April 27, 2015

Social media case study: Be Real

Van Belle engages business-to-business customers cross-continent

Not afraid to get a little silly. The creative minds behind Van Belle's social media marketing: Rebecca Gebeshuber, Curtis Friesen, DeVonne Friesen and Keven Cramer.

The thing about social media,” says DeVonne Friesen, “is that you can’t fake who you are. Your company’s culture and the personalities on your team all come through. People are looking for authenticity in social media, and you have to believe in what you are doing to get that across.”

Friesen is Vice President of Business Development at Van Belle Nursery, a large wholesale propagator of woody plants and vines in Abbotsford, B.C. Its primary product lines are YoungPlants, liners and starter plants for other growers; and larger, finished woody plants for the retail and landscape market. The company constantly  looks for leading-edge plants from top breeding programs around the world.

Equally important as new plant cultivars, staff are always looking for innovations or improvements to help their customers. Van Belle has made significant investments in technology to support its growing and shipping operations; if you follow Van Belle on any of its social media channels, you already know all this.

The company is on the leading edge of social media in the green trades. While many retailers and landscaper contractors use Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter to show homeowners the beauty and benefits of their products, Van Belle uses these channels extensively for business-to-business (B2B) promotion as well.

“We don’t claim to have it all figured out,” says Friesen. But to the rest of the green industry, it looks like they are doing a darned good job. For several years, Van Belle has recognized the importance of dedicating time and resources on marketing the company through social media. With the help of Van Belle’s graphic designer Rebecca Gebeshuber, who has a passion for online media, the company has expanded its reach, involved staff throughout the company and created a social media presence that has followers looking forward to what’s next. Earlier this year a full-time marketing specialist, Kevin Cramer, joined the team.

Friesen credits the culture at Van Belle Nursery for making the social media efforts work. “We are in an industry where there are long days with lots of hard work. We take company culture very seriously, as a healthy culture develops collegiality between team members and bands people together. Our culture here is very intentional and it has been many years in the making. We expect a lot of each other and we all work for a common purpose. But we also know how to lighten things up by being a little silly.” For proof, google ‘Van Belle Christmas sweater.’
Followers of the company’s blog or Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest accounts are educated, entertained and engaged all at the same time. Instagram is the company’s fastest-growing channel. Friesen says Twitter has the shortest lifecycle for marketing messages, and they have found, surprisingly, that Pinterest has a long life cycle in the realm of social media, “People will search for specific things and we receive questions about our Pins from over a year ago.”

Many of us in the horticultural trades have dabbled in some form of social media. We signed up for the newest social media app, posted enthusiastically for a week or two, then let it slide as the rest of our job got in the way. It’s no secret that consistency is required to successfully market online, and Van Belle keeps the ball rolling by involving its entire team. “We let all staff know we are always looking for content and encourage people across the nursery to contribute. Any of our staff is able to take a photo, or spot a trend and send it to Rebecca or Kevin who will get it on all our channels.”  Sales staff get involved too — a look at Van Belle’s YouTube channel shows YoungPlant Sales team leader Curtis Friesen in a bowler hat and bow tie, starring in the video series Serving You the Best Plants. It is fun to watch, but informative too.
With multiple staff members contributing by tweeting, posting, filming and replying in real time, Friesen says it is impossible to edit every post. “We have to trust the judgment of our team members. There is no instruction book, but we have discussed parameters. They will make mistakes, as we all do, but we’re convinced that because of the people they are, and the culture we’ve created, the mistakes will be minor. I remember the Van Belles telling me on my first day here that if I didn’t make mistakes, I was playing it too safe and not being aggressive or active enough.”

The company doesn’t spend all its marketing dollars online. Friesen sees value in printed products that have a long shelf life, advertising in directories, and creating the company’s premium printed piece, its Reference Guide. He says Van Belle’s Reference Guide offers an opportunity to tell stories as well, but adds it is a traditional, one-way conversation.

Engaging content is required for success with social media, says Friesen. “I’ve learned it’s not just a place to post pictures and push information about what we are doing, but the value is in providing opportunities for conversation and engagement. That’s where there is real power in social media.”

Friesen relates the engaging content on Van Belle’s social media channels right back to the company’s culture. “I really do believe it is difficult to have an effective presence online if the environment isn’t healthy — that will eventually come out. It is challenging to tell a story from a corporate voice in an authentic way — especially in a way that will engage Gen Y and Millennials. It’s not about perfect polish; it’s about connecting with a real person telling a story in a compelling way.

“We still do all the traditional things wholesale nurseries do: availability lists, updates on orders, featured offers and such. But our social media is a way to keep us on customer’s minds, let them know what’s happening at Van Belle, and brings out our personalities.”

“We want customers to think Van Belle when they are looking for a great product for a great value, and that when they call, they look forward to talking with us.” Social media is a great calling card, too. Friesen says he and his colleagues will often run in to someone while in another province or country who recognizes their faces from Van Belle’s YouTube videos. “It’s a connection point and an introduction, and then we can do business.”

In the past, all of the nursery’s marketing was aimed at wholesale customers, but Friesen says they are starting to market the company’s Bloomin’ Easy brand to homeowners to drive sales for their retail customers. “Social media gives us the capability to use digital marketing to target very specific areas. For example, we could run a contest that has people posting photos they have taken of Bloomin’ Easy plants in their garden, and automatically enter to win a gift certificate at the garden centre where they were purchased. Social media allows us to get feedback in a way we couldn’t from print.”

Feedback is one quick way Friesen and his team can tell how successful a post or video has been. “We have access to numbers and metrics, but engagement is really what we are looking for. How many likes, comments and questions do we get? We can tell very quickly if a post resonates with followers.”

Full disclosure —  to do a good job with social media means not just working on it between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. “We joke that it is a lifestyle,” Friesen says. Mobile technology has made access easier, but means the user is always ‘on.’ For Van Belle Nursery, social media has allowed an always-on, engaged group of employees to become its best ambassadors.