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Yesterday my accounts manager and I moved our office setups to our respective homes to ride out the Dallas shelter-in-place order after we’d already practiced several weeks of working in split shifts at the office, and the recommended social distancing. The COVID-19 virus is bearing down and forcing businesses to go remote, furlough, lay off staff — or shut down altogether. This is not a fun time for any of us, in this industry or any other. I’m hoping that by the time this column goes to print, we’ve turned at least a small corner. In the meantime, many businesses and employees have been forced to create a new digital presence for their services and products. There’s no better time for the green industry to catch up when it comes to digital content and education.

Lean in

When times are tough, it’s a common knee-jerk reaction to cut marketing and advertising. Understandably, budget cuts are a reality in certain situations. However, giving up all your market voice during a crisis will often make your recovery that much harder. Leaning in at a time when many others are pulling back can give you a strategic long-term advantage. It’s crucial to stay front and center in your customers’ minds, so that when the purchasing drive returns, you are at the top of their list.

From my perspective, wholesale growers have a bifurcated responsibility for educating and marketing to both their industry retailers and end customer. At a time when social distancing is a must, digital communications afford you the ability to do both with relative ease.

The “Gardening isn’t cancelled” push this spring by our industry created an opportunity to not only increase gardening activities and plant purchases, but also activate a new generation of gardeners. Doing so effectively means employing digital platforms and social media channels, photos, videos, live stories and even podcasts. We saw more individuals and companies jumping on the webinar and virtual consultation bandwagon recently as well.

Digital real estate

If you’re still not up to speed on digital communications, or are trying to figure out the best content platforms to use, let’s start with a list of basic must-haves:

  • Website: This is ground zero for all content you create and disseminate. Create a clean, responsive design on a platform that allows you to easily and regularly update content for customers — both retailers and consumers. Ensure that you can feature video and images easily on your site. Be prepared to make a significant investment if you want significant returns, especially for e-commerce functionality.
  • E-newsletter: This is the most effective and low-cost direct mail and touch-point to reach your customers. Educate your buyers; don’t just sell them. Teach them about featured plants and offer content they can use in their retail/landscape marketing. Weekly mailings on platforms such as Constant Contact and MailChimp are affordable and easy.
  • YouTube Channel: Set up a channel for your business. Your website platform may require you to pull in and display video from an external site such as YouTube (rather than uploading video directly), so you’ll need it one way or the other.
  • Facebook: Facebook isn’t as effective for many businesses as it used to be, but still offers the opportunity to connect and engage with a big chunk of both retailers and end customers. Using the Facebook Live function, you can easily stream video, provide educational content and answer questions.
  • Instagram: You need this to get young and up-and-coming gardeners engaged with your plants and products, to drive them to the retailers. Take LOTS of photos. Treat your IG channel as a mini visual blog. You also can use the live or recorded Story function on Instagram to improve engagement and make your channel feel more personal.
  • LinkedIn: Yes, you need to create and flesh out your company’s LinkedIn page. It’s a very effective B2B marketing and publishing platform, as well as recruiting tool.
  • Blog: I’ll make a case that if your blog has gone fallow for the last few years, all this social distancing and desire for distance learning may drive the need for you to revive it. Start writing!

Video

Although many of us are uncomfortable on camera, video is a non-negotiable form of communication these days. Retailers and consumers want to see what’s going on behind the scenes of your operation, as well as learn more about the plants you're growing. You don’t have to get super fancy with your video, but at least get yourself an inexpensive tripod with an attached ring light that holds your smartphone and includes a remote. You can even just buy a small clip light for your phone. Trust me, you need the extra lighting. Then get into the greenhouse and shoot! You can then disseminate your videos via your website, e-newsletter and all social media channels. Make sure you know the video-length limits for each social media platform.

Too hard?

In this industry, we complain a lot about the perceived value of our products and professions. The number of new students entering the field has dropped dramatically, and many of us have a hard time finding growers. I know ramping-up your digital communications and education for marketing purposes may seem hard. But realize that by doing so, you’ll not only educate your buyers and end customers, but also expose a lot of people to your profession and elevate perception of your expertise. You might just inspire the next generation of growers, while at the same time sell a lot more plants. Deeper connections through distance digital is the new paradigm shift for 2020.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com