Digital Ag: How to Talk to Producers Online

by Sara Steever
July 3, 2012

The first time we published this article was in November of 2009. Every tactic within this article has evolved but some surprising core truths remain steady. For fun I’ve left my original references in place, but updated [shown as UPDATE] them to reflect where we are now and where we might be headed. Let’s take a stroll through history.

Our Audience

Anyone involved in agribusiness knows that producers represent a unique audience, widely diverse in experience and expectations. So, as marketers in a critical age of agriculture, we are lucky to have an equally diverse and unprecedented number of digital communication channels with which we can engage them.

Effective online communication moves beyond the core website to use digital media in its entirety, keeping producers informed and engaged in whatever medium they prefer.

Don’t be intimidated by the technologies involved. The real challenge is in using the right channels to initiate and sustain a conversation with your audience. Start with solid groundwork, and prepare for the long haul.

Know Why You are Doing This

Do you want to generate leads? Do you need to strengthen customer relationships? Does your corporate image need improvement? The strategies you use will only be effective if you determine your reasons early in the process. Then set goals—digital communications are accurately measured if you choose metrics early to establish baselines for comparison later.

Set Internal Protocols

Extend your brand standards to include digital and social media, and establish company rules for participation. In order to engage socially in a meaningful way, your team needs to know what they can say and what to do with the outcome of these conversations. This does not mean that your social communications have to be canned; however, parameters are critical. Some of the procedures you create will be used offline as well and may already exist as part of your business processes.

Understand Your Audience

The 2009 NAFB Internet Usage Survey has tremendous data on producer use of technology and the Internet. As a rule, they lag behind general consumers, primarily because of their age. But as they retire, younger producers with very different experiences and expectations are stepping in to take their place.

[UPDATE] Successful Farming’s 2011 research indicates that farmers are more likely to have a smartphone than the general public, but they access the Internet less frequently. They are more likely to check email on their mobile phone than the general public. In many ways, their use of communication technology is on par or slightly ahead of the population. This accelerated adoption was not age related, but there are other triggers that we speculate are driving this transition.

Producers are open to better ways to run their operations, and increasingly this includes mobile technology, email and online information. They take their cell phones everywhere, but primarily get online information on their home computers. They like enewsletters because the information is pushed to them. Producers also indicate that they use print publications to find new websites.

As traditional media exposes new media channels like mobile marketing or Twitter, it raises overall awareness of new technologies for producers. Additionally, there is a groundswell of understanding among the ag community that educating consumers will become a critical part of preserving agriculture as a whole. New technologies give producers a powerful way to connect with consumers.

It is critical to understand that acceptance of a new media increases with exposure, and exposure to these medias is exploding.

Have Something to Say

Content is still king no matter the media. If you want to build a relationship with producers, give them something they cannot get anywhere else. And remember the importance of keeping a consistent voice across all mediums.

Your website: Most producers already have a place where they get their markets, futures and weather information. And while you can provide that for them, too, your own unique content will bring you targeted traffic that returns on a regular basis. Use your website to establish credibility with new customers and strengthen existing relationships. Websites with great content draw links from other sites and social media channels, and these inbound links are critical to your search engine rankings.

[Update] While all of this is still true, the industry has coined a new term to support it: Content Strategy. This is good news for everyone who spends any amount of time online. Content that is fresh, relevant and consistent gets found and read, and builds trusting relationships for the long haul.

Email and mobile marketing: Having great information waiting in the inbox is a preference of producers. Ensure that the main content from your enewsletters resides on your website, too. As producers begin to take in information on their mobile phones, keep in mind your audience and what they might be doing when they receive your messages. With text or email, be unique and be useful.

Creative: Do not limit your communications to words. Any representation of your brand becomes hypercritical in the crowded, easy-to-exit digital world. Understand and appreciate the medium. Are banners a byproduct of your print campaign? Campaign continuity is important, but online media has huge potential when given its due.

Social media: Commit to transparency for open and credible communication. Brand voice is important, too, and it needs to carry through to your corporate blog, tweets, articles bookmarked, photos posted and any other social media entry point. The brand you have established can be destroyed in one disingenuous blog posting.

