May 06, 2011 | By Dr. John Foltz, Jim Miller and Dr. Joan Fulton
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Working with the Facebook Generation

Social media proves a useful tool in connecting with your future customers

Facebook, cell phones, smart phones, YouTube, Twitter — aren’t we already way too connected? Old timers might say, “Yes, this is all too much!” Younger producers may say, “I pick and choose how I connect and communicate and the more options the better.” The reality probably falls somewhere in-between. However, there are multitudes of ways to communicate with your feed and grain customers in today’s world — and some of these mediums and techniques can and should be looked at — and used! This month we will delve a bit into some of the whys and wherefores of social media, what younger producers are looking for regarding communication and then look at techniques some firms in the grain and feed industry are utilizing.

What Do Younger Producers Say?

Farm Journal Media recently surveyed younger producers (age 39 and under) regarding their communication preferences (see Tables 1-3 below). Their responses help to inform our comments in this column. Communication is important, and changing with the times (ie, utilizing more and different methods of communication and networking) is worth some consideration.

Social media

Social media defined: Social media is a participatory online media format where news, photos, information, opinions and referrals can be made using a number of social media websites. The social web was originally developed as a method to stay connected with friends but quickly evolved into a new format for communication, news delivery, event planning, product/service research and referral and opinion sharing.

There are several key points to Social media:

  • It is participatory: Businesses and customers can participate in the online discussions. 
  • It is about sharing: opportunities exist to share information both from the business and the customer.
  • Social media websites: We will explore these in depth below.

    Social media marketing is about using online social media tools to enhance your current marketing efforts. Social media is a complementary extension of your other marketing efforts. It doesn’t replace “traditional” avenues of advertising, but adds additional tools and touch points where you can interact with customers. Some of these tools are Facebook and Twitter and YouTube — as well as text messages and websites.

    Facebook

    While some may view Facebook as a fad, there is no denying that it is a powerful social media tool, and that younger folks utilize it. As you can see in Table 3, 80% of the 30 to 39 age group utilize it and with 93% of the 13 to 19 age group using it future customers can be expected to being even heavier users. The key to making Facebook and other social media sites work is to actually participate and become involved in the discussion/networking, and this takes time and effort — and perhaps a bit of brainstorming.

    The Farm Journal Media survey revealed that over 70% of respondents older than 20 used ag-related discussion boards. This shows that producers are interested in what other producers are experiencing and saying. Your Facebook page can help serve this need and keep your customers thinking about your feed and grain business. Think about what message you want to send. As you likely know — Facebook pages are kind of like traditional websites (information about your company, contact information, links to useful websites, etc.). However, Facebook pages have evolved to be much more dynamic — they combine “threaded discussions,” and have aspects of a news feed site. It has functionality that allows for easy user interface, i.e. the uploading of pictures and other content is accomplished without the need for specialized web development software. This makes a Facebook site relatively easy to use and update. Uses in the feed and grain industry might be to post grain bids, breaking news or other brief tidbits of information that your customers will find useful. Events can also be announced/created, complete with an option to RSVP. Additionally, while much of social media is “social” in nature, discussions on business topics can unfold — fueled by customers and then joined by others. This can present a bit of a risk since you do not “control” all of the content. Customers (and others — if you allow anybody to “friend” you — which is to have access to the site) can post comments which you cannot censor or approve. Thus, you have to decide if this risk is worth it.

    Twitter  

    Twitter is a “mini” blog site (the word “blog” being a blend of the term web log and defined as having regular entries of commentary and description of events). It allows users to post 144 character blogs, or “tweets” about current events, news information, or any topic of interest. These tweets can be sent not only to an individual’s web account, but can also be sent to a cell phone in the form of a text message, so a person is always receiving information even if they are not on the computer. Again, some folks may ask — what is the big deal, and do people really care about what I am doing right at this moment? The issue is — as we mentioned above — that sometimes it can be wise to take the good with the bad. Think of twitter as a conversation with multiple people who are interested in what you (or your business) is doing.

