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A Small Business Marketing Success Story: Avante Gardens
There’s a battle going on in the floral industry, and many small, independent florists are losing. Like other small businesses, they don’t have the time or knowledge to keep up with the latest marketing trends and tactics. But there are other challenges, too. Way back in 1998, the FTC warned consumers about phony marketers pretending to be local florists: Petal Pushers: Is Your ‘Local’ Florist Really Long-Distance? That consumer alert refers to offline deception via phone directories; ten years later, the situation is just as bad online.
This month’s small business online marketing success story is about a business owner who’s using search marketing smarts to win this battle, along with some blogging and social media thrown in.
Meet Cathy Hillen-Rulloda, owner and Design Director at Avante Gardens – floral unique, an award-winning florist in Anaheim, California. Cathy started working for a local florist during high school in West Virginia, and opened Avante Gardens in 1984 after helping design flowers for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Since then, Cathy has become one of the floral industry’s most accomplished Internet marketers. “She’s a watchdog for the floral industry and keeps the rest of us aware,” says Ryan Freeman of Strider Inc, the operator of FlowerChat.com. “Her Web site ranks well and performs well, she blogs intelligently, has a smart mind for business and PR, and has enough chutzpah to take action when it’s needed.”
I first learned about Cathy more than a year ago when she wrote a detailed blog post about telemarketers posing as local florists, a post any veteran SEO would’ve been proud to write. I met her in person for the first time last month at SMX Social, when we agreed to do this interview. As was the case with previous interviewees in this series, I have no business relationship with Cathy. Here’s our interview.
Matt McGee: You could probably write a book on this question, but I’ll ask you to be as succinct as possible: Has the Internet been good for local florists?
Cathy Hillen-Rulloda: There’s definitely a book in that story, but the answer today, overall, is no. Despite the concept of disintermediation, with more consumers ordering direct from product sources, the Web has had the opposite effect on the full-service flower business. Intermediary brokers (like 1-800-Flowers, FTD, Teleflora and their non-florist affiliates) have been highly successful at marketing flower products – and most local florists just haven’t.
Total sales of fresh flowers in the U.S. have remained relatively stagnant over the last eight years. With approximately $2 billion in sales now being made through online-only companies, needless to say, the local florist part of the pie has shrunk dramatically. In 1994, FTD had approximately 22,000 independent local florist affiliates. Their most recent directory pegs that number at fewer than 15,000.
How well is the industry adapting to all the new online marketing opportunities at their disposal?
Many are still trying to catch up with the “old online opportunities.” While the good news is that on the local level, more and more florists are getting it, as a group we’re far from embracing opportunities in social media, video, mobile search and other emerging channels.
But vehicles like Google Maps, Yahoo Local, and review sites like CitySearch, Insider Pages and Yelp, have definitely improved the chances of consumers finding real local florists. That wasn’t the case just a couple years ago.
Most every flower shop now has a Web site, but a significant number of florists (I estimate approximately 12,000-14,000 in the U.S.) have boilerplate templates filled with wire service affiliate product images and mediocre to poor SEO. Even today, one large hosting company doesn’t bother to put the shops’ local addresses and phone numbers on the home pages, and the phone numbers appear only in image files. With weak signals of content, especially local content, they have little chance of appearing at or near the top for their appropriate keyword searches.
We moved from one of those template hosts (with our own unique product content) to our own site and increased online ordering by 45% the first year. The impact on phone sales has been even greater.
What about Avante Gardens—you seem to be embracing online marketing pretty heavily. Is that a matter of desire, survival, or both?
Both. I recognized online marketing would have a strong impact on our visibility. It was a matter of understanding the fundamental principles and embracing the new creative opportunities to show what we can offer consumers.
The national flower services have big marketing budgets and name recognition. How do you distinguish yourself from such well-known competition?
Consumers are sometimes worried that they won’t get full value when they place an order for flowers they’ll never see. We created a Design Your Own section to address just that. Shoppers pick a style and then tell us the size, colors and a few flowers they’d like included. We email them a picture of their custom arrangement. The process takes a bit extra time, but the results and responses have been fantastic.
This is something a national affiliate flower marketer simply cannot do since they don’t actually make or hand-deliver their own floral arrangements.
When I read some of your blog posts (like this one or this one), I get the impression you know as much about SEO and online marketing as many of us who work in this industry full-time! How much time do you spend reading search marketing blogs and sites?
Local search is obviously important to you as a small/local business. But there’s a lot of junk going on in the floral industry these days: So-called “local florists” that aren’t really local is just one headache. How frustrated are you with the current local search scene?
