What does it take to be a successful writer? English novelist A.S. Byatt once said, “What I need to write well is a combination of heat, light, and solitude.”
If those are the only three necessities, every golf course superintendent could be a Hemingway on the fairway. As it is, there are members of the greenkeeping industry who do possess a passion for the pen – or in this digital age, a zest for social media.
John Hoyle is the superintendent at Corning Country Club in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. His forte is Twitter (@CorningCCSuper). Andy Dalton is the superintendent at Metamora Golf and Country Club in the northern suburbs of Detroit. When he isn’t manicuring bunkers, he’s blogging at Metamora Golf. Across the Atlantic Ocean, John Quinn – a self-proclaimed “digital dabbler” – owns a greenkeeping consulting firm in Perthshire, Scotland. He covers the gamut of social media while simultaneously operating his own digital media company, Gask Ridge Press.
Their common bond, regardless of platform, is to raise awareness of their places of employment and their missions.
“I remember growing up you get a lot of comments like, ‘What are you going to do when you get serious about your career?’ Well, this is my career. A lot of people don’t understand,” Dalton says. “I post things on my blog to educate people. Being a superintendent is a profession. It’s a career. You go to school for it. I really don’t know if people truly understand what it takes to maintain a golf course. They pay their $30 or $50 and go play and think all the maintenance staff does is mow the grass.”
Lurking in the shadows of parts unknown is a superintendent whose acerbic humor has attracted nearly 6,000 followers on Twitter
Grumpy Super, an otherwise anonymous industry figurehead, started his @grumpysuper account in March 2013. While living up to his Twitter tagline — “Babysitting golf course employees 24/7” — he posts and retweets his colleagues’ photos of the most egregious acts of superintendent and player negligence. Rarely is there a shortage of material — or of some biting commentary to accompany it. We reached out to him to get his thoughts on various communications.
Just another task to perform
Although less critical than cutting the greens, maintaining a successful social media presence is just another job responsibility that superintendents like Hoyle and Dalton assume. They post on company time, but only when they can find that time, which isn’t often enough and is rarely consistent. They have no assistants, let alone line items in their budgets to cover Facebook posts and retweets.
“Communication is simply part of my job,” Hoyle says. “Corning Country Club has a weekly newsletter, and although I am not required to have something in it every week, I always have an article in there from the maintenance department at least every two weeks. Members always tell me how much they enjoy reading about what is happening on the golf course.”
Dalton keeps his blog posts short and sweet – and not just because his time and resources are limited. “One thing I’ve tried to do after reading other blogs by superintendents across the country – and even blogs about food and cooking – is to keep everything I post as short as I possibly can and still get the point across,” he says. “There’s a lot of blogs I start reading and wonder, ‘Where does this end?’ People are busy. I’m not a great writer by any means. I just want to keep people interested.”
As a consultant, Quinn regularly does business on Twitter, where he has nearly 1,100 followers at @jhnqunn. In order of importance, he ranks Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin as the top social media platforms. Along with Twitter, he says blogging, email lists and regular email campaigns are the staples of his communications strategy.
“Twitter, as an instant communication tool, draws in others to the discussion and is a great educational resource,” he says. “Twitter tends to attract more of a professional audience, so it is great for idea sharing and learning. To keep in touch with end users and customers, it’s probably better to use Facebook or a mixture of both.”
On most weekdays, Quinn pre-schedules about 10 tweets, which often include links to his blog articles at bowls-central.co.uk. He uses Buffer to pre-schedule those tweets, as well as Facebook and Linkedin posts. He relies on Google Alerts to gather newsworthy industry items, which he shares via Twitter and his blog. He then uses back.ly to guide people back to his most popular blog articles that are related to the shared content.
Quinn publishes his email newsletter on Sundays and Wednesdays during the summer, but only on Sundays during the winter. His ratio of news and education to marketing in these newsletters is around 5 to 1, he says, preferring to disseminate information rather than sales messages.
