Back in 1999, Shelly Marsh had just quit her full-time job to stay home with her young kids. While she was happy, the move made the household budget tight. Plus, she missed the adult interaction and feedback outside work brings.
Husband Kevin Marsh says, "We knew we needed a business. One of us said, 'Wouldn't it be great if somebody emailed us when it's time to do something in the garden? We researched it, but found we were looking for something that doesn’t exist."
Sure there were a lot of gardening resources online, but none were quite local enough to be incredibly useful. Even detailed sources often only break down advice by national "zone." (There are just ten gardening zones in the US.)
Marsh says, "Gardening is all about local weather. It's silly to be reading advice from a national newsletter like Burpee's that says, 'It's time to water' and you look outside and it's been raining for two weeks."
So the Marshes decided to launch a local Kansas City gardening email newsletter, and try to make it a going concern.CAMPAIGN
First the couple purchased a domain, savvygardener.com, and set up a basic Web page to collect opt-ins from any visitors that might float by. Unlike many content sites that featurestories in the main central section and relegate subscription sign-up forms off to the edges of the page, Savvygardener.com makes it very clear that gathering email subscriptions is the number one purpose of the site.
The opt-in form is front, central, and by far the biggest thing to meet the eye. Instead, in a refreshing twist, links to articles are relegated to the sidelines.
Next they began to collect opt-in email addresses "the old fashioned way" -- in person. Every February the Marshes rent a booth at Kansas City's Metro Home & Lawn Show.
Kevin Marsh describes it, "We get in the face of everybody who walks by, 'Hey do you use email at home?' Once they say 'Yes', there's a super-high conversion rate. It [the newsletter] is so unique, that this is a no-brainer. Of course you get people who run away because they are skeptics - they think you're going to try to sell or spam their email address. But we say, 'Look, we live here. We garden here. If we were doing that, we'd get run out of town."
Many new newsletter writers (especially those from non-journalism backgrounds) are so excited that writing new issues is easy at first, and then after a while they get burned out. Others have a hard time coming up with something new to say every single issue. Shelly Marsh overcame these editorial hurdles with three tactics:
1. First-Person Op-Ed Columns
Every issue starts with a quick 2-4 paragraph personal note from Shelly (written in the first person "I" and bearing a "handwritten" signature in the HTML version) about that week's Kansas City weather, or about her own personal gardening successes and failures.
These are fairly easy to dash off, yet very compelling content as the readers get to know Shelly over time.
2. Re-Used Annual Content
Ever felt sorry for your local newspaper editors who have to come up with a "new" angle on every season? Shelly Marsh decided that if it makes sense, why not run the exact same story again each year?
Kevin Marsh explains, "Once you've got the first year under your belt, you've got a template for going forward. Nobody's going to complain - it's Spring again, they want a reminder of what to go forward with. Just watch the weather year to year to make sure things are appropriate."
3. "Free" Content from Local Sources
Shelly Marsh also takes ample advantage of the fact that many local not-for-profits and government agencies are required to make gardening-related data available for free, but few folks know (or have the time) to visit their sites.
For example, Shelly excerpts gardener calls to County's Extension and Master Gardener service as the Q&A source for her regular "What's Hot Online" feature.
In all cases, she gives full credit to the agency involved.
Ad sales was the next hurdle after editorial. Initially the Marshes had too few readers to attract local advertisers, so they joined the Linkshare affiliate network. Kevin Marsh says this was less a matter of making money initially ("We don't have thecritical mass readership you need to make this profitable") and more a matter of getting readers -- and potential local advertisers -- used to seeing reputable ads from the get-go.
"My readers see Jackson & Perkin's roses and they think 'That's pretty good.' They don’t know if they are paying $100 CPM or 10 cents per click. Also, when we finally started getting local ads, readers weren't 'Oh my god, this thing I loved has gone commercial!' They'd seen ads all along. Plus affiliates give us nice ads to drop in, in December/January, when most local advertisers don't keep consistency."
As a niche local player, SavvyGardener.com has never had the thousands and thousands of readers that most newspapers and bigger Web sites boast. Therefore, selling ads was tough at first.
The Marshes got around traditional CPM (cost per thousand) pricing at first by simply, and radically, pricing ad per hundred readers reached instead.
Kevin battled with many a potential advertiser who compared their rates to the local Kansas City Star newspaper. "We told them that people interested in gardening might not look at your ad in the paper. You're competing with lots of other pages and advertisers in the newspaper. In our newsletter, your chances of being seen are much greater. You need to pay a premium for this."
After three years in business, the Marshes are happily profitable. It is not a lot of money, but it is enough to make ends meet as Shelly continues as a homemaker. Plus, they are accepting some advertising-barter deals this year (a nursery is redoing their home's landscaping), which will also provide lots of personal-experience fodder for Shelly's columns.
In addition, Shelly has become a minor local celebrity, featured as a guest on regional TV and radio shows, and also at local garden center openings. (See link below to pics of fans greeting Shelly at a local center.) In fact, now during the peak of the gardening season she spends an average of five extra hours a week making requested personal appearances. (Aside from this editorial takes her about 8-10 hours per week.)
This fame has not only translated to personal satisfaction, but also more ad sales, as has the general adoption of the Web as a marketing vehicle. Kevin Marsh says, "Initially we were just trying to get through that just because the ad's online doesn't mean that people can't print out coupons!" He is proud that now in its third year of publishing SavvyGardener.com boasts renewed contracts from all but one of it's first group of local sponsors.
In fact, "It's become a lot easier to talk to potential advertisers now they know who we are. They're hearing about us from customers, and my wife's become a minor local celebrity. We have people come up to us asking, 'How do I get involved with you guys?'"
At the same time, it is actually gotten harder to get opt-ins at the local Home & Lawn Show because the average show attendee has gotten far more wary of giving out their email address over the years. Kevin Marsh says, "After the first year it's gotten worse and worse. It's not enough to kill us. We sign up close to 1,000 people per show. But it's an annoying trend you hate to see -- now you have to prove you're not a bad spam guy."
He adds, "Our 11 year old daughter helped out at the show this year. One potential subscriber said, 'I'm afraid I'm going to get lots of junk mail' and she starts to fill out the form and then crumples it up and put it in the trash. My 11 year old said, 'Dad, junk mail is bad, but not that bad!'"
Luckily SavvyGardener.com already gathered thousands of happy local subscribers before this backlash began. Now the Marshes are considering growth options, including franchising the idea to other publishers in other cities.
However, Kevin Marsh notes that the newsletter is already paying for itself in terms of enough money that Shelly can continue as a stay-at-home-Mom and in terms of professional recognition, "It's very rewarding."
Pics of Shelly with local fans recently:http://www.savvygardener.com/photos/photo_page_032002.html