Feb 20th, 2013

Social Media in Public Gardens APGA Member Highlight: Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

by Jonah Holland, PR & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Recently, the American Public Gardens Association produced a series of  interviews with botanical gardens across the country.  Since you, our blog readers, are some of our biggest fans and supporters, I thought that you might enjoy reading a bit about the Garden’s social media.  Personally, I’ve enjoyed reading the complete series, learning something from each piece.  I continue to be inspired on a daily basis by Ann Ralfalko, Director of Online Content at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), and her team, in how they approach emerging media.

APGAHow are you engaging your visitors via social media? 

LGBG: When a visitor enters the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Visitors Center, he or she is welcomed with a smile by our friendly admissions staff. Visitors are given a map and suggested highlights of area gardens based on individual interests.   I lead the efforts to extend that same hospitality to our online community, regardless if they are virtual visitors or engaging with us before, during or after their visit. In this way, social media is an integral part of the Garden’s overall communications strategy. The Garden supports and cross-promotes social media across multiple platforms, including the Garden’s website, e-newsletters and publications. We’ve also found by educating our staff, volunteers and instructors about social media, they can participate and promote its use. For instance, one of our instructors is encouraging her botanical illustration students to sign up for the Garden’s blog. I love seeing photos, videos and reading blog posts about our visitors’ adventures to the Garden. It gives us an opportunity to see the Garden through other eyes.  I love sharing their garden stories and photos with our fans.  Also, it’s a great way to get feedback about the visitor experience. In addition, I see part of our role on social media as engaging with the communities who care about the same issues we care about. For example, we are partnering with The Nature Conservancy to get kids outside in nature more often and to help raise awareness about water quality issues people can address in their own backyards.  We are a Let’s Move garden and support First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to get children to learn more about growing vegetables and staying healthy by being active. I love to follow and use the #PlayOutdoors #SeedChat #TreeTuesday #PublicGardens hashtags on Twitter because those are our people. We see our role on social media as reaching out to potential visitors, not just ones who are already here. If we can bring a bit of the Garden to someone stuck in the office cubicle at work and inspire him or her to visit on the weekend or sometime down the road, then that’s a huge success. If we are able to show people from China what native Virginia flora looks like and they are able to learn something or appreciate it, then that too is a success, even if they never make it to the United States to visit. It is my goal that when anyone comments about Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden on any form of social media, be it Twitter, YouTube, or even a review of the Garden on Trip Advisor, we engage that visitor and let him or her know we appreciate the feedback. This means if someone checks in at the Garden on FourSquare, we thank him or her for checking in and ask about the visit.

APGA: In addition to the initiatives you mentioned above, can you tell us a bit more about the various channels of social media that you currently employ? 

LGBG: I consider the Garden an early adopter of new technology. If there is a new platform out there and it fits in with our overall strategy, we give it a try.  You will find the Garden on all the primary platforms and some less common ones, too.  I’ve found that different platforms have different strengths. For example, I really like the way Picassa is integrated into Google+. I love the international following and highly visual short-form format of Pinterest. Tumblr attracts a different type of social media user than say,  Pinterest does. Each has its strengths. You can’t beat Instagram for easy sharing of real-time blooms. It’s easy to push Instagram photos to other platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter, so that saves time. We’d love to connect with you — here’s where you can find us!

We’ve also experimented with QR codes in our newsletter, the Garden Times, and on signage around the Garden to offer our visitors easy access to more information.

APGA: What are your strategies for success?

LGBG: The most important strategy for success in my opinion is to offer valuable and meaningful content to your fans. Lucky for us, people love looking at pictures of beautiful things! Our most most frequently asked question is “What’s in bloom?” so the beauty and ever-changing nature of a botanical garden are a perfect fit with social media. But on top of that, our fans are interested in the same issues we are — learning about the interdependence of plants and people; enriching our community; creating healthier and more enjoyable lives; finding balance and beauty while celebrating nature; and living sustainably and caring for the earth. People look to us as resource and any time we can offer valuable content relating to these important threads, it’s a win.  Sharing great content of like-minded organizations is a good example of this strategy. Gardeners are “sharing people” – they love to share plants, knowledge and information — the very nature of social media seems designed for the gardening world. Social media has opened opportunities for us to share our botanical treasures with the world, regardless of location.  Our mission is education, and our passion is bringing people and plants together to improve the community. On social media — it is the exact same thing, only it’s global.

APGA: What have you learned from something you tried in social media that didn’t work?

LGBG: One of the biggest challenges we’ve taken on with the Garden’s social media is making sure many voices at the Garden are represented on our social media platforms. I honestly feel the best social media content is produced by those who do hands-on work in the Garden, relating directly to our mission. That means ideally, you’d have gardeners, horticulturists, butterfly educators and Children’s Garden educators speaking first-hand about the Garden from their perspective.  I feel their view is often more interesting and carries more weight than that of the public relations person. It also goes back to the audience wanting insider information, a new perspective they can’t necessarily get by visiting our website. Collaborating with such a large team of contributors has its challenges.  So far, we’ve only extended this multi-voice platform to Facebook and the Garden’s blog. Some of the issues we’ve had to work through are setting standards. For example, if staff other than me is posting on Facebook, we ask the staff member to include his or her name and job title for clarity. (When I post on Facebook, I don’t typically identify myself, because I feel it detracts from the post.) Also, we have a general schedule of who posts and when, in order to avoid posting on top of each other and from having too many posts in one day. The disadvantage of a schedule is it takes away a bit from the spontaneity of our Facebook page. I think the best social media comes from simply being moved. So that’s why we maintain enough flexibility to be spontaneous when we feel inspired.
Please visit the APGA website to view the original interview

Jonah Holland is Digital Content Manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where she has worked for 14 years overseeing social media, the blog, and the website. She is also a mom, yogi, open water swimmer, gardener, and seeker. She's been known to go for a walk in the Garden and come back with hundreds of plant photos, completely inspired to write her next blog post.

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