Social Media CRM: 4 New Ways Farmers are Talking to ConsumersSeptember 22, 2010 By Heather Fletcher
After two straight days of madly baling hay—skipping sleep while trying to beat the rain expected at his Etna, Calif. ranch—Jeff Fowle still avoided using the obvious pun when tweeting about farming to his more than 23,000 followers on Thursday night:
"Finished squeezing hay in bar. 2 hr nap then off to bale. Rain is coming. #hay10," tweets @JeffFowle on Sept. 16.
Hitting the hay may have been front of mind for Fowle, but the human voice of the family owned cattle and horse ranch knew he still needed to keep up-to-date on his customer relations management. He's become part of a growing trend among North American farmers—using blogs and social networking sites to interact with consumers who are growing weary of real and imagined food contamination scares and want to know more about how what they eat gets to their tables.
In 2009, the American Farm Bureau Federation reported that in a "survey of young farmers and ranchers, among the 92 percent of young (aged 18-35) farmers and ranchers who use computers, 46 percent regularly plug in to some form of social media."
But it's not just the young. For instance, researchers from The Ohio State University surveyed Ohio farmers—with an average age of nearly 56 years—and found they were increasing their digital marketing and their direct marketing efforts in areas such as loyalty programs and coupons, according to the October 2009 "Ohio Direct Marketing Survey Research Report." Nearly 10 percent of surveyed farmers planned to invest time in social media marketing in 2009.
Best practices are already emerging and are part of the reason @agchat, a Twitter account that hosts online discussions about farming from 8 to 10 p.m. EST Tuesdays, already has more than 7,000 followers since agricultural marketing consultant Michele Payn-Knoper began moderating #agchat in April 2009. (AgChat Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping farmers and ranchers learn how to effectively use social media, now moderates #agchat and #foodchat—which replaces #agchat on the third Tuesday of the month.)
For farmers and ranchers, CRM is shaping up to look like individual faces. Here's how they're making it happen:
1. Training. Fowle, also AgChat foundation president, says that his organization works one-on-one with farmers and ranchers to teach them how to use social media, as happened at the Agvocacy 2.0 Training Conference that ran from Aug. 30 to 31 in Chicago.
Other entities, such as the Ohio Farm Bureau, provide step-by-step online guides to "sharing your story through social media."
2. Deciding on a message. The AgChat Foundation site relates that the organization wants to combat "misinformation" coming from "animal rights activists, environmental extremists and other pundits." Fowle points out that the organization's main mission is to give consumers faces and voices to identify with farmers and ranchers—to bridge the gap between them so that those in agriculture can tell their stories straight to the consumers and correct perceptions.
Mike "@farmerhaley" Haley, a grain and cattle farmer in West Salem, Ohio and AgChat Foundation vice president, may be the most public face of farming CRM. Aside from his nearly 11,000 followers, Haley got "#moo" to trend for seven hours on Aug. 2, 2009, to raise awareness about milk prices, according to Farm Industry News. The publication cites a similar effort by pig farmers to trend #oink on Aug. 16, 2009, that called attention to the fact that swine flu was H1N1—"Leave the pigs out of it, support pork producers!"
But organic farmers appear to have a different purpose. They're educating the public about what "organic" means; then explaining why it's important to buy food locally from small, organic farms, according to the November 2009 study "Breaking Down Market Barriers for Small and Mid-Sized Organic Growers" by the California Institute for Rural Studies, funded by the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service.
3. Building awareness. Various efforts are already in progress to create a conversation between farmers and consumers. For example, the blog on MarketMaker, which is "a national partnership of land grant institutions and State Departments of Agriculture" that's backed by the University of Illinois Extension, East Moline, Ill., and dedicated to finding new markets for farmers.
But it's just possible that more consumers know about YouTube than such niche efforts. A YouTube video by the Kiowa County Media Center interviewing Minneapolis, Kan., Farmer Tom Tibbits at the Kansas State Fair has him laying out social networking suggestions about spreading the word to consumers on Twitter. Tibbits, @ksfarmboy, uses Twitter to connect with farming magazines and market analysts, find up-to-date weather and soil conditions, and interact with consumers. "It's a good way to stay connected to the outside world," he says.
Providing links also helps. @Farm2U, a Twitter account linking farmers and ranchers to consumers, provides a link to the Facebook page of the same name.
4. Helping each other. The Ohio Farm Bureau Guide to Social Media also suggests that farmers and ranchers like and follow each other and agricultural organizations and share information, not only through social media but through email.
Direct marketers of local food can help each other by comparing their marketing plans to those of other producers, says Julie Fox, Ph.D., co-author of the OSU survey and a direct marketing specialist at OSU's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Dairy farmers and advocates can share advice and experiences in myDairy, a private online community launched by Dairy Checkoff—which is run by Dairy Management, an organization that works to build demand for dairy products. The site also provides messaging ideas for positively portraying the dairy industry in blogs and on social networking sites. "Sharing is now what drives the Internet," says the Ohio Farm Bureau Guide to Social Media, "and the impressions made upon people who use it"