Networking your way to higher sales

PHOTO COURTESY OF MAIZE VALLEY.
Michelle Bakan, Todd Vaughn and Bill Bakan load up Maize Valley’s 1952 Ford F5 farmers’ market truck. The operation grows fruits and vegetables and also is home to a winery.

Social media is a step beyond e-mail and Web sites; it’s a new way of connecting with friends, family and professional contacts. More often, it’s a vehicle for businesses to build relationships with current and potential customers.

What is social media?

Social media is the 21st century equivalent of newsy snail mail letters and word-of-mouth marketing. It’s now commonplace to keep up with neighbors via Facebook (www.facebook.com) and to share videos on YouTube (www.youtube.com). One way to distribute a company message, in addition to advertising, e-mail and direct mail, is to send a tweet through Twitter (www.twitter.com).

With most Americans using the Internet and the burgeoning popularity of social media, it is an outlet for growers to consider. Add in the decline in use of newspapers and even telephone directories, and it may become vital to maintain an Internet and social networking presence to remain competitive. It can help create relationships that would be impossible without today’s technology, and after all, those personal connections can be the most valuable sales and marketing tool.

“Nobody likes commercials, but people do like talking directly with the farmer,” says Gary Strawn, a Hawaiian Kona coffee grower (www.konaearth.com, www.linkedin.com/pub/gary-strawn/1/999/46 on LinkedIn).

No IT department needed

Although many growers have Web sites and use the Internet regularly, they’re just testing the waters when it comes to social media. However, fear of complex technical requirements shouldn’t be a roadblock.

“It’s very easy to do,” says Bill Bakan of Maize Valley in Hartsville, Ohio. “If you can set up a Yahoo-type [e-mail] account, you can do this.” Maize Valley has four online outlets: www.maizevalley.com (main Web site); www.ohiowineandmore.com (blog); www.facebook.com/pages/Maize-Valley-Farm-Market-Winery/40966862642 (Facebook); and www.twitter.com/FunTSAR/ (Twitter).

Content and photos aren’t difficult to add from a computer, cell phone or multifunctional device such as a Blackberry. In the case of Twitter, posts aren’t lengthy; each message or “tweet” is limited to 140 characters. For YouTube, video is king, requiring video recording equipment. Video is then uploaded to the Internet from a computer.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA GIANT.
Social media is among the newer marketing methods for California Giant Berries.

Depending upon the type of site used and the level of involvement, the time commitment varies. A blog, short for weblog, typically involves postings of several hundred words, often in the form of a journal. A peach grower, for example, can keep others up to date on the farm’s progress, including new plantings and varieties, as well as schedules for fertilizing, pruning and harvesting. Consumers interested in local food and knowing their farmers enjoy following the steps involved and are alerted about crop availability. On the flipside, Facebook postings can be much more brief.

“Sometimes I go for days without doing anything, then I might spend a few hours setting drafts up and uploading videos,” Bakan says. He advises not hiring someone else to do the posting. “Be personal and, if you can, funny. If not, find a family member or principal member of your operation who can. Don’t farm it out.”

Strawn says the time factor is the most difficult for him, since he is responsible for most jobs in his business. For California Giant Berry Farms (www.calgiant.com, www.facebook.com/calgiant ), the job falls to Cindy Jewell, director of marketing, and Anthony Gallino, vice president of sales. Jewell posts company information and recipes to Facebook, while Gallino uses Twitter to give followers daily updates on California Giant’s cycling team.

Checking out the networks

Although certain features vary, social media outlets have commonalities. There is no cost associated with their use and they lend themselves to connections of both personal and commercial natures.

Facebook got its start as a way for high school classmates to keep in touch, but has since expanded beyond personal relationships. For a business, setting up a Facebook page is beneficial. List company information, post photographs and update often with product availability, new offerings and promotions, which can be accessed by anyone, unlike other Facebook accounts. These “fans” also can recommend your page to others, the Internet equivalent of word-of-mouth marketing.

