead), so they’re really needing blog posts from garden centers.
Both of these blogs have sprung up in the last year.
More reasons to blog
These opportunities come to companies that blog. Facebook updates and Twitter feeds are great, but they can’t be redistributed in this way across the web.
Here’s some examples of what a garden center BLOG can do that a Facebook fan page or Twitter account definitely CANNOT – turn talks by experts into content that can go viral AND stay online forever.
Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, MD has lots of great talks and they’re usually well attended – meaning that 20-40 people get to hear them. But as often as possible, their gardenblogger (me) is there to write up the highlights, put them into easy-reading form, check with the speaker for corrections and additions, and get it all online. There they can be read by who-knows-how-many customers and potential customers, especially when the topics are so hot that links to the stories get passed around via regional gardening listservs and other social media.
- Homestead’s “education coordinator” Gene Sumi is a popular draw, so I attend and chronicle as many of his talks as possible – like this one about the hot, dry summer of 2010.
- When a local Master Gardener or environmental groups send speakers to the store, they appreciate the information being published permanently on the blog, and often include the link to the story in their e-newsletters. Here’s a story about a watershed expert’s talk.
- Same thing applies to talks by regional gardening gurus on the radio, like Andre Viette and Mike McGrath (particularly on organic lawn care), and local compost expert Frank Gouin. (The latter two are the highest-traffic stories on the blog.)
- Another good candidate for going viral? Write-ups of talks that garden center experts give AWAY from the store – like this story about Gene Sumi’s talk to a local garden club.
I was approached by Pete Mihalek, editor of Lawn and Garden Retailer Magazine, for answers to his many questions about the Mahoney’s blog, which he’d already told us he loved. So finally, online and in print, my article, in the February issue. Susan
People are asking how Mahoney’s Garden Centers came to launch their attention-getting blog last summer and the answer is no surprise — they were responding to the same advice you’re all hearing about the value of social marketing. You know that customers are getting their information online, that social marketing is far cheaper than print advertising, and that it’s time to get on board.
Writing for the Web
It’s deceptively easy to start a new blog online — it just takes a few minutes. But for a blog to be successful, the blogger needs to know a shocking number of details about writing for the Web, building traffic and even online etiquette. Because Mahoney’s didn’t have a staff member with experience in all of that — not to mention the time to do it — they looked around, saw the blog articles I was writing for Homestead Gardens, and hired me to get their blog going.
As editor, my duties would include making the blog run on time with articles that inform and attract readers, and making sure they were edited, laid out and illustrated for the web, including the almighty search engines.
So what topics are covered on the blog? Lots of gardening how-to, always timely, science-based and environmentally responsible. Profiles of public gardens in the region and profiles of Mahoney’s employees, especially the ones who interact with customers. News of gardening and greening projects in the region. Book reviews. Corporate blogs succeed based on their useful and entertaining content, not their advertorials.
Indeed, advertising or marketing-type content is an instant turn-off to blog readers (your existing and potential customers), who usually click away from it and never return. Promotion needs to be infrequent and subtle, like profiling plants that you happen to sell. The preferable route would be to show them full-size and in a garden. And when it comes to profiles of employees and stories about in-store events, those are okay, too.
It’s in the Delivery
Blogs need the right tone. The best blogs are noncorporate, conversational and written by an identifiable person. Better yet, several identifiable people, and not just someone in the marketing department.
So Mahoney’s blog is a team effort. Contributors include not just me but a local radio garden guru, and as many employees as possible. (Employee articles can be simply e-mailed to the editor, who does the rest.)
And the regular “guest bloggers” include regionally known garden writers whose stories create buzz and get promoted via their own networking. Book authors typically contribute free blog stories and book giveaways to lucky readers. Local garden-related nonprofits provide free blog stories that help promote their good works, and then help spread the word through their e-newsletters. Avid customers offer their garden photos featuring plants bought at Mahoney’s.
Guest bloggers are great for making the blog go viral — creating word of mouth on steroids. The networking goes on in the blog’s sidebar, too, where you’ll find links to regional public gardens, gardening groups, local garden bloggers, and more. These links provide a service to readers while helping to get Mahoney’s connected with the local online communities their customers are engaged with. When the Boston Globe’s garden writer praised the blog, she mentioned liking this feature in particular — she clearly understands “link love” and why it’s important to use it.
Besides high-quality content, the other requirement for a successful blog is promotion, and not just at launch but continuously — via Facebook and Twitter, on signs in the store, and by linking to new blog stories in e-newsletters. When sales staff know about a new blog story that features plants in their department, they can mention it to customers. Blogs and other social marketing tools work best when they’re integrated with the company, not stand-alone products.
