This project has been a succesful proof of concept that free social media marketing really can make a difference to small farmers if a social media marketing strategy is developed and followed. Too often social media is treated as a throw away marketing tool that requires little resource investment, but when managed properly and persistently, social media, and mobile point of sales systems, can be powerful, low cost tools for small farmers to connect with their customers on a much deeper and more meaningful level.
We have a passion for purple carrots, a soft spot for fragrant galia-type melons, and a lingering joy for anything on the Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, but many view our excitement with skepticism. They’ve never heard of the fruits and veggies we produce. How do you eat a kohlrabi anyway? Is that cucumber supposed to look like a watery potato? The fear of buying something new, only to have it wither away in the refrigerator, stifles too many adventurous spirits because consumers do not realize the flavor and the protective nutrient benefits they are missing out on.
According to an October 2011 report titled “Tracking Demographics and U.S. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Patterns,” by Roberta Cook for UC-Davis, “unfolding demographic and food trends are likely to continue to shift consumption toward more fresh and less processed fruits and vegetables, as well as toward… differentiated products, including [those] with specific food traits.” Those specific food traits that consumers are starting to looking for in their produce are increased variety, rich flavor profiles, and superior phytonutrient content. According to Cook, the desire for these varieties hinges significantly on the consumer’s education.
While supermarkets in urban areas are rising to the challenge of providing more produce variety, residents of communities like Oshkosh have limited access to the cornucopia. These underserved communities, where consumers may know little about the relative health and flavor benefits of some varieties over others, and where they do not even have reliable access to these varieties, provide an opportunity for both community and producer.
As small producers in the Fox Valley, we are uniquely situated to create a willingness to try something new by bring together the exploding research into specific phytonutrient rich fruit and vegetable varieties, interest in locally grown, heirloom produce unavailable on a commercial scale, and these underserved markets. The resulting intersection provides more, and healthier, options to consumers while creating a sustainable competitive advantage over the convenience of the monolithic supermarket. If enough small producers opted to grow food varieties that are more delicious and nutritious, we could have a lasting impact on the health of the community, while increasing food independence in the area.
The first step toward this end in our grant research centers on ascertaining what motivates consumers to try a new variety. This would be accomplished via a consumer survey conducted with the help of a veteran research consultant from locally owned Dynamic Innovation Solutions. The results of the survey will guide a marketing campaign designed to educate consumers. The campaign would also serve to differentiate our products from those at the supermarket as being a healthier, more colorful, more delicious alternative.
Our goal, in conducting this project, was to make new and diverse produce options more available at the Oshkosh Farmers Market by connecting with customers and creating demand for new varieties while expanding payment options for customers.
- We choose seeds, many from local suppliers, all from companies doing work to maintain stocks of open sourced and open pollinated seed that fit our niche of providing unique produce options to the Oshkosh Farmers Market.
- Purchase of an iPad to run SquareUp’s Square Register. We chose square because of its easy setup, low credit card processing fees, and the availability of a free register application that would allow for detailed transaction records and reports. At the time of this project, Square Register was only available for use on Apple products, although the credit card processing portion of the program was also available for Android devices.
- From the first days of the market we began building a cohesive marketing strategy to communicate the following to customers:
- The availability of credit card purchasing at our stand
- Printed recipe cards with recipes designed specifically for our produce on one side, and the contact information for our website and our social media accounts
- Attention grabbing signage prompting customers to step in and check out our different selection, our online resources, and our values
- Signage to encourage the participation in our survey, as well as printed surveys to offer immediate incentive to complete immediately
- Social media efforts
- Largely through Facebook, as per the results of our survey
- Also through our website, ciderhill.org to provide additional content to help customers enjoy and use their produce
- Streamlining our efforts to just Facebook and our website was possible, in large part, because that was what our survey indicated our customers used most regularly. Had that not been the case, we would have diversified our social media strategy to include Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or Pinterest.
