Dudley fox red labrador looking for greener pasturers

‘I Know My Place’

Bloggers and the Garden Media

How is it, that despite unprecedented availability and effortless access to a substantial information resource that is new (social) media, in particular (garden) blogs and Twitter, mainstream media are still so off the mark when assessing and/or addressing target audience interests?

This week saw the inconceivable return of Ground Force, in its newly fangled ‘Love Your Garden’ format, featuring Alan Titchmarch and Mr David ‘feed your plants Coca Cola’ Domoney. Unfortunately, this latest reincarnation of the much hackneyed make-over show, constitutes prime time, gardening programming. Granted, there is probably an audience for this show buried somewhere, but I’d hazard a guess, probably not amongst its prescribed target; gardeners. Unfortunately the only other televised gardening outlet, Gardeners’ World, is not without blemishes either, often criticised for not providing identifiable content for the true gardener. After all, the creation of an oceanic sized pond in midst drought, at the start of a hosepipe ban, is somewhat questionable.

In the current ‘social climate’ of increasingly decentralised communication, gardener bloggers (and tweeters), (voluntarily) share substantial (personal) details about their gardens, gardening plans, horticultural predilections etc., which translates to a treasure trove of unprecedented (audience) data. Yet evidently, its potential for market research has yet to be recognised. Truth be said, one would prefer to be known for writing good content and presenting photographs of interest, rather than the object of marketing research, but the lack of corresponding content between new and mainstream media does seem to suggest, blogs (and Twitter) are being overlooked.

Niche mainstream

Some have argued that garden bloggers are not quite representative of the mainstream market. Some even conclude that bloggers are ‘cutting edge’1, which may have been valid a couple of years ago, though with the increased uptake of blogging and micro-blogging platforms (Twitter, Facebook), ‘new’ (social) media is steadily becoming mainstream. What was once a small niche is now engaged and viewed by many.

According to WordPress, over 347 million people view more than 2.5 billion pages each month. There are an estimated 450 million active blogs worldwide, which means an estimated 1 in 6, people write some kind of blog. Thousands of new blogs are launched every day, though similarly attrition rates are high as relatively few manage to keep blogs active.

An exact number of active garden (dedicated) blogs, is annoyingly difficult to find, but according to the 2010 Global Garden Report, the UK leads in terms of number of garden related posts published globally, reporting an estimated 361,964 blog posts. As the report is dated 2010, it would probably be fair to assume that the number of published garden (related) blog posts has increased substantially. Particularly taking into account, super industrious bloggers, such as Lousie Curley, author of Wellywoman, whom in June 2012 alone, wrote twelve extensive posts.

What it says on the tin

Blog design, archive, subject niche, content to pictorial ratio all affect readership statistics, which means that making comparisons is difficult. Actual readers (unique users) is personally of most interest, where blogs generate an average 1500 to substantial 15000 unique users, every month2.

Readership stats such as these are certainly capable of competing with hard copy magazines, where for example, the English Garden Magazine purports a readership of 116,0863. Obtaining actual readership figures from magazines is tricky too, especially if you wish to boil it down to actual readers (unique users). Magazine ‘readership’ stats are an amalgam of subscriptions, off the shelf sales, and the characteristic ‘multiplier effect’. The multiplier is an odd calculation where it is assumed that one magazine in the home or office, is read by an additional x number of people.

More importantly though, blog audiences are the direct result of its niche output, hence powerful tools to reach very specific target audiences. Little Green Fingers, for example, a blog focused on motivating children into gardening, written by the talented Dawn Isaac, is read not just by gardeners, parents but also teachers keen to get their students into gardening.

Bad Temperedness

In her astute book ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener’, Anne Wareham writes; ‘Garden blogs are very interesting because they are certainly the challenge that dreary garden magazines will have to begin to take note of’. Wareham’s view is subjective, but she is not alone. ‘Blogs present a good way of sharing information that editors are unwilling to publish as too technical/don’t understand/are scared to’, explained Noel Kingsbury.

Mainstream media, in particular television programs and garden magazines, tend to follow a long trusted, set agenda of seasonal events, resulting in predictable content. That is not to say that this content is not of interest, as I still enjoy watching Gardeners’ World, and subscribe to garden magazines. Though, admittedly, over the years, fewer magazines have been subscribed to, and Gardeners’ Word is rarely watched ‘live’. Instead, I read and subscribe to an increasing number of blogs, as they provide thought provoking, current (by the day), varied, detailed, and true best-practice content. In her insightful article entitled, ‘Bloggery’ on ThinkinGardens, Emma Bond, recently wrote ‘There is an expertise and lack of patronising that can be found in blogs and not in gardening programmes or publications far more suitable to the very experienced gardener, equally this applies to new gardeners looking for advice and help and there are many blogs that cater to these groups’.

