Like many people over the past 18-months, I’ve got into gardening in a big way. I was lucky enough to secure an allotment in September 2019, and it became a sanctuary during the lockdowns that followed some six months later. It provided a safe (and legal) place to go for a change of scenery and a mindful, positive focal point at an otherwise worrying time.
Little did I realise though, that planting, tending and harvesting my allotment would also teach me a thing or two about strategic communications. Sounds tenuous? Well, if the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the key to Zen enlightenment, gardening is surely an apt metaphor for growing and nurturing a productive comms strategy.
Here are five gardening top tips that communicators can also learn from:
Successful gardening begins with getting to know your plot, your environment and the raw materials you have to work with, like soil, light and water.
Likewise, a successful communications strategy starts with insights: insights into your audiences, your organisation and your marketplace.
In gardening and in comms, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of success. Most gardeners will use compost, for example, to add nutrients to their soil and boost growing potential. Through targeted insight-gathering, you can identify the best “comms-post” to turbo-charge your communications and marketing efforts.
Let’s say that your target audiences are most likely to respond to video content but you lack the skills or budget to produce it. Your comms-post could be a video skills training course for your team and investment in some basic kit that will allow you to produce decent quality videos in-house. Or, if your content tests well but doesn’t perform when you actually deploy it, your comms-post might be a new social media channel that has better engagement rates among your core customers.
That said, just like a sun-loving plant won’t do well in a shady spot, knowing what you’ve got to work with can also help you understand your limitations and avoid costly mistakes. For example, if you’re a well-established B2B brand, suddenly adopting a B2C communications strategy is probably not going to deliver brilliant results. Transforming your garden – or your communications approach – into something radically different requires a clear strategy, long-term commitment and significant investment of resources to succeed.
Having tracked where the sun falls in your garden at different times of the day, measured your soil pH and understood whether it’s clay, free-draining or somewhere in-between, it’s now time to plan out your plot.
Having a clear plan is important for making sure your plants are in the right places and will yield a good harvest.
Likewise, having a clear communications plan will help you prioritise your time and budget on the right things, avoid unnecessary blunders and achieve the best possible returns on investment.
However no plan – in gardening or in business – should ever be set in stone. It’s important to monitor results in real time, so that you can switch up your strategy if you need to and achieve the right results.
Ask any gardener and they’ll tell you that 2021 has been a tough growing year. My favourite flowers to grow are dahlias, and this spring I started off growing 15 different varieties, with dreams of creating a Pinterest-worthy cottage garden of dreams. Fast-forward a few months and the majority are struggling: they’ve either begun to rot due to the waterlogged soil or were decimated by the slugs that seem to have reproduced like gremlins in the never-ending Yorkshire rain. So, I’ve had to change up my plans: I’ve invested in more slug traps, moved some dahlias into pots and, in some sad cases, I’ve just had to accept that this wasn’t their year.
Similarly, I’ve been involved in campaigns that, despite detailed planning and best practice execution, just haven’t delivered the goods. I’ve had to change up tactics – putting budget into paid social media, for example, to reach under-performing audiences, or working with partners and advocates to amplify key messages.
This is why monitoring and evaluation throughout a campaign – not just at the end – is so important. It allows you to make real-time changes that will mean the difference between a successful campaign and a flop. At the very least, even if you fail, by tracking and measuring the results of your efforts you’ll be able to capture some solid data and lessons learned for next time.
Crop rotation in an allotment basically means moving crops around each year to discourage pests and diseases from setting in. How does this apply to comms? Well, even the most tried and tested approaches will start to become stale over time, which can allow competitors or detractors to muscle in on your carefully tended comms garden.
In a digitised media environment, communications trends are evolving constantly, so what succeeded last year might not work this year. Just like planting your broad beans in the same bed each year is likely to attract blackfly, so deploying a Facebook campaign to reach Gen Z-ers in a Tik-Tok era is only going to end one way.
As well as continuously monitoring the results of your communications efforts, it’s also important to stay abreast of trends and what your audiences are interested in now. Keeping your tactics, messaging and content fresh will ensure you maintain cut-through, remain relevant and at the front of your audiences’ minds.
Every gardener worth their salt knows the importance of encouraging garden friends like pollinators, ladybirds, or hedgehogs to help manage pests and ensure a healthy harvest.
The same goes in communications. Another key trend, along with the continuous rise of digital, is advocacy or influencing marketing. In other words, partnering with ambassadors or advocates who are trusted by your target audiences, and can connect with them in ways that corporate or brand-led communications ever could. The advocacy approach works for corporate brands and public sector bodies alike – it could involve a paid partnership with an Instagram influencer for example, or working with community organisations to engage seldom-heard groups in a planning consultation.
Building strong relationships with your advocates can also help defend your brand (or garden) from detractors (or pests). There’s no more effective rebuttal to a critic than one from your audience community, rather than a direct rebuttal from your organisation.
The secret to all-season interest in the garden is mixing perennials (plants that come back year after year) or evergreens with annuals, which only last for a year but are brilliant for adding colour and impact.
The same goes with content. Your annuals are your campaigns or hero content – time-limited, showpieces that are designed to deliver great results through intensive, focused bursts of activity. Campaigns lose their impact though if they go on for too long or lack a clear call to action. This is where your evergreen or perennial content comes in. It might not be as flashy as a campaign, but it’s effective, reliable content that plays a key role in reinforcing your brand messages and bringing structure and coherence to your everyday comms. Case studies, infographics, quotes, testimonials and video clips from staff members or advocates all make excellent evergreen content. Have a strong bank of this content alongside planned set piece campaigns and you’ll never ask “what are we going to post on Twitter today?” ever again.
Just as a garden will soon fall into disrepair without regular weeding, feeding and watering, so your communications strategy needs regular review and attention to ensure it’s working hard for you and your organisation is reaping the rewards. By following these simple steps both your communications efforts, and your garden, will result in a bountiful harvest!
If you’d like a conversation about how Social can support you in developing or refreshing your communications strategy (or a chat about gardening), contact Racheal Johnson, Head of Strategy in our Leeds team, at Racheal.Johnson@social.co.uk
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