Maximising business opportunities online

Garden centres have been offered valuable advice on social networking and blogging, says Matthew Appleby.

A screen from Graham Rice's Transatlantic Plantsman blog - image: HW
A screen from Graham Rice's Transatlantic Plantsman blog - image: HW

The HTA hosted a seminar on using the internet to promote your garden centre last week in Bristol. The event featured talks on what makes a good website as well as how to use Facebook, Twitter and blogs in business.

Cleeve Nursery owners Alan and Felicity Down organised the event, at which delegates heard that they were behind the curve in their online communications of advice, events, offers and promotions. Felicity Down said she put it on because not enough was being done nationally on those areas.

Sceptical business owners worried that they did not have the time or technical knowledge to use modern communication techniques. But the speakers reassured them that website designers can build functions into their set ups to simplify the process of communicating advice and business information across new formats such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, rather than just relying on traditional means.

How well does your website work?

Andrew Knutt, a website designer from ADK, told the 40 delegates about "Websites - What's Good and What's Not". He said most garden centres and nurseries have a website but they must now consider how well they work. Knutt, who is working on the Cleeve Nursery site, said websites should not:

- Look good but not make a profit

- Be for the owner and not the visitor

- Be dated

- Ignore user habits

- Have functions that do not work.

He showed how potential customers scan web pages (you need keywords at the top) and how to make your site more prominent by using Google rankings for search engine optimisation. Google has 72 per cent of the search engine traffic in the UK.

Knutt's six rules include knowing that you have only three seconds to convince users they are at the right site, search engines index web pages and not websites, people see images before text, you must think like an internet searcher when setting up your site, site design and visitor experience are considered added value and you must state the prices of items for sale. Knutt suggested that using a "web bot" to make sure code is clean and readable by search engines is important. He added that you can use software to link to online directories with the same keywords as you.

He recommended iStockphoto for images, SeoQuake to tell you the density of keywords, which should be at three to five per cent density, and for accessibility compliance testing.

Food Marketing Network founder Rob Ward, who advises Bents, Frosts and Webbs about farm shops, talked about the art of the big conversation. "There are lots of ways to post information and if you miss one you are missing out," he explained. He asked whether microblogging site Twitter is "a waste of time or a powerful business tool". You can use Twitter as a "barometer of sentiment" to see how popular trends are by using Tweetdeck, he recommended.

Useful for keeping in contact

Buckingham Garden Centre & Nurseries plant publicity manager Chris Day said he hoped the seminar would take place elsewhere in the country, adding: "We set up a Facebook and Twitter account back in December and it is a really useful way of contacting your customers - and staff."

He added: "We've used it for topical advice, new products, new plants, gardening information, promoting events and more recently detailing our redevelopment at the garden centre.

"We actively promote the social network sites through our newsletters and our website, so uptake has been good. Obviously we need to grow this in the near future. I think the interaction and speed of information makes this media simply too good to miss and it is something we are keen to develop with our customers."

Keyword searches from Google adwords (monthly):

Garden centres 8,100
Garden furniture 40,500
Plants 12,100
Nursery 6,600
Vegetable seeds 1,600
RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 6,600
Flowers 7,400
Wheelbarrows 18,100
Christmas tree 12,100


HW's Matthew Appleby was invited to the seminar to share his top tips on blogging:

1. Think about content before blogging. A blog is simply a new format for a diary or any communication you want it to be.

2. Delegates worried that they did not have time to blog and tweet as well as run their business. Use the same material across different formats to ensure that they do not miss opportunities, while also saving time.

3. The key point is that blogs must not be boring. They must be regular enough to enliven your website but not so controversial as to lose friends and potential business.

4. Befriend other bloggers, as Dobbies does, to get the media onside.

5. The online approaches of Buckingham Garden Centre & Nurseries, Pat Fitzgerald, Graham Rice and James Alexander Sinclair are worth looking at.

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