- Twice weekly updates for Facebook, including an effort to include information about what customers can find at our next market day as well as stories and pictures displaying the farm and its produce
- Personal selling. It was vitally important that we create personal relationships with our best clients in order to encourage them to connect with us in other ways
- Outreach to a couple of local restaurants and cafés to offer produce in exchange for promotion. We specifically targeted restaurants that attracted the sort of customer we were attracting in our niche market at the stand. According to our survey results, these were largely middle aged individuals (above the age of 40), with household incomes greater than $100,000 per year (almost double the median household income for Wisconsin), and at least a mild interest in gourmet cooking at home. We chose Planet Perk, a café in downtown Oshkosh, and Zuppa’s, a bistro and café in Neenah. Both of these business’ owners have personal connections to CiderHill Farm.
- Enroll returning customers in a customer appreciation program via Square Register
Our results can really be broken down into two different categories: online customer interaction, and Square Register results.
Square Register Results
Initially we supposed that the ability to process credit card transactions would add significantly to our sales, and that many customers would actually prefer to pay with a credit card over cash. We did not find this to be the case both through our survey results and through our practical experience. Our survey results indicated that fewer than 20% of our customers would prefer to use a credit card over cash at the farmers market. Of the 18% of respondents who indicated an interest in using a credit card, nearly all were under the age of 35. Less than 25% of respondents over the age of 35 recognized any mobile credit card processor, but out of all results, Square was the most commonly recognized amongst Square, Intuit GoPayment, and PayPal Mobile.
In actuality, only a handful of sales (fewer than 5 all season) were paid with a credit card, and these sales were made either to individuals who personally know the owners of CiderHill Farm, or were one time customers visiting from larger urban areas during Oshkosh’s Exploratory Aeronautical Association (EAA) show.
These results reveal a surprising complication in smaller, less urban markets. Local customers tended to be “trained” to have cash on hand at the market, and expected to pay for goods in cash. Older customers especially seemed to have a distrust of mobile credit card processing, or of providing any information to us as vendors. Customers who were more familiar with mobile credit card processing, or who indicated that they had previously paid for market produce with a credit card, were 87% more likely to choose to use a credit card over cash.
While the Square Register did not fulfill its intended purpose of boosting sales via expanded credit card transactions, the application itself did offer some value, even for cash sales. The fact that we were able to run sales reports, easily keep track of historical selling prices, and effortlessly keep track of peak sales hours, meant that we had more information about our business. Square Register allowed us to anticipate at what point during the morning we would hit a sales rush and which items were selling well together in order to continue to suggest them to customers.
Additionally, the customer tracking portion of the Square Register application allowed us to identify 13 repeat customers who visited us nearly every week, purchased from us in large quantities, and whose transactions constituted roughly 30% of our sales revenue. Because we were able to identify these customers we were able to offer them additional services. For instance, we offered to set aside produce for them if they planned to attend the market later than usual, or farm pick up if these customers found they needed it in the middle of the week. Because these customers make up such a large percentage of our revenue, we were willing to make an extra effort to keep them coming back to our stand.
Had we chosen to be in a different, more urban market with a younger, more technologically savvy draw, we would likely have seen very different results from our credit card offerings. However, the advantages of a point of sale system might still justify the minimal expense of procuring the system given the record keeping and customer tracking benefits we experienced.
Our website is powered through Blogger, a free tool which we have used to create a website that offers information about our farm’s history, our values, our practices, the produce we bring to market, and recipes for using that produce. We began the recipe card program in early July in response to our survey results indicating that customers liked the idea of a tailored set of recipes for seasonal produce. The front of the card displayed a simple recipe, while the back of the card contained our logo, as well as information for how to find us online.
All in all we handed out over 400 cards at 8 cents each. Quite unexpectedly, we saw a corresponding bump in visits to the website on each market Saturday and the following Sunday. Traffic then slowed until the next market day when we would hand out cards and then see another two day bump in traffic.
From this information, we were able to determine that, within 48 hours of receiving a recipe card, nearly 30% of recipients visited the website. This allowed us to synchronize the rollout of new promotions and information on our Facebook page with times that customers were most likely to be visiting our website in order to encourage cross traffic. Facebook posts that were made within this 48 hour window reached numbers of customers in the three digits, while posts made during less active periods dipped to an average reach of 57. We never once paid Facebook to boost our reach.