[UPDATE] In 2012 it is safe to say that a vibrant social media presence is now table stakes. Wondering if Facebook is worth the effort has been replaced by wondering how many social media properties a brand can successfully manage. As content strategy matures, social media will be woven into the larger issue of reaching and retaining your audience digitally.

Be Everywhere the Producer Goes

When you are looking for opportunities to influence producers, use their behaviors to determine where they go online.

Email marketing: According to The 2009 NAFB Internet Usage Survey, producers use email more frequently than any other digital two-way communication. Co-sponsor or buy media on trusted enewsletters; piggy-back on an existing double opt-in email list; build your own opt-in list and provide your own content; create mobile-friendly messaging campaigns—these are just a few ways to reach producers at their convenience.

[UPDATE] We have no new data on overall email usage, but its strength three years ago would probably indicate that even if it had not continued to grow, it is still an important connection to farmers. What has certainly grown is access to email via a mobile device. Ensuring your enewsletters and eblasts are mobile compatible is critical.

Search: Producers told Successful Farming that they most frequently begin their hunt for information on a search engine. Your search engine marketing strategy should include:

Publication websites: Trusted-source websites are inviting and familiar to producers because of their print-to-web behavior. These sites offer weather, commodities, futures and information, and often have media placement opportunities, too. Associate your brand with the content on these sites. Having a great relationship with these publications can open new ways to connect with the audiences they have been cultivating for years.

Social media: When you consider your communications and marketing mix, it is easy to be complacent about social media. In Successful Farming’s 2009 Farmers Use of Media Study, nearly 35 percent of producers under age 39 tell us that they participate in discussions online. Nielsen Online reports that the fastest growing Twitter segment is 45–54 year-olds. Discussion forums have long been a part of the social media mix for producers: Forum sites like tractorbynet.com have been online since 1999 and receive 100,000 visitors per day.

So even while we wonder if producers are ready for social media, many of them are already there, and those who are not represent an age bracket showing signs of exploding online. The following will help you define your use of social media:

The amount of marketing messages you can include is in direct proportion to the expertise and value you give away. Remember to keep your posts open-ended to invite dialog.

[UPDATE] NAFB 2011 research indicates that 33.5 percent of farmers access company or product social media sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn. While farmers do not consider themselves to be participating in social media, they do visit the social media sites of brands.

Mobile: Joel Jaeger at Commodity Update says it best: “Producers grab three things when they go out the door—cap, keys and cell phone.” Co-branded opportunities exist for delivering content producers want to a device they already carry. Think double opt-in for any mobile marketing. Email marketing and your website should also be mobile-enabled.

[UPDATE] So much has changed in the world of mobile! Please take the time to read “Mobile Opportunities in Agriculture and Rural Lifestyle” for details on native apps, web apps, content rich apps, responsive web, text messaging, mobile advertising and more. As producers adopt smartphones and tablets, our strategies must adapt along with them.

Integrate your Communications

When you think about digital communications, don’t limit your ideas to any single medium. There is a seemingly endless list of digital opportunities for promotion, but remember that, once launched, all of these elements need constant care and maintenance. The best strategy is to only take on the ones that you can do well.

Another thing: be sure all your branding, marketing and public relations efforts in the print world are in concert with your digital offerings. The fact that producers learn of new websites via magazines is a reminder that your offline campaigns need to be part of your online efforts.

Measure and Analyze

Digital generates lots of beguiling data. If you do not have staff devoted to its analysis, then pick one set of measurements (like Google Analytics) and watch for trends over time. There are legitimate reasons for inconsistencies between different sources of data, and sorting them out will only eat up valuable resources with little return. Instead, mine the responses to search engine marketing terms and ads to help refine marketing messages in other mediums.

Bringing it All Together

Talking to producers online involves a wide spectrum of strategy and tactics. Smart use of current technologies will mean that, as more of your audience brings the conversation online, your agribusiness will already be there, ready to respond. At Paulsen Marketing we help our clients understand which digital channels will fit their brands and generate results.

[UPDATE] Truer than ever.