It’s been a big frustration and it’s what propelled myself and other like-minded florists to learn as much as possible about search. We petition florist wire services to clean up their affiliates but we can’t really complain unless we’re out there doing all we can to help our own businesses be found.
There are two primary issues to address:
1.) Publishers who accept ad dollars to place phony local florists prominently in their directories or search listings. 24 states have legislation prohibiting some of the practices, so progress is being made on that front. I continue to believe that the short-term sell-out of users seeking local businesses is also a fast way to loose [sic] trust and repeat visitors.
2.) Brick and mortar stores giving out stronger signals of local—and better unique content about our own businesses and services. On that front, the future is in our hands. Phony “local” florists can be pushed out or down in the locations that matter when local sites offer strong, relevant, unique content. Boilerplate won’t cut it. A large group of us meet at FlowerChat.com, an online community for professional florists, and share tips to help improve our local visibility.
Is local search too easy to game right now?
Local search has improved significantly in the last couple years. It’s still far from perfect, but as more florists provide signals of relevance and trust, I believe the segment will continue to improve.
You have more than 20 reviews on your CitySearch page. Do you encourage customers to leave reviews?
Yes. Each customer receives an email order summary and a separate delivery confirmation. The delivery confirmation email asks our shoppers to let us know about how they feel about our services, and invites them to rate us on Yahoo Local, CitySearch or InsiderPages. While most send emails, a few have gone on to write reviews.
Do you find positive reviews on local sites to be helpful to your bottom line?
Most definitely. The biggest surprise has been how many new visitors in our store have mentioned the reviews. Of course, the great reviews make us also feel obligated to continue to live up to the kind words said about our company.
We met a couple weeks ago at the SMX Social Media conference in Long Beach. How important is social media to your business?
SMX Social was terrific. Here I was, a small, local florist sitting among some very heavy hitters of search. I was particularly interested in how the social aspect of search will affect us all in the future. Will the big names and big brands in the flower business overpower us all or do we stand a fighting chance if we focus on our local niches?
The answer waffled from presenter to presenter. Bottom line is we need to poke our head outside our front doors ands be a part of the real and virtual communities around us.
When did you start blogging, and what benefits do you see from that?
2005. Friends Rich and Kathy Dudley of Bloomery in Butler, PA, launched Floristblogs.com and invited me to participate. My first post was painful and stilted. I was trying way too hard. Now, I just think of posts as conversations, although I’ve been delinquent on posting of late.
Have you given any thought to putting the company blog on your domain?
Blogging together with other local florists allows our voices to be heard and our issues to be seen. There are now 25 of us and when we are all on the same page about an issue, we have the collective voice to make a ruckus. Of course, most of our posts are about our own stores, but I continue to believe our collaborative effort is stronger than my voice alone. Plus, Rich handles all the tech issues. (And that’s a huge plus for a small business.)
A lot of small businesses are considering starting a blog, wondering if it’s right for them, wondering if they can make it work. What advice would you give them?
Pick your target audience and write like you’re speaking to them sitting on your couch. Promote less, converse more and you’ll gain trust and readers.
You have a real strong visual element to your business. Have you given any thought to using sites like Flickr or YouTube to spread the word about Avante Gardens?
We’ve had a wedding flowers video on YouTube for about a year and definitely have plans for more. It’s a matter of making the time.
We upload our images to our blog gallery and they’ve been indexed nicely by Google. The biggest challenge with our images is chasing down sites that just lift and use them as their own design work. (One webmaster told me I should be flattered he thought our work was good enough for his site.)
I do believe Flickr offers good opportunities, although most of the flower interest is in garden and single blossom shots.
You guys support local causes and events when you can. What’s the ROI on community involvement for small/local businesses?
When we donate products and services, it’s because we support the charity or organization. After nearly 25 years owning a small business, I long ago learned that customers gained from donations are few and far between. Now we just ask for a link.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about online marketing since you started focusing on it for Avante Gardens?
For a small businesses like ours, it’s far more cost effective than traditional media. It’s also dynamic and lively with more easily measurable results. Give good, unique content and they will come.
Thank you, Cathy.
Among all the online marketing tools at a small business owner’s disposal, sometimes the best one is knowledge. Cathy proves that staying informed about what strategies and tactics are working—and what the competition is doing—is the foundation to successful small business online marketing.
If you are (or know of) a small business owner with a great story to tell about how you’re using the Internet to grow your business, please contact me at Small Business SEM.
Matt McGee is a veteran search marketing consultant who blogs at Small Business SEM. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.