Consumer marketing in the online world

Ellen Parlee attends many grower meetings and conferences to pick up marketing ideas and tips for the fruit, vegetable and flower farm she and her husband Mark run in Tyngsborough, Mass. She says that at recent conferences everybody’s been talking about social networking as an important part of their farm marketing strategy.

Ellen and Mark Parlee, owners of Parlee Farm in Tyngsborough, Mass., make social networking an important part of their farm marketing strategy.

Around this time last year, she set up a Facebook page for Parlee Farms. With almost 100 acres of scenic farmland along the Merrimack River, the farm offers customers the experience of picking their own strawberries, blueberries and other fruit, savoring homemade strawberry shortcake, and letting kids feed the goats.

“Friends explained what to do,” says Parlee, who started faithfully updating the page every morning around 7 a.m. with information on specials on the farm, picking conditions and new products. “It’s pretty easy to update,” she says.

Today, Parlee Farms’ Facebook page has almost 2,400 fans, many of whom she believes come to the farm because of something they saw on Facebook.

“I think it keeps the crowds up,” says Parlee, explaining that while they don’t track which customers arrive at the farm because of Facebook, she’s confident that it’s helping them reach their target customer demographic.

“We’ve always felt that our business model was right for younger people, families with children, so Facebook is a good fit for us,” she says. “It hasn’t changed our demographics; it’s helped us reach our primary audience.”

“This is how people talk today. It’s been a good experience and definitely valuable to our business,” says Parlee, adding that having the Facebook page has improved their business’ ranking in Google searches. “It’s because people are talking about us,” she explains, referring to the interactive aspect of Facebook.

“Most people post good things, which is valuable, because it’s other people saying good things about the farm. Some have posted good suggestions, which we take to heart. We try to answer questions,” she says.

A few negative comments have been posted, some of which they felt were legitimate, so she addressed them publicly on the page.

“You have to have a thick skin and respond. You have to think about what you would say or think if that happened to you as a customer. I think it’s good to have a dialogue with your customers,” says Parlee, who had to block one “fan” who kept posting irrelevant comments on the page.

Customers also help convey to other customers that a visit to Parlee Farms is a fun experience through the photos they post to the farm’s Facebook page.

More than 170 photos were posted by customers last season. Parlee says, “Some were extraordinary pictures, just beautiful.” She adds that they don’t have to worry about getting permission to use pictures of children because the parents are posting them, and the Parlees can remove any photos they don’t like.

Parlee is back in the swing of posting updates now that the growing season is here. The couple’s daughters, both in their 20s, are also administrators of the page, though Parlee does most of the updates herself. “I’m careful not to post junk; I try to keep the information relevant to our customers,” she says.

“I would tell other farmers to definitely set up a page. There is no downside. It’s free; you can’t beat that. It’s easy, and Facebook has a good help section. You really have to have it,” she adds.

Facebook is just one prong of Parlee Farms’ Internet marketing strategy. In addition to their website, they also use Constant Contact for the farm’s email updates, and they have a Twitter account, though Parlee hasn’t used it yet. Although she doesn’t think it will be as valuable as Facebook, she set up the account because it’s another tool that helps get the name out.

“I’m happy with how they all work together. You need all three: the website, Facebook page and email marketing. You have to focus your energies on these. We still do print advertising, but Facebook and Twitter are free, except for your time,” she notes.

Constant Contact charges a flat fee, so she can send as many emails as she wants each month. “It’s still cheaper than newspaper advertising,” says Parlee. Overall, she feels that her advertising costs are less now than when the farm was using only traditional advertising methods.

Jan Wentworth, who owns Warren Farm and Sugarhouse in North Brookfield, Mass., with her husband Dale, is also sold on Facebook as a marketing tool, though she’s only been using it since early March.

The Warren Farm specializes in the production of specialty food items, pure maple syrup and maple confections. They grow many of the ingredients – fruits, berries, vegetables and herbs – used in their gourmet preserves, marinades, vinegars and oils, sauces and baked goods, all made on the farm. They grow plants from seed in their greenhouses, practicing IPM, and sell them in their farmstand along with their specialty products and fresh-picked seasonal vegetables and fruits.

“Our initial driving force was to have a way to let people know if we were going to cancel our maple sugaring tours because of bad weather,” explains Wentworth. “Then, we decided it would be good for our customers to ‘sell’ their experiences here on the farm and with our products to other people. Eighty percent of our business comes from 20 percent of our customers. They basically sell us to each other. Why not plug into that?”

She thinks that the benefit to their business will take time to fully develop. “We need to market it more, through farmers’ markets, off our website, etc. We put a plug in at our tours this March,” she notes.

“Dale and I post our updates directly. Whatever moves us, we put up there. Our hope is that people may appreciate living vicariously the life of a farmer, so we give them that as well,” she adds.

Wentworth says that farmers shouldn’t be afraid of the interactive aspect of Facebook, even if the public sometimes posts a negative comment or two. “One person said they lived on our street, had walked here a number of times, and we were never open. We never go anywhere together, so that one of us is here to be with the farm, so that depressed us. No big deal, we just hid that comment. You have total control of what happens and what gets seen by others,” she advises.

“Because we started the page recently, we’ve only had the opportunity to ask sugaring tour people to like us [on Facebook], and we posted ‘find us on Facebook’ on the home page of our website. In the future, we will put a back side to our business cards that says ‘Tell your friends about your experience and our products here at our farm on Facebook,'” says Wentworth.

“Do it and don’t be afraid. It provides an opportunity to chat about the [reasons] that made you want to be a farmer, the quality of life stuff that you can pass along to make yourselves real and valuable [to your customers],” she says. “We’ve always believed that if you bond with someone on a very personal level, they’ll always be with you, and they’ll always be your best promoter.”

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.