If you’ve been hesitant to enter the world of social media or aren’t using it to your full advantage, this might be the year to change that.

“Social media facilitates interaction between people,” said Sarah Cornelisse, Penn State senior extension associate. “You can extend the reach of your business, interact with more people, develop a new customer base. It’s a tool to help you achieve marketing goals and objectives.”

Cornelisse said that social media can help agricultural businesses discover the barriers to the path of purchase and how to remove those barriers. “You have to get customers interested in your category. They might decide they’re interested in apples, so they begin to research that topic. Then they’ll decide where they’re going to purchase apples,” she explained. “Ultimately, those people become advocates for you. They will let others know about you and promote your business for you. You can use social media to strengthen that loyalty with influencers and advocates, who then influence others. You can use your content to increase credibility.”

Early use of the Internet was mostly one-way, with no interaction or opportunity for questions. Today’s social media allows for a high level of interaction with customers. “What consumers say matters is what matters,” said Cornelisse. “And what consumers are saying among themselves about you is important. It isn’t what you tell them; it’s what they tell each other. Social media accelerates word-of-mouth. It used to take a very long time for a message to move around, and now it takes only seconds.”

Photographs accompanied by explanations of new technology help educate consumers about what you’re doing in your orchard.
Photos by Sally Colby.

Julie Flinchbaugh, market manager for Flinchbaugh’s Orchard & Farm Market in York County, Pa., said the number one reason the family business uses social media is to build relationships. “I want to have a relationship with my customers, even when they’re not in the market,” she said. “I want them to think that they’re part of our family. It’s one more chance for our customers to get to know us.”

In addition to building relationships, she strives to educate customers. “One of our business goals is to let people know what we’re doing, so they can trust us,” said Flinchbaugh. “There are no excuses for people to not understand what we do in ag, because we have the opportunity to explain it. I want to sell something, so I want to entice. I also want to entertain and for people to have a good day. I encourage people to try new recipes and to tell their neighbors about buying fresh and local.”

Flinchbaugh uses social media, particularly Facebook, as one means of advertising. She has successfully used Facebook ads for key events, such as the start of peach season or announcing an upcoming festival. Those ads focused on the events themselves, and demographics from the insight/analysis page helped her determine who had visited the page – males or females, and from which areas. Flinchbaugh said the ads feature was useful, and she plans to add it to her marketing budget.

“Social media should be a part of an overall marketing package,” said Flinchbaugh, who also uses press releases, radio ads, e-newsletters and area event calendars as marketing tools. “If I put something on Facebook one day, it’ll be in an e-newsletter a few days later or on the radio. My consumers hear the message more than once. If people are listening and they’re curious, they’ll do a simple search and find us online.”

Once it’s explained to them, consumers are interested in IPM and appreciate learning about topics such as traps to monitor insect populations.

Flinchbaugh uses Facebook to post recipes, photos, upcoming events (followed by photos of the event) and interesting tidbits of information about the fruit grown in the orchard. She tries to post in the early morning, at noon or in the evening, but not after 8 p.m. Posts are checked throughout the day so she can respond to questions as quickly as possible. Flinchbaugh noted that a post inviting customers to complete a survey on what changes they’d like to see garnered 90 comments and a lot of good ideas for the market. During one off-season, Flinchbaugh conducted a “Survey Saturday,” during which she posted questions and requested feedback. Respondents had the opportunity to win a $50 gift card.

No matter the marketing tool, it’s important that there be a consistent “voice” behind the message. Although Facebook allows for multiple administrators, Flinchbaugh believes that only one person should post so the voice remains consistent. “People get accustomed to the tone, how the message is being shared, and that carries over from the business,” she said. “If more than one person will administer a page, make sure that everyone has the same goals and will project the same message.”

Posts of seasonal photos, such as the orchard in early spring, help consumers remain connected with the farm. Remember to keep photos current and to inform customers about expected harvest dates.

Facebook posts should be timely – think about what’s new that day, and make sure you’re keeping up with the seasons. Flinchbaugh recalls a year when peaches ripened two weeks early. If she hadn’t informed customers through social media, they would have missed the opportunity to sell them at peak ripeness. Website or Facebook information should be current, with correct hours and contact information. “If you’re closing early because of a snowstorm, post that,” said Flinchbaugh. “It eliminates questions for people who might wonder if they should come.”

Twitter is another resource Flinchbaugh utilizes for marketing and to follow orchards, agricultural news sites and others who are involved in social media marketing. Each Facebook post is linked to Twitter. She also uploads several videos to YouTube each year. “YouTube is an easy platform to upload video and photos and incorporate QR codes that are linked to your farm,” she said. “We also have an e-newsletter. If there’s a video in the top section that the customer will see immediately, the chances are higher that the reader will follow through the entire newsletter.”

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in the January 2014 issue of Growing and has been updated for accuracy.

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