    Dan Patterson, who writes a blog for SEO.com (Search Engine Optimization) suggests using social media to “find your audience, and then hang out with them.” He writes that social media is full of groups, fan pages, and other things that make it fairly easy to find an audience that is already interested in your topic or industry. An idea to try here is to use search.twitter.com to see what people are talking about that relates to the feed and grain industry or your company. You can see what they are linking to and talking about, and then devise a strategy that allows you to tweet with your customers, sharing thoughts and or brief news bites that they desire or value. For the grain company who shares futures market information with customers, Twitter can be used to send futures market information to interested customers. An early call, mid-session and closing reports can reach the customers’ cell phones throughout the session so they can keep up to date on market changes.

    YouTube  

    YouTube is another site that has rocketed in popularity. The Youtube site allows users to post videos of any topic they desire. Are there any YouTube applications that a feed or grain business could come up with? It might take some “outside of the box thinking,” but perhaps some educational video shorts of you discussing managing grain for quality, or maybe create some information features for the general public (for example see AgPhD: Farm Basics – Grain Piles #607 on YouTube, or check out www.agphd.com ).

    Text messages

    Text messages are short messages sent directly to cell phones. Grain companies have had great success using the text message format to send grain bids to customers. Farmers are on-the-go people, and rarely log onto a computer for much time. But they almost all have cell phones. By using text messages, many customers at once can be informed of market changes. Many companies are finding text messages excellent for employee communication as well, as they are much quicker than a cell phone call. Just remember: Do not TWD! (TWD = Text while Driving)

    Websites

    In the first few years of the internet it was important to set up a web-site for your business. This “web presence” meant your company was on the cutting edge of new technology. But now a website is only the first step in social media marketing. Update your website often. Use it as a dashboard to your social media marketing efforts, meaning from your home page you should have links to your Facebook page, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Keep websites fresh with new articles and photos on a weekly or monthly basis… this keeps customers coming back for more information.

    If you as a feed and grain business owner or manager don’t feel that you are up to “taking the plunge,” with this “new fangled” technology and openness — a strategy that might be worth considering is to utilize one of your younger employees to assist with the effort. Put them in charge of your social media efforts and make sure they have access to useful information and take their responsibility to communicate with your clientele seriously.

    Old School

    You will note in our summary of the Farm Journal Media survey at the beginning of this column that 67% of the 13 to 19 age group belong to an ag-related organization such as FFA. One of us in particular (Foltz, an Academic Dean at a College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, who is in charge of recruiting high school students to attend his University), continues to find the association with FFA and 4-H to be extremely relevant. These are the groups that promote our industry, and where the future generation of farmers and ranchers “hang out.” Local FFA chapters and 4-H groups are constantly looking for mentors, speakers and field trips. There is no better way to connect early with these young people than to meet with them in these settings.

    On the slightly older end of the spectrum, 84% of the 30 to 39 age group indicated it’s important to network with other young producers. While some observers make fun of groups that gathers to kibbutz at the coffee shop — as wasting time, there is significant value in this networking. Why not put this technique to work by providing the venue and the coffee and/or pastries on a weekly or bi-weekly basis (yes, we know many feed and grain businesses already do this, but our sense is that quite a few do not).

    While many of the social media marketing tools are excellent touch points to use with customers, they don’t (and shouldn’t) replace the personal, face-to-face interaction with customers. On-farm visits, breakfast meetings, etc are still the foundation of relationship building that is required in the agriculture industry. These tools just allow you more contact between these visits.

    Brave New World

    While developments in social media and the ability to communicate with customers and other stakeholders in a variety of fashions may not be as radical as the future foreseen in the novel “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, they certainly do portend change and opportunity. Utilizing some of the approaches we outline can be particularly useful in engaging younger producers and can broaden your communications reach. Good luck with your efforts!

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