The retail opportunities of social media are reasonably well understood nowadays. With the likes of Dobbies leading the way, garden retailers are turning to blogs, Twitter and Facebook to shout about their wares and devise new ways to drive footfall.
But despite their lead, many growers have been reluctant to follow. A perception that it is a fad or a waste of time means that relatively few growers have turned to the internet to sell themselves.
Fitzgerald Nurseries was undeterred by such cynicism and, in early 2009, owner Pat Fitzgerald took to the web to conduct a year-long experiment, curious to see whether the hype could be converted into real gains for his business.
"Year by year, the bar has risen higher and it's become more difficult for small businesses to access publicity and advertising, as it has become more and more expensive," explains Fitzgerald. "So how on earth is some guy in the middle of nowhere, Ireland, going to tell people about these great plants?
"The purpose of looking at social media was for information gathering, promotion of my business and to learn how people around the world are using plants. I hoped to understand trends and broaden my knowledge of day-to-day horticulture in other countries."
Starting cautiously, Fitzgerald began by posting the occasional picture or article. But before long he got the bug and after linking newly-created Twitter, Facebook and Blogger accounts to his company home page the contacts began coming thick and fast.
"Keeping up to date with all the tweets, posts and updates is not always easy - it makes me dizzy a lot of the time. This is where the iPhone came in. In my opinion, it is revolutionary. Once I started using the iPhone in July 2009, it became so easy to share stuff and it started to allow me to do more on Twitter and Facebook.
"Over the months that followed, things started happening. You need the blog to give the information every two or three weeks or as things happen - whatever is topical goes in there. I use Twitter and Facebook to advertise what's in the blog. Most of those things are done via an iPhone so I can do it anywhere and on the move."
Gradually, the "blogosphere" began to respond and new possibilities emerged. "We got one of our varieties - Ceanothus 'Tuxedo'
- trialled out in California at a place called Annie's Annuals in Sacramento. Just through social media contact they are now stocking three or four of our varieties and anything new we have now, they will trial."
The social media contact was able to flourish through Fitzgerald's US agent and he is keen to emphasise that real-world relationships remain important. "It's pointless without the concrete connections." But Annie's set a trend and soon more designers were getting in touch, curious to discover new varieties.
"California is a long way away, but on the internet I can meet people and give them samples and open up new markets. Getting your plants trialled in productive locations is the most practical example of the benefits of social media. It's for people looking for new stuff. Designers like introducing new stuff to clients who are a bit more adventurous and it's great to be able to do that."
While such effects are easily measured, the overall result is not so tangible. The effect on sales and its true value to the business is almost impossible to calculate, he admits. So now the experiment is over, will he carry it on?
"Of course, but it may be in some other form because the contacts we have made are maturing. I wouldn't have thought last January I would be doing any of it by next year, but now there are about 1,000 people a month more looking at our plants - that's all I know. I think the people who are looking are quality people because we have Google Analytics so we can see where they have come from and where they are going to.
"You just have to keep posting information to keep the stats up, but don't invest the house in it. You can see from the stats the things people are interested in - our vegetable allotment blog attracted a lot of interest."
But there are pitfalls too, he warns, and amateur blogging will not be worthwhile for every business. Fitzgerald Nurseries' core function is introducing new products to the market - the fact that they have no sales history makes promotion all the more important.
This is not the case for every grower. Ultimately, he says, to see whether it is working, simply Google his plants. A search on Ceanothus 'Tuxedo' illustrates the point. The 2,000 or so results that come back include articles by bloggers, journalists, growers and retailers from all over the world. Quite how it works he is not sure. "Everyday someone in the USA Googles 'Tuxedo' and I don't know where that's coming from.
"I am not sure even the gurus know what they are talking about, but I suspect it's not such a new phenomenon, just more public. The man handing out leaflets for his shop is doing the same thing, just on a more simplified level.
"Maybe people will always seek out a good product, but it does seem that these days that there are a lot of people promoting a lot of good products and often with much bigger budgets, so this is a great way to get your information out there."
TOP TIPS FOR NURSERIES CONSIDERING SOCIAL MEDIA
- Is this is something you can give time to?
- Who in the company has the best skill set and time availability to carry out this activity?
- What are the best programs - Twitter, Facebook, Blogger software?
- What are the best tools - iPhone, laptop or other data phone?
- Should you do a basic course? I would suggest a one-to-one or group course on using social media.
- Do not rush in and have no major expectations of financial reward.
- Be social. Social media is not a quick way to riches but a tool to gather and give information that may or may not lead to sales.
- Once you have experience and a feel for what you are doing, reassess.
- Keep the day job your focus. Social media can consume a lot of time and damage your good work.
- Social media is just another name in another age for networking, but with massive network potential you could not have reached before.