It wasn’t too many years ago that ambitious techy types were urging growers to create a website and have a visible online presence. Having a page or two with farm information and contact details made you more accessible to customers. If only it were still that simple.

Today, some might argue that a website alone is almost obsolete, and that marketing via social media – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus, Instagram and more – is necessary in order to stay in touch with current customers, attract new customers, and keep yourself front and center as the go-to source for whatever it is you grow and sell.

However, with everything that has to be done to maintain a functional, active and vibrant online presence, it can seem like there won’t be much time left to actually grow crops. Short of hiring a social media guru, how can savvy growers benefit from the online marketing game without having to devote their lives to playing it?

Understand it

Kristi Waits and Tom Ponik of Second Cup Media (http://www.secondcupmedia.com), in conjunction with The Land Connection, an Illinois-based organization that promotes and provides education about sustainable farming, presented a webinar series covering online marketing for farmers. The webinars, held live in April 2014, are archived on The Land Connection’s website (http://bit.ly/RAJPJp).

Online marketing is a broad concept, Waits said, and is a big umbrella that has several components, each with a different function, but all serving the overall purpose.

The goal of any marketing strategy is to attract customers, convince them to purchase your products, and retain them as customers. Traditional marketing via radio, newspaper and television advertisements uses a “push” system to entice people to make a purchase. Online marketing is a “pull” system: “You’re offering things beyond a simple ad,” Waits said.

The three components of online marketing – search engine marketing, content marketing and social media marketing – serve to do just that. A farm website helps people find you. The content you make available on your website is how you attract customers, and you keep them by using social media.

“Every farm is different. Every marketing strategy should be different,” Waits said. “What’s the most realistic marketing strategy for you? Who are you, what is your farm about, who do you sell to, what do you sell? That is what is going to decide your online marketing strategy.”

Getting found

“If you can only do one piece of [online] marketing, search engine marketing is it,” Waits said.

Basic online marketing can be purely informational, such as a simple website or a listing in an online directory. It announces where you are and what you do. But first the search engines have to find you. Search engine marketing is the most crucial aspect of any online marketing technique. If you aren’t found online, your content doesn’t matter, and customers won’t be able to connect with you.

The three factors that affect how well your listing shows in the rankings are authenticity, content and activity. Waits said it’s important to be consistent across all platforms, with the same address, phone number and basic information posted in each online venue. Next, your content needs to reflect what the user may be seeking. They’re searching for a specific product in a specific location, and your virtual presence should reflect the terms they might type into a search engine.

“When people search, you want to be found,” Waits said. “Think like a customer – use words that they would use.”

The activity piece of search engine marketing involves getting reviews. Customers can use sites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor to post reviews of businesses they’ve visited. Facebook and Google Plus also have review components. Simply asking customers to recommend your business can help your online marketing succeed.

Creating and sharing content

A website is a platform for posting content. Content is the way you tell your story and engage potential customers. Adding photos, videos, articles and quotes to your online presence provides more chances to capture consumers’ attention.

Email, blogs, podcasts and social media are all tools for creating and sharing content. It’s essential to select tools that work for your farm so you use them effectively. Writing about farm life can connect the nonfarming public to the actual work of farming. Posting photos of the weekly harvest can grab a user’s interest. If you don’t like to write, an audio podcast can tell your story. “There are just as many ways to share content as to create it,” Ponik said.

Make your content relevant to your customer base, Ponik advised, and make sure you respond when someone reaches out to you. Answer emails and thank people for commenting on your blog posts. Getting people involved in your content so they will become engaged and hopefully share it with others is a means of building your customer base.

Keeping it fresh with social media

Social media marketing, the third component of online marketing, is all about developing connections. In the era of constant communication, social media venues seem to allow you to instantaneously connect with your customers. However, it takes time to cultivate those connections, Ponik said. It’s unrealistic to think you’ll be gaining likes or getting followers immediately.

Traditional businesses have tended to miss the mark with social media by not recognizing that social media isn’t meant to promote a product or service, Ponik explained. Social media marketing, unlike content marketing, isn’t about your product; it’s about connection and building relationships.

“What social media has really done is shifted the game a bit,” Ponik said. “You have to add value first.”

Adding value to your product, social media-style, means putting people first. It’s about sharing your day, laughing about funny events on the farm and connecting emotionally with your social network.

Virtual reality

Take the time to identify the ways you’d be comfortable using online marketing. If you try to do something that is too tedious, frustrating or time-consuming, it won’t be productive. Be knowledgeable about your options and choose the ones that make the most sense and that you will be able to commit to using regularly.

Talk to your established customers and see how they prefer to connect. Do they want Facebook updates, or do they prefer to stay in touch via text messages or Twitter feeds? Can you send an email newsletter each week, or will that sit untouched in their inbox?

The idea behind any marketing endeavor is to tell your story, identify your brand image, attract new customers and communicate with established ones. Engaging your customer virtually should be as natural as doing so in person. Just as you promote your farm products and practices and talk intelligently about them face-to-face, you need to do the same with online marketing. You don’t ignore your customers when you see them in the real world; your farm’s online presence is simply a virtual extension of that, so treat it accordingly.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.