by Courtney Llewellyn

Online horticulture sales were already increasing at the beginning of 2020, as today, consumers can have basically anything they purchase online shipped directly to their doors. The new nursery model means customers are shopping using photos rather than in-store experiences – and that model grew exponentially when garden centers across the country were temporarily shut down.

But how to adjust to this new model, which may go against previously tried-and-true methods? That was the topic discussed by Katie Elzer-Peters, the business copywriter behind Garden of Words, and Liz Lark-Riley of Rockledge Gardens in Florida, in a recent Cultivate’20 webinar.

“This is not easy,” Elzer-Peters stated bluntly. “People are changing their business models overnight.”

“We have to flex our creative muscles and create content overnight,” Lark-Riley added – because that’s what internet consumers require, no matter what platform you’re using.

That drive for content, most often in the form of high definition photos and short, memorable videos, means that marketing and merchandising are now inextricably entwined, according to Elzer-Peters. Today’s consumers are not just buying plants from you, they’re buying experiences.

“You have to define your audience, and then communicate directly to them in language and visuals they enjoy and understand,” she said. “Communicate with your intended audience on their preferred channel. See what resonates with your audience where.”

At Rockledge Gardens, they like to highlight certain plants they have for sale. Lark-Riley noted that younger audiences tend to flock to Instagram, while their more established audience gravitates more toward Facebook. Unique content for each platform is important. If you’re posting the same thing on Instagram and Facebook, you’re missing the mark.

However, you do want to provide consistent communication and accurate information everywhere, from in-store signage to your website to your social media. “If you don’t do this, you won’t have anyone to talk to,” Elzer-Peters said. “It’s the most important part of your marketing right now.” That information should convey who are you, what you sell and how customers can obtain your goods. It should also note current hours, frequently updated inventory and COVID-19 safety procedures. “Update your information the second something changes,” Elzer-Peters said. “Don’t surprise your customers.”

For example, Lark-Riley and her team created an Instagram story showing how curbside pick-up would work at their business once it went into effect. Doing so provided timely information in an easy-to-understand visual format.

“We’re always learning the new technology, and we’re getting really good at certain video-editing software,” Lark-Riley said. “We’ve figured out when to make an Instagram post versus a story. We’re focused on finding new ways to harness and present what we’re putting out there.”

What you “put out there” is your brand, and just as you nurture seedlings, you need to take the time to develop and use your brand voice and style. Elzer-Peters stated you must be consistent with your brand in every channel, from the sign on your door to the sign-off on your emails – the colors, fonts and logos need to present a united vision of your business. “Use visuals your audience will gravitate toward,” she said. “That makes people feel more comfortable, and everybody is feeling uncomfortable right now. Marketing is as much about providing joy as it is about selling. It needs to inspire and excite people.”

One way to excite customers through online sales is to convey scarcity, Elzer-Peters said. Present sales with time limits or a number of customers limits. That forces a decision. “It seems like a heavy-handed marketing tactic, but it just helps customers make a decision on whether or not they’re going to make a purchase,” she said.

Hyping up a sale or a specific plant across your various media outlets can also build excitement in your customer base and the community. “Things tend to be more fun with more people, but that can be kind of hard to convey in the current climate,” Elzer-Peters noted.

And, despite the screens between you, you can still provide experiences for your customers. “Give them something to take their mind off the outside world,” Elzer-Peters suggested. “Give them a way to be proud of their gardens through a photo contest. Give them an opportunity to shop that feels like an activity. Give them a way to connect with other people who share their obsession.”

Embracing new technology will help you evolve in this new landscape, where everything from groceries to new cars are being purchased online. The internet provides thousands of options for designing new graphics, for scheduling programs, for phone- and text message-based customer service, for email marketing and more.

“Remember, perfect is the enemy of good – just make a move,” Elzer-Peters said. “Identify your key staff, note your tech equipment needs, determine your initiatives and go.”

She offers a free worksheet at to help you get started with your online marketing plan.