The virtual gardener

Meet Robin Plaskoff Horton. She’s what brands call an influencer. Her award-winning lifestyle blog Urban Gardens, where she muses about urban style, design and nature, is the social platform from which she wields her authority.

“My readers or followers are very targeted, they trust me to recommend things, they find inspiration in what I show and that’s why they follow and read,” says the Old Greenwich resident about her audience, whose interests lie in gardening, food and wine and travel, which she says is the trifecta for advertisers. Brands reach out to her because her readers are their customers.

Named one of the top 10 home and garden Twitter must-follow accounts by Mashable, a news blog about social media and technology, Urban Gardens is garnering a lot of attention.

So much so that the self-proclaimed “cool-spotter” is invited to attend design shows around the world, including Maison & Objet in Paris, the London Design Festival and most recently Modenus BlogTour, which began last month in Venice. BlogTour selects groups of the best interior design and lifestyle bloggers and invites them to visit the world’s most inspired design venues.

And the invitations keep coming. Like the one she received from Pinterest just days before our interview asking her to Pin 10 items then co-host and moderate a Pinterest chat.

While Horton’s fan base is nothing to shake a stick at – she’s amassed more than 60,000 followers on her blog, 125,000 on Facebook, 35,100 on Twitter and about 5,000 on Pinterest – what matters to brands is not the numbers, but the level of engagement; and hers is significant. In simple terms, engagement means when a follower has clicked, liked, commented or shared a post.

Social media has changed the landscape of traditional advertising and turned it on its head. Many people don’t trust ads and are skeptical of what they promise to deliver. But if someone they know and trust recommends something, they are more inclined to buy it. That’s why brands are rethinking how they spend their advertising dollars and increasingly are looking at influencers, like Horton, to help sell their products.

“You get brands to do content marketing with you, also known as sponsored content or native advertising. By law, you have to disclose that. If you click on that, it should go to the disclosure statement. You have to disclose if you’re invited on a trip,” says Horton unapologetically about the way she monetizes her blog. Because making a living doesn’t seem to interfere with her scouting the world for the most innovative and eco-friendly designs and her readers know that.

When people ask her about social media and say they don’t get it, she explains it this way:

“OK, who would you want to sit next to at a dinner party? Do you want to sit next to someone that’s me, me, me? Even if they have interesting stories, at some point you’re going to look around. No, you want someone that has some interest in you and they know a little about you. Like ‘Oh, you might like to read about this.’”

About 12 years ago, back when Horton says green was just a color, she conceived of Urban Gardens as a print publication while taking a weeklong professional design workshop with the renowned designer Milton Glaser at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. The assignment was to develop a concept for a print magazine – name it, design it and come up with a marketing plan.

“At the time I didn’t know why I came up with Urban Gardens, but I know now intuitively I was thinking, ‘What would attract advertisers and what combines all the stuff I love?’”

“‘That’s a terrible idea. Who would advertise?’” she remembers Glaser telling her.

The following week, Horton felt vindicated when The New York Times’ Living Section (now the Style section) ran a feature all about urban gardens. Still, the designer would shelve the idea for several years until resurrecting it as a blog in April 2009, the same year it was nominated in the Lifestyle category for a Webby, hailed by The Times as “the Internet’s highest honor.”

“It’s not like I didn’t make that happen,” she says about her success as a blogger. “But I didn’t consciously make that happen. We all have parts and those parts emerge and you know the cliché: Follow your passions. So true.”

After five years, Horton is redesigning her blog but keeping the same branding because the Internet has evolved and the way people read things is different. (It will relaunch this summer.) Now, it’s important she designs a site for mobile first and desktop second. She’s also going to get rid of her tagline “unlimited thinking for unlimited spaces,” even though she loves it because it’s no longer about unlimited spaces.

“Now that I know about blogging and social media the way that I do, these things take a life of their own. It’s really about two-thirds listening and one-third putting out. To be good, you have to be agile, flexible and adaptive, like any business or endeavor,” she says.

In publishing her blog, she discovered that what her readers wanted or liked most were the same thing she enjoyed writing most about. “I realized that that was why they loved it, because if I was passionate about it, they were, too.”

Born in Tokyo and raised in Malibu, Calif., the designer has lived for various periods of time in Puerto Rico, Berkeley, Calif., Paris, Zurich, Boston, New York and Connecticut. That worldly aesthetic runs through her blog as does her artistry as a designer.

“Urban style is really a gestalt more than everything takes place in an urban setting. Because people go out of town, they go on vacation… Urban style is more of a sensibility.”

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