How can you make it pay?

Social media seems to scare many farmers, while others find it an outstanding way to reach out to customers.

No longer is promotion up to professional organizations, but rather it rests with each individual. Rod Kirby is a Twitter user and social media expert, as well as editor-in-chief of The Success Center, a “blog-a-zine.” Located in the Memphis, Tenn., area he’s an entrepreneurial professional teaching and empowering others to reach success on their level.

Rod Kirby is a social media expert offering tips to entrepreneurs including farmers.
Photo courtesy Rod Kirby.

Kirby notes, “Updating profiles, blog posts, staying active on social networking sites, all this can be very time-consuming and overwhelming for the newly initiated.” He offers three key tips for farmers wishing to test the waters.

“Don’t sign up for everything. Getting on every social network utilizing every social tool can become too much.” Much as you don’t usually immediately go into a farm with everything, try different tools. “If you’re not consistently present on a platform you could end up with a ‘ghost account.’ When someone genuinely wants to engage with you, they won’t be able to find you.”

Second, “Get on a schedule.” Much as other management tasks, a schedule helps. “This is especially helpful for small businesses who are updating blog posts and accounts together. Create a schedule for your social media activities and stick to it. Doing so creates consistency and value to your followers.”

Third is to “maximize social tools.” There are software tools that can help you track your information better. “Software like Tweetdeck, Co-Tweet and Hootsuite allow you to update your Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin accounts simultaneously, with multiple users, which can save a lot of time.”

Twitter seems to generate two views: those who see it as a waste of time and those who see it as a great resource to reach people. The former think no one really cares what you had for breakfast or what you’re doing every minute of every day. This may be true, but there is another perspective: people do care how their food is produced.

Twitter is a “micro-blog,” short comments of 140 characters or less. This lets readers understand your basic day-to-day tasks and why they’re important. It lets them see there’s more to running an orchard than waiting for things to grow. It is a chance to promote not only your farm, Web site and product, but also the product in general.

Additionally, it is a chance to communicate with other growers in different aspects of the industry. More than any time before, it lets you reach a targeted market and combine with other agricultural interests. For example, June is dairy month or other times that dairy is on the discussion. Why not promote nuts, fruits or berries to go with that ice cream? There are subtle ways to include facts and small bits of information to teach consumers and even other farm folks about your food production.

This also is a great way to pass along sites with recipes that highlight your product. Kirby says, “Think of it as your broadcast channel. Share information, tips, advice or anything that will offer value to other followers. Do not use it to make sales pitches or spam others.”

Facebook is another popular site where you can reach out to customers, other farm folks and consumers. Several similar sites have been used, such as MySpace and LinkedIn, but at present it seems Facebook has risen above as a contact source for personal and professional promotion.

This is a chance to interact with others, ask questions and get feedback, as well as inform and promote your products and others. Kirby notes, “If Twitter is your broadcast channel, then Facebook is the equivalent of visiting the homes of those that watch your channel. It allows for deeper relationships building with chat, messaging and content sharing abilities.”

Blog sites are a chance to tell your story in a little more detail, share photos and other information about operating a farm and your products of choice. Think of this as an online journal or “diary” with entries of 300 to 400 words tailored to you. You might explain how weeds are controlled or how pesticides are applied and at what rate. You might share about organizations you are involved in or how equipment or technology is used in your operation. You might also include information about different varieties and what makes them different, for example a Jonathan apple or Nanking cherry tree.

Kirby says, “A blog is a great way to create unique content and start conversations about it on the Internet. A traditional Web site is very static and is a ‘show and tell’ for your business, but a blog is interactive with user comments and feedback. Use it to share more information than what you normally would on Facebook or Twitter. Do not use it just to have another Web presence. Create something of value that prompts people to come back.”

No matter what your product social media can help promote it. Apple facts, recipes and other information helps create demand for apple orchards.
Photo by Brown’s Orchard.

Web sites are another way to inform and entertain your customers. Make sure they are up to date. You can feature the times you are open to the public, updates of ripening and farmers’ market or other information, or just as a central place for information about your chosen crops.

Many make the mistake of thinking that a Web site is for marketing on a national scale, and certainly it can be, but don’t overlook the local folks who are just looking for something in the area. If you aren’t online and your neighbor is, then the neighbor may be getting customers that find him instead of you. The Internet is, for many, the new yellow pages directory.

Newsletters, either online or off, can be put together combining these other methods. A pdf format is universal for people to read and can be sent by e-mail.

These can be various sizes and easy-to-use software allows control of your setup, or you can hire a writer/designer to put together one according to your specifications. Kirby notes, “A newsletter is your opportunity to communicate directly with your blog readers. Use it to share exclusive information, discounts coupons, etc., that’s not available on your site for subscribers. Do not fill it only with special offers and sales pitches.” He adds, “Take your time and create something valuable and worth sharing.”

You can have a monthly issue with a half-dozen articles, special offers or other incentive for people to request the newsletter, and perhaps special offers for a free calendar with photos and information from the farm to customers who purchase a certain amount of goods. This works best for those who direct sell or market through stands or roadside markets

YouTube is a way to visually ‘blog’ or do short presentations for free. A decent quality video capability is needed, but it is free to upload videos less than 10 minutes. Will Gilmer has found a following for his “MooTube Minute” videos that inform and entertain about the Alabama dairy and farming industries. Similar short videos can be done with a little creativity sharing the trees in blossom, talking about growing and harvesting or a wide range of topics limited only by your imagination.

Why social media?

You don’t have to be a professional marketer to engage others in social media, but creativity and some marketing basics go a long ways to create ways to reach customers whether direct or indirect. Indirect is for larger orchards who perhaps contract or sell to a larger processor. Your time spent promoting orange juice or different ways to use peaches benefits not only your crop, but everyone else’s, too.

Many assume during the “off season” nothing happens. Social media shows people this farming, too, is year-round.
Photo by Brown’s Orchard.

Increasingly, anything not certified organic is represented as “pesticide laden.” Processing when represented by “food activists” is often not showing growers in a positive light. This can be combated with direct facts and figures from your perspective. When the truth comes that this pesticide is actually a half-gallon spread over 5 acres (or whatever rate of use a particular item is) and increases the crop making it more productive and a better use of land, it tends to change the consumer’s image of growers. A video or photo showing what a 5-acre area looks like helps, as many people in urban areas don’t understand land area beyond their suburban lot. It’s said “seeing is believing,” and modern technology allows people far from your farm to “tour” the farm and see your orchard.

As Kirby highlights, each of these are different tools that can be used together effectively. Social media is a great, low-cost way to make the most of “advertising” by taking information direct to the customer, those who consume your products either buying at the store or at a farmers’ market. It reaches beyond your own place to represent modern agriculture in a positive light.

Jan Hoadley is a freelance writer and new contributor to Growing. She is based in Alabama.