September 1, 2012

Crafting a Good Tale


Eighteen months ago I gave a failure of a talk to a group of nursery and garden centre people; in my opinion, it bombed spectacularly. I was asked to talk about social media, and led them through a process for success, but it was only when I got to the last step they perked up. This was the step that was the actual activity; the Facebooks, YouTube, etc., and what they wanted were the tips to succeed with activities. The point I couldn’t get across properly, and I want to make clear here, is that unless you’re using social media in the right way, with some understanding and method, then the “how” you use it won’t work as well as you’d like.

My first seminar point was and is the most important, “It’s all about the story.” What story you tell and how you tell it, is the single most-critical aspect of your social marketing activity.

Pictures with words
Let me give you an example. When I had a nursery, my story was that, “if another garden centre had it, it was too common for us.” We were the place to go for the new, the rare and the unusual. We were also the place to go if you wanted incredible quality, as we grew it all ourselves — charging accordingly. And, if you wanted colour co-ordinated baskets to match the  Color Council, we were the place. My story was about being unusual and helping gardeners to grow it, being new, with plants nobody had, and exclusive colour combinations and sizes you couldn’t get elsewhere. And most importantly, we lived our story — we helped, we demonstrated our plants and how they grew in trial and test gardens, we taught gardeners the basics and the advanced skills. Note pricing wasn’t part of our story, as we charged more 20 years ago than many garden centres are charging now.

We filled a church hall every year with a seminar that sold out within 24 hours of being announced, and everybody brought their own lunch and extra cookies to share with the leading plant experts I brought in. The cookie table along an entire wall of the church hall was a groaning board delight, and that, too, was part of the story. We were real people who liked cookies and my kids (who ran the door and helped out) were let loose with the leftovers (again part of the story of the day).

We told our story in our advertising and print newsletter that was sent out to customers who signed in during the spring. The spring edition would have a coupon in it for returning customers for a free “new plant” introduction (I bought cartons of cuttings of one of the new varieties and customers left clutching a plant that nobody in their neighborhood had) but that was the extent of the “selling.”

It was about the story we told and the story we presented when customers came to our family nursery: 20,000 square feet of greenhouses and an equal-sized outdoor retail area, stuffed with 1,600-1,800 varieties of perennials and 600-800 varieties of annuals, together with the newest and rarest (and yes, the bread and butter) plants you could get within 200 miles.

Content is king
If I were still in the nursery business today, that’s the story I would be telling in social media. I’d be telling how to grow things, how to do things, how to solve gardening problems. I’d be adding a ton of value to my customer base.

It’s the kinds of things I try to do as a writer as well. My story is different now — a bit of a curmudgeonly, plant-expert, sharing 35 years of in-the-trenches type of gardening. Somebody who’s been there, grown and killed that, sharing the vast resources gathered over a lifetime of professional gardening, presenting it all with a sense of humour.

The fun thing — both stories are true. Both ring with authenticity. I don’t have to “market” and promote in the advertising manner because my stories to my readers are true and represent my brand as a writer. My only challenge is presenting the “me” honestly and openly without compromising my need for privacy in this day of instant access, as well as trying to respond to the demands for information from the large audience of readers that has resulted.

When it comes to the practical, I took a leap of faith dropping the prepared video (and associated editing) while substituting my cell phone for in-garden quick videos of specific plants and things I’m doing. For something I need two hands for, I use my iPad on a tripod, and if I’m being formal, I use the Teleprompter App with my iPad. But the amount of editing I do is next to nothing. I show weeds, I show mistakes, I show great plants and what’s going on without the benefit of fixing it all up or taking angled shots to make things look great. What you see is what you get — indeed it’s cinema verite in the garden. But I get away with this because of my brand — my story is about being a plantsman and sharing real gardening information. It’s not about the studio, it is about me being me and sharing real information. Some viewers comment they want more polish and more professionalism. Okay, some readers don’t like my writing either. Move on, they’re not going to be my fans.

Here’s the most important part. Unless you create a story, indeed a unique story different from your competitors, and live that authentic story, your customers will decide what your story is (there’s always a story). And, if they decide your story is the same as your competition or the same as the big box store … well, then you have a problem.

Total experience
Finally, if you think advertising tells a story, you aren’t paying attention. The story is started the instant the customer sees your sign, the lead sentence is your parking lot and everything she does between then and the final period as she pulls back out into traffic is your story. Your challenge is to both tell an authentic story, one that will be true in your garden centre, and one that will want to make her hear more. To be authentic, your advertising has to reflect your story. If there’s a disconnect between the two, again your customer will write your story for you.

I understand this isn’t traditional advertising and marketing, but this is the essence of what the new social media is about. If you intend to use social media as part of your marketing mix, then you have to get your story and your in-store customer experience to line up.
Doug Green is an award-winning garden writer who ran his own nursery in Athens, Ont., for over 20 years. He now operates an online gardening publishing company at