Creating an Online Community By Darhiana Mateo

A few years ago, Ecke Ranch saw a need to reach out to growers in a new way. The launch of their "On Board" Tech Help Bulletin Board during the 2004 poinsettia season began as an "experiment" but has since evolved into a vital resource and community builder for growers across the country. The online forum provides a "fast and accurate" venue for growers to ask questions about their annuals, poinsettias and now geranium crops; exchange information, ideas and frustrations; and, in a way, help one another stay afloat in a tough economy. In spite of some initial hesitancy by growers unfamiliar with the technology, the bulletin board has become very popular, often drawing 1,000 page hits a day.

"We've got a new generation of growers out there," says Rebecca Siemonsma, technical and sales services manager at Ecke Ranch. "For a while, a lot of [people] didn't grow up with computers the way that growers that are in greenhouses now have. They expect that kind of service."

A Happy Medium

The launch of the bulletin board, focusing only on annuals and poinsettias in the beginning, reflected the company's desire to take a new direction, says Siemonsma. Besides wanting to provide an easy-to-use tool for growers to share information, the company saw the launch as a step toward "a new era with technology."

Originally, the idea was to shift all of their technical support online; all questions would be posted and answered on the bulletin board instead of over the phone like in the past. However, Ecke Ranch ultimately opted for a hybrid approach: "We found that there is still a group of growers that doesn't have access to e-mail or Internet, or just prefers to talk to a live person," she says. "We really found a happy medium now, but the bulletin board is our primary means of technical support."

Ecke has long been known for the technical and product support they provide customers, says Paul Ecke III of Ecke Ranch. But a changing world — and industry — requires that companies come up with new ways to better meet the needs of customers. "We know the world is changing and our customers expect more. Providing this live online service sets a new standard," he says.

Group Mentality

Nowadays, the Tech Help Bulletin Board has earned the trust and loyalty of growers. Ecke Ranch takes pride in making the tool as easy to use as possible. From the comfort of their homes, during their lunch break or at 3 a.m., growers can log on to the website and post any questions about topics such as culture, growth regulation, pest control, variety selection and crop scheduling, and can usually receive an answer within 24 hours.

And the tech help staff isn't the only one providing solutions: Industry experts such as Jim Barrett of the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., frequently share their knowledge, and other growers weigh in with what's worked — or hasn't worked — in their greenhouses. As Ecke Ranch President Andy Higgins notes, "the various technical forums give us the opportunity to learn from each other. We see posts from internal staff as well as external, and together the best solution is found. Often, there is no 'one' or 'right' answer." But by working together, Higgins says, "we can find the best answer for a problem."

This type of teamwork approach to tackling problems helps create a sense of community among growers, Siemonsma says. "Everyone's in the same boat, trying to maximize profits, increase margins and reduce costs. Everyone's in the same business," she says. "They feel comfortable sharing ideas."

A Success Story

It took some time for the online bulletin board to catch on, says Siemonsma. But after the first few months, usage soared and doesn't look to be peaking any time soon. Besides asking questions, growers are logging on in increasing numbers to take advantage of other features, including the ability to post pictures and even create impromptu polls. "We see our usage continue to go up every year," she says. "The first season, it definitely took some time for people to get on board, but once it did, it has been a success story for us."

In fact, the first two forums did so well that Ecke Ranch launched a third forum for geraniums in early March. The new forum follows the same model as the other two and appears to be taking off well.

Hotspots of Information

With a company name that has become synonymous with poinsettias over the past 80 years, it's no wonder that the poinsettia forum has established itself as an authoritative source of information and a hotspot for grower exchanges. The annual forum, while still successful, doesn't draw the same quantity of hits as the poinsettia forum. This has a lot to do with the nature of the two crops, explains Siemonsma. "It's [the annuals season], a busy time for growers. It's hard for them to stop and take time to get the information they need. The turnover is so quick that sometimes there's no room to even make adjustments."

Because poinsettias are a long crop, with the season starting in July and plants often not going out the door until December, growers have a little more flexibility to do research and search for solutions to their crop challenges.

One big perk the bulletin board offers is that it "overcomes the time barrier," says Siemonsma. "They can get on the bulletin board at 3 a.m. and get questions answered if they need to. They don't have to wait for someone to come into the office."

With increasingly demanding work schedules, "customers appreciate us for helping them solve problems when it's convenient for them," says Roger Kehoe, key accounts sales manager at Ecke Ranch.

Keeping it Simple

While there's a rising number of young growers who are as comfortable online as they are in their greenhouses, there's still a significant group that's a bit wary of technology and has a preference for good, old-fashioned technical support. To appeal to this group, Ecke Ranch strives to make the bulletin board as headache-free as possible.

"It's got to be user friendly for those we're trying to convert to that form of technical support," says Siemonsma. "I've talked to a lot of growers that were at first real resistant — they don't know too much about computers, don't like that stuff, etc. And a lot of those people tried it and were really happy with how easy to use it was."

Technology should be easy; actually, that's the whole point, echoes Paul Ecke III. "I have always been a proponent of using technology as a tool to make things easier, not harder," he says. "The more online tools we can provide, the more success our customers will have."

Redefining Technical Support

In our industry, as in most, technology is changing the way we do business. It's also changing the way, and the speed, in which we find solutions to help growers produce high-quality crops. And in cases like the loyal Ecke Ranch bulletin board users, technology is helping foster a sense of community among growers with a common goal: continued success doing what they love.

With plans to possibly add a new potted plants forum down the line, along with some webinars and podcasts, Ecke Ranch is helping redefine — and drive — what technical support will look like in the future.

To visit the Tech Help Bulletin Board, go to www.eckeranchtech

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Darhiana Mateo

Darhiana Mateo is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 391-1013.

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