“More than anything, it’s about being available and engaging with clients and customers in the way that best suits them, whether that’s phone, text, email or face-to-face,” Quinn says.
Hoyle maintains a consistent presence on Twitter, where he caters to nearly 750 followers. However, he more often finds himself on the receiving end of tweets, courtesy of the 800-plus accounts that he follows. Meanwhile, he sends many of his communications via an app, Clubster, which his club provides to every member.
“I do enjoy Twitter to help break up the day and see what other superintendents are doing,” Hoyle says. “Although I do have some members that follow me, I can actually get information to them quicker using Clubster.”
When he does post on social media, Hoyle often links articles that are written by industry leaders while accompanying those posts with his own before-and-after photographs to help convey the message to his membership.
“I feel our members want to know as much about the course as possible,” Hoyle says. “I like to inform them about periodic cultural practices, like vertical mowing, topdressing, and obviously any aeration. I also feel it is very important to periodically make them aware of the status of all projects. Simple information such as frost delays posted on Clubster are much appreciated by members.
“Most important,” he adds, “is to keep up with the communication. If you are always informing them, it helps quash many of the rumors or misconceptions that may start if you don’t keep them informed.”
Give the people what they want
Some members will be less interested than others in specific topics, Quinn says. He uses permission marketing – a non-traditional marketing technique that sells goods and services when advance consent is given – to address that issue.
“As greenkeepers, the most important thing for us are the greens, and we get engrossed in the process – the topdressing, the aeration, etc.,” Quinn says. “Many of our customers don’t want to know about all of that. They just want to know the greens will be in good condition when they play. Permission marketing is great for this, as is a course maintenance blog. By working on that basis, customers can choose the level of information they want to receive.”
Despite their social media prowess, the superintendents wouldn’t think of ditching many old-fashioned communication methods.
“We are still going to post photos and articles about our current fairway renovation on the pro shop’s bulletin board,” Hoyle says. “It’s just another way for members to see what is going on as the project progresses, along with the improvements to the playing surface.”
For a consultant such as Quinn, whose time is typically dedicated to helping customers, nothing will be able to top personal attention. Still, many of those relationships began on social media. “I blog regularly, which is the main source of my new customers and business. Many of my blog readers will have made first contact with it via Twitter, and in a lot of cases we developed a relationship from there,” he says.
Some of Quinn’s additional best practices for communicating include:
- Developing a website that includes a members-only area, where he shares more long-form writing, e-books, and resources like slide decks and infographics.
- Composing emails that include all of his contact details – including mobile and land-line phone numbers – because a large percentage of his customers are still email- and telephone-oriented.
- Spending about an hour a day on the phone. Increasingly, he has found that his customers are happy to conduct lengthy negotiations and discussions via email, although a few will text him questions.
- Maintaining “inbox zero” at all times. “That is an indication that I am probably a slave to email,” he admits, “but customers really appreciate a quick, detailed response. I find that for tricky or long-winded explanations, it’s better for them to have a written record to refer back to rather than having to scribble notes during a phone call. This doesn’t take as long as it sounds. As time goes by, I find that I can cut and paste large chunks of answers from previous emails to other customers who had the same issues.”
Providing fact sheets, e-book versions of long blog posts, and infographics for concepts that are better visualized.
“As a one-man band, I don’t have staff to help with this,” Quinn says. “However, there is a plethora of tools out there to help me keep in touch with my customers and be more efficient. I use the term ‘customers’ to identify anyone who touches my business. By treating everyone like a customer, I find I can build long-term, beneficial relationships with customers, of course, but also suppliers, prospects, collaborators, and even competitors, sometimes. I see some people doing this better than others, so I’m always looking out for ideas to steal. Generosity when sharing is a common trait among successful communicators, I’ve noticed.”
Quinn notes that his email list that has grown over the years. Some of the people who have purchased his books and greenkeeping materials have followed his blog and emails for as long as five years before engaging with him personally or buying any products.
“I play the long game and make my focus simply to help people as much as I can,” he says. “It works.”