Large social networks attract worldwide users, but local networks also exist and may benefit direct marketers. Marie Richie, an urban farmer in Portland, Ore., began using Portland Indy Media (www.portland.indymedia.org) and Portland Neighborhood Net www.portlandneighborhood.com) in May. She says those sites are successful in keeping restaurant clients up to date on availability. She also markets produce at a farmers’ market, but doesn’t find the networks as beneficial in drawing in customers there.

Show the world what’s happening on your farm with YouTube. A North Carolina cooperative extension agent helps promote her state’s fruits and vegetables by doubling as “The Produce Lady” (www.youtube.com/user/TheProduceLady). Brenda Sutton’s videos demonstrate cooking techniques and recipes for seasonal crops.

“My highest-watched YouTube videos are on basic farm stuff,” Bakan says. “I learned this from giving school tours and I find the parents asking as many questions as the kids do about what it is we do ‘down on the farm.”

Getting started

Bakan says there are a few keys to moving into social media. A strong Web site with a robust e-mail list that is used responsibly is the first step. He recommends starting a blog and updating it on a consistent basis so readers have a reason to return. It’s important that people searching the Web for the types of products and services that you offer can find you, so make that easier by ensuring that your Web site and blog are search engine optimized. Free tools to increase search engine friendliness are available at www.ineedhits.com and www.tools.seobook.com.

“Then, use social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as you would use tools in a toolbox to maintain any other piece of equipment you depend on,” he adds.

Choose a user name that aids the public in finding you. It could be your farm’s name or phrases that readers might use to search the site, such as “Southern Colorado Vegetables.”

At this writing, the online world is abuzz about Twitter, so that may be a good starting point, especially given the brevity of messages on that site.

What do you post? Matt McLean of Uncle Matt’s organic citrus farm in Clermont, Fla. (www.unclematts.com, www.twitter.com/unclematts on Twitter), sends tweets that are of general interest to the organic market, such as, “Here is a good link for locating a CSA in your area,” or “Check with the farm to see if they’re able to supply organic.” He also posts messages more related to his products, like, “Our organic gift fruit is the perfect treat during the holiday season. We also do fundraisers for schools or churches. Gives us a try.” Throw in some funny and personal notes to acquaint readers with who you are, but keep the focus on your core product. Facebook accommodates more content, including farm updates, processing tips and event details.

“Have something relevant to say that is useful, helpful or entertaining,” recommends Jewell. “Don’t just participate for the sake of participating.”

Weeding out the trouble spots

Bakan is enthusiastic about social media, but understands that it isn’t the magic answer for marketing. Think about how the technique can fit into your plan, and commit time to developing and growing your presence. Even in the fast-paced Internet realm, it takes time to build a following.

Growers’ experience with social networking is very limited. Time is needed to evaluate the success for farmers, but most are optimistic and see the trend as a crucial element of doing business today.

One way to measure success is to evaluate Web traffic statistics. All Web sites, or their hosts, track the number of visitors. The number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers is another gauge. California Giant has about 300 Facebook friends and is advertising on the site to build those ranks. Maize Valley also has about 300 Facebook devotees and more than 500 people follow the farm on Twitter.

“So far it has created buzz and helped with ‘top of mind’ marketing,” Bakan says.

California Giant hoped to gain a greater connection to its customers and be able to interact with them. The company is pleased with the results, receiving consumer feedback to its posts indicating that the public is interested in connecting with it as well.

Both Bakan and Jewell see social media and its use as a learning, evolving experience. They continue to experiment and try out techniques to determine the most effective ways to meet their objectives. Part of the process yet to come is implementing ways to measure success in using social media to recruit and retain customers. However, there’s no doubt that having a presence in these vehicles that attract hundreds of millions of users can’t hurt growers and may even attract new customers.

To learn more about no-cost blog tools, visit www.blogger.com and www.wordpress.com. Locate social networking sites for your area by performing an Internet search for “your city local social networking sites” (for example, Oakville, N.Y., local social networking sites).

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.