Unconventional strategies to grow your business

Highway signs such as these help pull traffic in for on-farm sales and events.

You can spend a fortune to market and promote your products, but some of the most effective techniques don’t cost a dime—or very few dimes at worst. With production costs soaring, now may be the perfect time to try new ways to recruit and retain buyers. Guerrilla marketing has been a buzzword for several years; just like guerrilla warfare, these are unconventional strategies that bring big results for minimal expense.

Word of mouth

We all know word of mouth is the best form of advertising. If a friend recommends a product, we are much more likely to seek it out. But, how do you encourage word of mouth and ensure that it is positive?

Matt McLean, who grows organic oranges at Uncle Matt’s Farm (www.unclematts.com) in Clermont, Fla., says having a consistently good product is a key. In addition, be prepared with a good story about your product. In his case, that story follows four generations in the citrus business; the family offered the nation’s first organic orange juice.

Chrystal Bartlett, marketing director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, offered tips to get people talking about your product at the 2007 Southeast Strawberry Expo in Durham, N.C. One idea is to promote your farm as number one at something. Consumers like to be associated with winners, so if you have the county’s oldest farm, the state’s first organic farm or the smallest labor force, bring attention to that distinction. Add your special status to your fliers and other materials to give customers another reason to visit you. Make inexpensive signs that point out that your products are healthy and fresh. Today, many people who drive by your operation may be unable to identify your crops. Put up a sign like this one that Bartlett saw in Salinas, Calif.: “Now growing—strawberries.” Pass out cleverly designed lapel stickers to customers: “Ask me why I love John’s Organic Farm veggies.”

Events

Another way to generate buzz and drive traffic is through special events. Don’t let that term scare you off; events don’t have to be complicated and expensive. McLean says he sees good results from inviting schools, churches and similar groups to tour his groves. How does this increase sales? Seeing the farm and hearing its story make the product more desirable; schoolchildren are likely to ask their parents to purchase from a farm that they’ve visited.

Bartlett says any type of contest is a winner. Have people guess the first day of strawberry season, come up with the best recipe or estimate a pumpkin’s weight. Arrange plans so that there are lots of winners. Take their pictures and give them a print to show their friends. Make someone’s day by naming them as the apple ambassador of your farm.

Charitable events are great ways to promote your product while supporting good causes. Bartlett suggested creating a value-added product that schools could sell as a fundraiser. She proposed that the strawberry expo audience create a strawberry drink and name it for a local high school sports team. The school can sell as a fundraiser. Of course, your fliers are handed to each customer. Offer your farm as a venue for fundraising events; something as simple as a car wash or yard sale can help raise the visibility of your operation.

Another charitable promotion is a percentage-of-sales fundraiser. For a given time period, donate a portion of sales to your favorite cause. The charity will help you publicize the event and will encourage their membership to purchase your product during the promotional period.

Offer your services to groups that need speakers or programs. Talking with a garden club or service organization is a great way to spread the word. Food safety, local foods and other agricultural issues are of interest to the general public. Pass out fliers and samples, if possible.

Media

It’s often said that a good news story or feature article is worth more than paid advertising. Many of the events mentioned above are newsworthy; when you plan an event, make contacting the local media one of your first steps.

Getting your farm into the newspaper or on the local TV news isn’t as hard as it may seem. Is there a hometown celebrity who can speak for your product? If a popular DJ or former beauty queen says your peaches are the best, you have a wonderful endorsement to place on your fliers and Web site. One North Carolina strawberry grower drops by the local TV station with a basket of fresh berries each spring. Perhaps the anchors will mention the samples on the air or a reporter will remember his farm when strawberries are in the news. Have you wondered why the farm down the road is the one featured on the evening news when a late freeze is forecast? Perhaps that grower, too, shared the harvest with the media. Another way to become the expert in your area is contact reporters when produce is in the news. If there is a tainted tomato problem in other states, let the media know that your fruits are safe and healthy. If there’s no breaking news to work with, host a tasting event or cooking competition with reporters as judges and you’ll likely receive free press.

You can even become a journalist yourself. Bartlett suggests writing a newspaper column, but not limiting yourself to just one publication. Every club, church and neighborhood association has a newsletter. Offer a helpful story and declare a special day on which that group will receive a discount. Take photos so you can include  shots of their members visiting your farm for next year’s article.

Internet

A product sampling, such as this tomato sandwich giveaway at Piedmont Triad Farmers’ Market in Colfax, N.C., is a popular promotion.

Traditional media sources aren’t the only option. The Internet offers almost unlimited opportunities to market your product, many of which are available without cost. After you’ve written articles for newspapers, share those online, too. McLean, whose Web site is an example of an effective use of the Internet, says it’s important to share your story on your own site, but that is just the beginning.

Visibility Consultant Mary Kurek (www.marykurek.com) adds that those same articles can be posted on free content sites, such as www.ideamarketers.com. That helps drive traffic to your own Web site and increases the popularity of your site on search engines, such as Google. You can allow others to use your article in their materials, spreading the word to a new audience. Create a virtual farmers’ market on a site such as www.helloWorld.com, which has new innovations that help you build relationships via cyberspace. Check out the popular networking sites, such as www.facebook.com. Blogs are an easy way to keep your clients and potential customers up-to-date on farm happenings. Free and simple blogging may be found at www.blogger.com.

Kurek says the opportunities for bargain marketing on the Internet are almost endless and the business potential is excellent. “The unfortunate part is that so many business owners  feel like they don’t know enough about the Internet, or don’t think they have the time,” she added.

The Internet is becoming more user-friendly all the time. If you’re unable to take on the task yourself, don’t give up on the tremendous opportunities. Look around and ask around, and you will find someone who can lend a hand.

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.