So, what’s the return on this investment? With good promotion, readership builds steadily and turn-out at events soon improves, but forget about exact ROIs. Social marketing is about becoming part of the online community and creating relationships — things that can’t be quantified and don’t happen overnight. That’s hard to hear, I know, but take heart in the fact that social marketing is less expensive than traditional marketing, and more effective at building customer loyalty.
Yes, there’s tons of gardening information online these days, but sorting through the generic tips and junk websites to find trustworthy information is challenging. Web-using gardeners (soon to be ALL gardeners) already trust you and are grateful to find your expert, local help online. Facebook is great but no place for meaty information, inspirational garden stories or great photos of plants in gardens. You could put that great content on your static website, but blogs are updated frequently and designed to make it easy for readers to comment — to communicate with you.
There’s been an explosion of gardening blogs since I started this one for the Boston Globe three years ago, and one of the newest and best local ones is Mahoney’s Blog.
I especially like the comprehensive directory of links its staff has assembled which will instantly connect you to the websites of local horticultural and to other local gardening blogs such as this one. I hope to post such a directory on this blog soon.
I’m so pleased that she likes the blogroll of local gardens, gardening blogs and more – because they’re kinda new on corporate blogs, but essential for turning the blog into a regional resource about gardening. Also essential for using the blog as a tool for networking. Posting links to these relevant groups and bloggers is called “link love” and it’s gold in making connections online.
If you don’t know the Kojo Nnambi’s daily radio show on DC’s public radio station, I can tell you that locals love it and people everywhere listen in via podcast. And the recent episode about “Crowdsourcing, Carrotmobs and Local Business” has some intriguing ideas for independent garden centers. Here’s their description of the topic covered:
We explore how business owners and ethical consumers are harnessing the power of online communities and crowd-sourcing to support the local economy.
“Mom and Pop” businesses can’t necessarily beat prices at big box stores or national chains. So some local independent businesses are experimenting with new ways to engage customers and build loyalty. We explore how business owners, ethical consumers and labor activists are harnessing the power of online communities and crowd-sourcing to support the local economy.
You can listen through this link, but or read these notes I took with IGCs in mind.
- Carrotmobs are campaigns that reward local businesses who “do good” in some way. The reward is directing “mobs” of customers to them through social media. Think Local First DC does carrotmobs regularly, and they describe them as “inverse Groupon”.
Speaking of Groupon, one panelist warns that it may or may not not make sense for businesses to participate in it. (If I can weigh in, they recently asked me to offer my garden-coaching service at a half-off discount via their emails, and then give them 30 percent of my greatly diminished hourly rate – all of which I considered a really bad deal for me.)
- In response to Walmart’s anticipated store opening here in DC, panelists reminded listeners that it’s small businesses who are the primary job creators in our economy, not the boxes.
- Others cited the importance of the experience of shopping. Big-box shopping experience “lacks some soul”. (You could say that again.)
- One caller, the owner of a small independent guitar store, offers in-store classes and has developed a community around the store. Note the parallels with in-store teaching of gardening! Another caller likes small businesses for their “advice you can trust and employees who care”.
- CoolTownBeta Communities is using social media to drive business to small companies in downtown neighborhoods coming back.
- Compost Cab, an upstart company in D.C., picks up waste and composts them for nonprofits that grow food, which fills a niche that big waste companies cannot. Compost Cab also started in this Voice of America report on composting in cities.
My take-away thought? That I’d love to see an IGCs tap into the localism movement somehow. (In addition to the “green” movement and good-growing movement, of course.)
Written by Susan Harris as a guest on a terrific blog about social media – Debbie Weil’s Social Media Insights Blog. Here’s Debbie’s introduction:
Kudos to my newest guest blogger Susan Harris for her post below explaining exactly why being a corporate blogger can be fun. She hits all the relevant points (how she coaxes posts out of the staff, how she finds guest authors, etc.). I love her observation that “the networking goes on in the sidebar, too” through a carefully selected blogroll. Read on for the dirt on corporate blogging. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Susan is best known for her blogging at GardenRant and award-winning Sustainable and Urban Gardening. She writes for corporate blogs Mahoney’s and Homestead. Take it away, Susan:
Field Report from a Local Corporate Blogger – Where Viral Meets Local
Anybody out there losing their blogging mojo, like me? I’ve been at it five years now and have climbed to the top of the heap in my niche (gardening), but still there’s almost no money in it. So I boldly offered my “blogging services” to a local garden center, and damn if they didn’t hire me. Then another. So suddenly I’m a corporate blogger, no matter that the term conjures up savvy 20-somethings in the marketing departments of big national companies.