Now at this stage you may be thinking this post is starting to sound a little like a Samantha Brick diatribe, where blogs are being overlooked because ‘we’re lovely’, but that’s not the intention. Nor is meant to advocate substituting blogs for conventional media. Blogs are very much as part of the same media portfolio available to the public. However, there are some great blogs out there (even beyond those written by the garden celebs), and it is frustrating that they don’t get enough credit for providing quality content, whereas a ‘ye oldie’, hard copy mag or television programme, is still bestowed gospel status.

Runt Media Litter

‘I suspect that TV celebrities come top’, writes Wareham. In the chapter entitled, ‘Status’, Wareham, colourfully describes her perceptions of the garden (media) hierarchy. Granted, the context is subjective, but Wareham’s depiction of the ‘starry firmament’ that is the garden media, holds truth. According to Wareham, TV celebrities are seated firmly at the top of the status tree, followed by the Chelsea (Star) garden designers, and the garden revered in the middle, with the bottom of the pile congested with omnipresent garden writers, photographers, and editors. Bloggers are distinctly absent in Wareham’s status tree, but one can only guess that as ‘digital’ writers we too, are probably hidden in the deep undergrowth of the status tree. Rather reminiscent of the pain in the neck bearing, diminutive Ronnie Corbett character in the infamous, ‘I know my place’ sketch, broadcast in 1966.

It’d be untrue to say that blogs have gone unnoticed across the board. Commercial interests through advertising is on the rise, but organisations such as the RHS and trade associations consider bloggers and tweeters, very much as part of the garden press, where inclusion to news and events, is now customary. The Garden Media Guild are working to include new media into the guild, where writers of blogs encouraged to take on membership, annual awards bestowed, and employment of blogger Michelle Chapman author of Veg Plotting, to manage their social media strategy.

Impetus output

Reasons for writing a blog are superbly varied, from the refreshingly amusing; ‘because I was bored’ to ‘sharing information’, ‘community’, ‘keeping a garden journal’, ‘intent to write but route to keen to getting published is difficult without track record in jounalism’, or for some even the fear of being left behind the times; ‘I feel I have to blog. I do enjoy it, but I know I have to, as if I don’t I will not build up my web presence. There is the fear that if I don’t, one day everything will change and I would be left high and dry’, explained Noel Kingsbury.

‘Writing the blog gives me clarity about many aspects of gardening as you put time aside to contemplate whys and wherefores of the wider industry as well as your own activities’, explained Naomi Schillinger, author of Out of my Shed. Whatever the reason for starting a blog, the common trait is once started, bloggers show an almost fanatical dedication to their craft. ‘Blogging is now a habit, I think if you do it for a year or more it becomes addictive. I use it to help sort out my thoughts, to record things in the garden/allotment I want to remember for the future, to get reactions from others to help me think about what I am doing and above all to share’, explained Helen Johnstone, author of The Patient Gardener.

Blogging is a time consuming business. Writing, taking (editing, posting) photographs, responding to comments, working on follow up articles and so forth takes substantial time, all the while, juggling normal life, jobs, families and above all gardening. Such zeal for the craft that is both gardening and blogging, is much evident in the output. ‘I blog because I enjoy it’, states the witty Charlotte Weychan, author (and photographer) of the Galloping Gardener.

Why read blogs?

As the talented gardener (Ulting Wick Garden), and avid garden media user, Philippa Burrough, explained, ‘Blogs are (usually short4) idiosyncratic pieces of garden writing from individuals, who have a common interest, and who are not usually trying to sell something or promote something as in standard magazine writing. For example, Sarah Raven promoting her (expensive but) lovely goodies, or English Garden who seem to be in bed with Raymond Blanc and Barnsley House at the moment’.

There is no doubt, that conventional media are unable to compete in terms of the sheer content real-estate freedom that online publishing provides, with bloggers being their own editors. ‘I can write about whatever I like. On your average newspaper people aren’t very interested in gardening, so it gives me an outlet for a personal passion’, writes Victoria Summerley, author Victoria’s Backyard, executive editor at The Independent and Saturday i-newspaper.

Consequently, blog post lengths, topics, posting frequency and styles, vary enormously, resulting in a wonderfully eclectic multitude of options for readers. Moreover, the straightforwardly user-friendly nature of blog platform technology, results in a steady (daily) supply of fresh coverage. Through the steady stream of new content, blogs are easily found via search engines web crawlers, which are constantly seeking and indexing new content – key to solid (search engine) rankings.

‘Somehow the all global phenomenon that is the internet has allowed me to take gardening back to a very personal ground root level via twitter and onto a blog. I can only benefit from it’, explained Burrough. There is no doubt that bloggers add colour to the media table, which with their inclusion will hopefully transform it into a space governed by ideas, debate and expression.

If only, the programme makers and commissioners of garden telly, would think so….

  1. Global Garden Report 2010
  2. Rough average based on blog statistics provided by 12 blogs
  3. Source The English Garden Circulation stats (2009 readership  survey)
  4. I realise that I don’t qualify