Using the Internet to Market Your Cut Flower Business

Do you know what the term “digital native” means? And no, we didn’t say digital native plant.  A “digital native” is someone who was born during or after the World Wide Web revolution, someone who possesses the ability to type with his thumbs, email, instant message, play video games while eating a Big Mac, surf the web, chat, program, multi-task, and cruise through an increasingly technical world with the greatest of ease; someone who has no problem using a digital camera, juggling remote controls, or setting up a laptop connection.                

Well, that’s not us. We’re still flummoxed —regularly— by the whims of our dial-up (a reality out here in rural Louisa County) connection, what happens when we’re told to upgrade to the latest version of your system software, and manage the five zillion passwords that we, uh, have written down someplace. And despite all the reading we try to do of the computer magazines and web sites, there’s still a learning curve that isn’t always pleasant.                      

However, as flower growers, our personal computers give our business a potential most of us may never have imagined.  This tool that never sees the natural light of day, feels a warm summer breeze through its cables, or gets dirt under its keyboard, is in many ways as important to our cut flower business as our tractors, our shovels and rakes, our seeders and tillers.  We wouldn’t think of leaving the house to work in the field without a hat and sunscreen, and we couldn’t imagine running our cut flower business without our computers. Here are some of the ways the computer helps manage and build our business, despite that learning curve and having to squeeze computer time into an already jam-packed day in the fields.

Email

•    Better than faxing                                       
•    Easily keep in touch with other growers, customers, and vendors
                            
In the good old days —say, the 1980s and 90s— the fax machine was cutting-edge technology.  When Joe was in the restaurant business he’d send a daily fax to a list of customers who wanted to receive his lunch menu.  He noticed a significant increase in business after employing this simple, yet effective, method of communication.  So when we started growing and marketing cut flowers, it was a no-brainer for us to use the fax machine to send florists and wholesalers our weekly flower availability.  This gave our customers a good idea of what they could expect when our van pulled up in front of their shops.            

Today, using email to connect with the same customers is simpler and faster.  It is far easier to send that flower availability list to many recipients by email than to repeatedly send the same fax as many times, not to mention having to pay for long-distance phone calls. Additionally, if a customer has a question about what’s on your list, he or she can contact you quickly by return email.  It is an easy way to start a conversation with your customers.                    

If you want to protect your list of recipients who are receiving your email, learn how to use the BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) line for your outgoing email.  This way those who are receiving your document won’t be able to see the email addresses of the others on your list.          In short, by using email to send your flower availability list, you can send one document via one email to many recipients.  It’s easy and fast, saving you time to get those zinnias planted.            

If you have only a few customers (ideally large, generous ones who pay on time and order lots of stuff) who prefer a weekly faxed price list, great. Some florists don’t have time to open up email and actually prefer receiving a fax, although these days practically everyone has an email address and uses it frequently.  We’ve weaned our customers off the practice of faxing, however, and onto a regular email that arrives every Monday. It saves us time.

Business Web Site

•    Continuing the relationship after the sale (customers)
•    Developing sales leads (prospects)
•    Reinforcing/building your identity
•    Basic costs
•    Maintenance requirements
    
We believe having a web site for your cut flower business is as essential as the banner you hang across the front of your farmers’ market tent or your name painted on your delivery truck.                

While we do not use our web site for e-commerce (selling our flowers over the internet), we do use it as an essential tool for communicating information and building sales leads.  Our web site is our billboard to the world.            

Our web site address is prominently displayed on everything that carries our business name. We consider the site a great way for our customers to find out about our cut flower farm, and continue their experience with us well after the sale. It’s a place we can put information on how to take care of their flowers at home, and what flowers to expect when.                     

The majority of our wedding business comes either from referrals at the farmers’ market or, increasingly, people discovering the web site when they’re poking around the web using keywords such as “Virginia”, “weddings”, and “flowers.” Brides will also search for specific flowers —such as sweet peas— and if you’ve posted a list of what you’re growing, they can find you that way, too.        

Creating a basic web site doesn’t cost much. In general, you pay a yearly fee ($20) for the site’s “domain name” or web address (www.yourfarm.com), another yearly or monthly fee (as low as $6 per month) for site “hosting” (the machines out there that serve your web site to the inquiring masses), and perhaps a professional designer to make the site look really nice, though you can knock out a basic site with some basic tools that are often built into your computer’s operating system.                         

Maintaining the site takes some time and work.  Admittedly, the Charlotte’s Garden web site doesn’t get updated nearly enough, but we have everything we need to keep things interesting for our customers.  The off-season is a great time to take care of your web site.              

When you break it down over time, its daily cost is pennies.  We estimate our web site costs us no more than 35 cents per day —a very good investment in your marketing plan.

Research on the web

•    Growing techniques and cultural information
•    ASCFG Bulletin Board
•    Seed and plant vendors
•    Extension Service/University web sites
•    FREE information
    
Who among us hasn’t heard of Google?  There are, of course, other “search engines”, but Google is by far is the most widely known.  Whichever your preference, it is nearly undisputable that using the Internet for research is fast, easy, and comprehensive.  We can’t tell you how often we use the Internet to find information that was once only found in the library, or books that had to be purchased.  Whether you’re searching for cultural information about new varieties, or how-to’s about growing techniques, by simply typing your query in the search line you’ll have a multitude of responses to choose from.  You will nearly always get the answer you need.  And, most seed and plant purveyors have web sites where you can find valuable information, place orders for seed, plugs and shrubs.  Even if you eventually pick up the phone and place a call to speak to a human being, you can first do your research and find out what’s available.                  

Another tool we find to be invaluable is the ASCFG web site and the members’ Bulletin Board.  By now every ASCFG member should be receiving  emails of questions and responses from fellow members that are sent and responded to via the Bulletin Board.  Where else can you find such an invaluable tool?  And, when you go to the Bulletin Board you’ll find all of that information, those conversations, archived there.            
How do we know we’re getting the right bang for our buck out of our Internet marketing efforts?  Because week after week, we hear from our customers telling us they love our web site, or, thanks, they got our email, or, they’ll call or email to place an order.  And that furthers the conversation between Charlotte’s Garden and those who buy our flowers.

Charlotte Morford and Joe Caputi own Charlotte’s Garden, a flower farm in Virginia’s historic Green Springs District of Louisa County. Contact them at [email protected]