But blogging for small local businesses is as different from that corporate world as it is blogging for myself, and the shocker to me is that I love doing it, and not just for the moolah. Here’s what I do. Read the rest of this entry »
These are some of our favorite resources for online marketing information and case studies. Check back for new resources, added as they’re discovered.
Subscribe to blogs and newsletters of these online marketing gurus:
- Problogger provides a wealth of blogging tips by super-savvy Darren Rowse.
- Duct Tape Marketing is great resource for “simple, effective and affordable small business marketing” (and that means mostly online).
- Mashable, the “Social Media Guide”.
- ChrisG on the Business of Blogging and New Media.
- Seth Godin is a top blogging and online marketing guru.
- Chris Brogan is a top expert in “community and social media”.
- FutureNow’s Marketing Optmization Blog.
- Google’s Webmaster Central Blog.
- Copyblogger offers “copyrighting tips for online success”.
- Garden Center Magazine’s blog.
- The women at Chaos to Clarity teach business people about blogging and social networking. I’ve taken many of their seminars.
Some individual articles:
- 101 Tips from Small Business Bloggers.
- Wired Magazine on The Rise of Retail Blogs.
- Examples of Great Company Blogs.
- 6 Reasons why your Blog is your Most Important Social Media Tool, on Content Marketing Today.
And 3 recommended books about blogging and social media:
- The Corporate Blogging Book by Debbie Weil was named one of the Ten Most Insightful Books About Web 2.0 by CIO Insight.
- Blogging to Drive Business by Butow and Bollwitt is packed with the how-to’s of managing and promoting a corporate blog, and their advice is totally on target.
- Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What it’s Becoming, and Why it Matters by Scott Rosenberg, co-founder of Salon.com.
Susan’s Guest blog post for Garden Center Magazine’s blog.
Independent garden centers – listen up! Lowes, that big box down the street, has hired reputable garden writers in eight regions of the U.S. to post weekly about their gardens. That’s right, they’re stepping up their online marketing to do what blogs do so well – create community and customer loyalty – despite their being, you know, a big box. (The Lowes blog is called Garden Grow-Along.)
The point is they’re doing what gardeners would rather see YOU doing. Real gardeners would rather get their gardening info from a local store with knowledgeable staff and plants that, you know, live.
Garden centers are blogging, but…
By now you’re all being told you MUST blog to survive, thrive, and win those new, young customers, and it’s true. (If you haven’t seen the reasons, here’s a list.) Garden center owners and staff simply don’t have the time or the blogging and social networking expertise to blog successfully, which requires several new posts a week, every week, plus ongoing promotion. I’ve surveyed all the garden-center blogs I can find, and generally found:
- Blogs full of advertising copy – an instant turn-off for every single reader. Successful corporate blogs avoid ad copy altogether in favor of offering useful and entertaining content.
- Lots of abandoned-looking blogs. To the average reader, if your most recent update was a month ago, the blog’s dormant and not worth checking in on. Successful blogs are updated at least three times a week, and five to seven times a week is ideal.
- Lots of blogs with seriously out-of-date designs.
- Too many deadly treatises about plants, sometimes with no photos.
- Visually, not enough photos and lots of bad ones, too. Too small, too dark, not displayed well.
The list could go on but the bottom line is that most are failing to win traffic or meet any business objective, like attracting customers. Read the rest of this entry »
I compiled this information for ANLA, and it’s now here in their Social Media Guide.
The most successful corporate blogs avoid marketing language and simply provide a service to their customers – great content being key. Examples of the best include: Kodak, Whole Foods, Fiskars’s craft blog , and American Express.
Homestead Gardens – has a lively multi-author blog and identifies all its writers clearly. There are gobs of photos, and the header is changed seasonally. Note the sidebar shows dozens of regional links – that’s the online community we want to communicate with. (I contribute three articles each week to this blog; other contributors include their education coordinator , a food blogger, and guest bloggers.) Read the rest of this entry »
by Susan Harris
Garden writers of North America, I invite you to explore a new source of income for garden writers — blogging for local garden centers. I’m doing it myself and love it — getting paid to promote a company I actually like while producing a valuable service to their customers. That valuable service? It’s using the blog to create an online regional gardening community, with posts covering not just how to garden but reporting on great garden speakers coming to town and the exciting projects of local greening and gardening nonprofits. (For examples of these and other types of posts for garden-center blogs, peruse the three “client” company blogs in the sidebar.) Posts about the company per se are few and far between, and they never read like advertising copy. Read the rest of this entry »