Desktop view courtesy of Van Belle Nursery

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Rebecca Gebeshuber
Photo courtesy of Van Belle Nursery

WHY THEY'RE GREAT:

Canadian grower Van Belle Nursery produces a wide variety of cold-hardy shrubs, perennials, annuals, hanging baskets and other combinations in the young plant and retail-ready categories. Fifteen percent of this production is being done in a greenhouse. To provide its customers with a better online experience, Van Belle created a mobile-optimized website about three years ago. However, even though that website was still working well, they decided to redesign it and upgrade to a newer mobile-optimized website in 2016 to better tell their story; offer a bigger variety of larger images; and take advantage of the technological advances of the past few years. So far, the response has been very positive, with “lots of feedback from customers where they’ve enjoyed having more images and a faster experience,” says Rebecca Gebeshuber, Graphic and Web Design at Van Belle. “[Also,] our analytics have been quite good. We’ve seen a general boost.”

ADVICE FOR OTHER GROWERS:

  1. Have clear goals and objectives. “It’s okay to have a static business card sell site if that’s what you want, to tell the basic facts, who you are, where you are, who to contact,” says Gebeshuber. “It should look good and it should look professional. But if you’re going to make it a hub like we have, it’s really important to keep it fresh and updated.” Van Belle’s goal included making the website easily navigable and look great on any platform or device. The design of their first mobile-optimized site wasn’t as flexible across different tablets, mobile devices and computers, and the images weren’t as large due to the available technology.
  2. Weigh the benefits and drawbacks of outsourcing the redesign. Van Belle has outsourced its web work before, but did it all in-house this time. Gebeshuber advises outsourcing the work if you don’t have anyone internally who has the necessary skills. If you go that route, make sure to have a point person who can coordinate with the outsourced help to make the process go smoother and quicker. Also be sure that you’re able to update the website internally after its completion. Van Belle requested that their first mobile-optimized website be built in WordPress for easier updating. But in general, keeping it in-house is preferred. “[It] makes it a lot easier to tell your story [as] someone who lives it every day,” Gebeshuber says. “Having an in-house team is really powerful because you can respond to things quickly.”
  3. Know your strengths and customers’ needs. Previously, Van Belle had plant listings and information included on the website. However, they noticed that very information was already easily accessible on other websites, such as perennials.com. “There’s not really a point for us to replicate that because we’re not selling to the end consumer,” Gebeshuber says. “Our Reference Guide has the information for the growers, and we also really promote having a very good account rep-to-customer relationship, so a lot of that information is offline and is happening person-to-person as well.” Their plant availability is now sent out through an automated email service that growers and retailers can sign up for, instead of being listed on the website.
  4. Share your culture. Owner Dave Van Belle has been focusing more on strengthening and promoting the company culture over the past five years or so, Gebeshuber says. “We try to tell stories [on our website] that highlight our culture,” she says. “We’re trying to make sure that people can get a taste of that wherever they are.” And it’s not just shared with customers in mind. Suppliers can also get to know the company culture, as can potential employees who may want to work for them. The culture includes core values like “Respect people” and “Do it now.”
  5. Include people and faces. “We really want to tell the story of the people behind the plants,” Gebeshuber says. So that meant listing the growers first and foremost on their About Us page, whereas other companies might put them after the office staff. “They’re the ones that are actually creating these plants and doing the magic with them,” she says. Also, they wanted customers to get to know all of the people at the company in order to develop stronger relationships. “We love people to do business with us because they like us,” she says. “We think that really promotes trust and we have a better relationship all around.”
  6. Consider adding video. “Video is a great way to tell your story, whether that’s highlighting a hot buy on a plant program and sending that out to our retail customers, or telling a cultural story or how we deal with shipping [for our grower customers],” Gebeshuber says. It can also highlight the people behind your plants and create a stronger connection, she adds.
  7. Always be looking for fresh content ideas and ways to tell your story. Van Belle’s goal is to update the website’s blog at least once a week, so they’re always searching for new content. The marketing team is reading all the time, Gebeshuber says. “We keep in touch with what’s happening in the industry; we read your magazine [and] other industry magazines; we look and see if any of those things tie in with what we’re doing at the nursery,” she says.
  8. Give yourself enough time. The time from planning the redesign until the launch of Van Belle’s new website was about five months, with a slight delay because of the busy spring season. The project could take even longer if the company is outsourcing the work. And website upkeep time should also be considered. “People don’t often realize that keeping a website relatively updated and also working through social media [has] a time component to it. It’s not all organic,” Gebeshuber says.
  9. Know that the time commitment pays off. “We really do see the benefit of carving out the time to make sure that we can have that [online] presence available. It’s making a big difference in our relationships with our customers,” Gebeshuber says. “We want to meet them where they are, and sometimes they’re browsing the web at 10:30 at night and there’s no account rep to be found. But they can still find some information about us or what’s going on here [on our website].”