Garden Writers Association – A Rewarding Investment

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Garden Writers Association–A Rewarding Investment

(Note: This month’s One To Grow On is written by Dr. William H. Carlson’s son William R. Carlson.) 

Regular readers of this column know that my dad strongly believes that it is important to spend as much time marketing your products as you do growing them. (For more on that, check out the Marketing Your Product section of his book “One To Grow On,” available through MeisterPro at www.meisterpro.com.)

I want to take this opportunity to share a resource that can help you market your products and build your customer base, the Garden Writers Association (GWA).

GWA is an organization of more than 1,800 professional communicators. Members include book authors, staff editors, syndicated columnists, freelance writers, photographers, landscape designers, television and radio personalities, consultants, catalog publishers, Extension agents and more.

My first experience with GWA was in 2000 when I was managing director of the Flower Promotion Organization (FPO). We were anxious to find media channels to publish stories on the daily use of cut flowers, so we sponsored a dinner and rented a booth at GWA’s annual symposium that year.

The symposium allowed us to interact with writers for publications ranging from small garden club newsletters to large daily papers and many of the people behind large national publications such as Better Homes and Gardens. We developed relationships with writers who needed material, especially in the winter months when things were slow. Those months just happened to be the best months for cut flower stories.

The result was that, over the next six years, nearly 30 million people read stories on the daily use of cut flowers written by members of GWA. It was a win-win situation for both of us. 

A Relationship Others Would Envy

In my previous professional incarnation–working for politicians and as an advocate for growers–I had often found relationships with the media difficult and adversarial. Reporters often contacted me with a story already in mind. They were just looking for some quote from me that would fit their agenda. I developed an appreciation for why politicians seem to say the same thing over and over again. In many cases, they’re just trying to stay out of trouble and lower their chances of being misquoted. 

What Are the Benefits?

As a member of GWA, you will:
–Receive access to free publicity for new plant material, new ideas in landscaping, new trends in the use of color and desirable textures
–Be on the cutting edge of what’s hot in your region
–Get access to the results of GWA surveys
–Interact with many of the great influencers in our industry today!

That relationship changed when I entered into the promotional arena in the floral industry. Most garden communicators are avid gardeners themselves, and many are master gardeners or have horticultural degrees. The members of GWA are dedicated to communicating the joy of using the products we produce.

We share the goal of relaying accurate information to the interested public and “hooking” the uninitiated into the world of gardening. At a typical GWA symposium, people from many aspects of the industry share ideas with writers, photographers and other garden communicators. Writers and communicators in turn, share with us what the public is thinking. 

Member Profile

Who are the folks who communicate so persuasively about our industry for the general public? The Garden Writers Association Web site, www.gardenwriters.org, lists a membership profile.

The top five self-identified career categories are freelance writer (36.3 percent), lecturer (31.3 percent), freelance writer/photographer (25.6 percent), horticultural consultant (23.0 percent) and book author (22.3 percent). The numbers add to more than 100 percent because most members list themselves in multiple categories.

Many of the top columnists and communicators (photographers, bloggers, lecturers, TV and radio personalities, etc.) are active in GWA. A recent survey of the membership indicates that 30 percent make most of their income in garden communications. It is estimated that members of GWA reach millions of people each week. 

Not Your Father’s Garden Writers

I was honored to serve on the GWA’s strategic planning committee this year. Our charge was to keep GWA relevant to its membership five years from now in a media world that is quickly changing.

There is no doubt that the emergence of the Internet has changed the dynamics of the communications industry. You can simply track the shrinking advertising dollars spent in recent years on newsprint, radio and television. Certainly, fewer newspapers today have a dedicated garden columnist than just a few years ago. More people are getting their information about gardening from the Internet or other specialized sources.

Garden writers have recognized these trends and are adapting to the new communication dynamics. Many of the education programs at GWA’s 2007 symposium were devoted to Internet topics such as blogging and podcasting.

A 2006 survey of GWA members indicated that 49 percent had their own Web sites and that an additional 20 percent would like to get their own Web sites. Of those who have a Web site, about half post articles for consumer use. 

Your Local Ambassadors

Most GWA members write locally. In the same 2006 survey, 61 percent of the respondents indicated that their articles appeared in local or regional publications. Odds are your customers are reading content provided by a GWA member.

GWA members also interact with the public as speakers at community events. A 2007 membership survey indicated that 51 percent of members spoke in support of their communications work, 16 percent consider themselves professional speakers and 25 percent are business owners or employees who speak as part of their jobs. Typical venues were garden clubs (89 percent), botanic garden shows/educational events (51 percent), flower/home/garden shows (50 percent), master gardener meetings/events (48 percent), horticultural societies (35 percent) and green industry conferences (35 percent).

In addition to the national symposium, GWA has regional organizations. Most regions hold at least annual meetings and communicate with fellow GWA members via newsletters. These regional conferences provide an affordable avenue for growers and garden centers to reach local writers and communicators, who in turn communicate with the general public. 

Consumer Trends

In this increasingly competitive environment, members of GWA decided that it was important to get a pulse on what consumers were thinking so members could stay relevant to their readers. With that in mind, the Garden Writers Association Foundation (GWAF) started to conduct consumer surveys a few years ago. I have had the privilege of serving on the committee that oversees these surveys since 2005.

Our committee is charged with providing useful consumer information and trends for GWA members to write about and providing useful consumer insights to the industry.

We conduct four surveys during the course of the year, two in the spring, one in the summer and one in the fall. Recent questions have covered consumer attitudes about organic/sustainable products, garden retail outlets questions, and where consumers get their gardening information. Here are some of the key findings from surveys in 2007: 

Organic/Sustainable Label

Plant food, garden fruits and vegetables and potting soil top the list of garden-related organic or natural products that consumers are more inclined to buy (29 percent, 28 percent and 25 percent, respectively). Almost a quarter say they would buy organic or natural-labeled pest control products, while one in five prefer to buy organic or natural-labeled vegetable seeds, garden mulch and flowering plants, trees and shrubs. 

Retail Outlet Preferences

A shift in consumer attitude signaled a market gain for garden centers and local retailers in 2007. The Early Spring Gardening Trends Research Report released in March 2007 by the Garden Writers Association Foundation (GWAF) found that more consumers planned to purchase most of their spring garden plants at a garden center or local retailer (47 percent) compared to mass merchants (44 percent). In prior years, consumers said they favored mass merchants over garden centers.

An analysis of consumer preferences indicated that quality-driven consumers favor garden center shopping and price-driven buyers favor mass merchants. For the past three years, a consistent “quality over price” attitude is evident among households. Of course, with the changing state of the economy, we will continue to track this trend and see if it holds up in 2008.

Changing Consumer Information Sources

In 2007, one third of consumers used the Internet to research plant or product information. Only one in 10 consumers planned to use the Internet to purchase plant materials or seeds, purchase gardening supplies or for garden design inspiration. We are following up on this question in 2008 to see how the trend evolves. 

What Can You Do?

Join GWA and encourage your local writers and garden communicators to do so, too. For information on how to join, visit www.gardenwriters.org, click on About GWA and go to How To Join. Become active in your local region and interact with the garden communicators in your area.

In these tough economic times, it is even more imperative to separate yourself from the competition and become an informational resource to these wonderful people who communicate with our customers. 

Will Carlson is a Michigan State University emeritus professor who has devoted his career to educating growers. He also had the vision to launch Greenhouse Grower magazine with Dick Meister more than 25 years ago.

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