Anecdotally we can report that at least a handful of our customers each week were brought to us by our Facebook page. Friends of friends and family members who interacted with our posts once we shared them would stop by the stand, tell us who they saw our post through, and ask about the farm and our produce. A wide network of supportive friends and family members provided an invaluable foundation for starting up our social media strategy.
While most of our online interactions were extremely rewarding and positive, it should be mentioned that, especially amongst older customers, our attempts to add technology to our customer communication strategy was laughed off as quite silly. Most customers appreciated the additional content that our Facebook page and website could offer, but some made it clear that they had no interest in connecting beyond the market.
Impact of Results/Outcomes
Implementing technology solutions can be incredibly difficult, but especially so for small farmers selling their produce at market. In Oshkosh, at least, we faced the overwhelming sentiment that connecting with vendors online was not very important. Some of our best customers did not wish to connect with us online, but came back week after week to say hello and purchase the produce they enjoyed. They preferred the experience of shaking the hand that grew their food to the experience of visiting a website.
We believe that this attitude stems from the fact that social media strategy in particular has not been very purposefully or usefully employed by local farmers. It became clear to us, during the course of this project, that successful implementation of a social media strategy for a market vendor requires more than a biweekly post about what is going on at the farm. A successful strategy requires us to create content that is valuable to and desired by our customers and is tailored to our products. A successful social media strategy cannot stand on its own, rather it must be paired with personal interaction, and physical marketing materials in order to be effective.
While social media strategies can be free of cash expense, they do require a significant time investment. Without that investment, vendors are unlikely to experience any advantage from a social media strategy. The all too common attitude that a small business “has to have a website/social media presence” leaves out the essential truth that technology solutions are proportionately beneficial when compared to the amount of work put into them. Regular updates with an interesting mix of stories, pictures, and content can help to draw customers closer by creating a vision of the company that can be identified with. Crafting such a vision takes time, effort, and a strategic plan for where you want social media to take you and how you plan to get there.
As far as mobile payment solutions are concerned, we learned that perhaps suburban and rural markets are not yet ready for credit card payment at the Farmers Market, but the Square Register solution is an inexpensive one to implement, and the benefits of its record keeping and report generating capabilities, combined with the inevitable growth in popularity for plastic over paper make it a worthwhile consideration and a valuable business tool.
Educational & Outreach Activities
By and large, the platforms we used to tell others about this project and the project’s events and activities were either in person through our vendor booth at the market (as was the case with our survey) or through our website and Facebook page to our followers. Attached please find samples of our recipe cards, as well as screenshots of our social media posts and our website. These materials, as well as our vendor booth presence, were the primary means to communicate about our project.
[Editor’s Note: To view the images, open the attachment.]
Image 1: A sample of three of our posts. Attractive, interesting photos invite interaction while our posts provide information to customers.
Image 2: Screen shots of the CiderHill.org website. On the left is a recipe posted for herbs in early July along with comments from users. On the right is the layout for our recipes page. Recipes are organized by their main ingredient and by the first month we offered that main ingredient. We chose this layout to communicate seasonality to our customers. At present we have 25 recipes available on our website, concentrating heavily on the offerings that customers generally have the most questions about.
Image 3: A sample of one of the recipe cards handed out at the stand in order to drive traffic to our website and social media pages. The left is the front of the card with the recipe, the right is the back of the card with our information and logo.
The results of this project will be gathered for presentation at Social Media Marketing Strategy Roundtable hosted by CiderHill Farm at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. The roundtable will lay out the lessons we have learned from this project and then incorporate a discussion of strategy, as well as a blank marketing strategy write up for participants to take home. Participation is free, and invitations will be emailed to all of the vendors on the Oshkosh Farmers Market list, as well as to the coordinators of other local markets. After the roundtable, the presentation will be available via pdf on our website.
While it is difficult to identify the hard economic impacts of a technology project, I can say that, anecdotally, it definitely pays to offer customers additional content. Many of our sales, though initiated by our customers’ curiosity about what something was, were closed when customers were offered a concrete suggestion and additional information for how to try something new. Over and over again, from salsify to turnips to pea shoots, we were able to explain what the produce was and offer customers a recipe to take with them to try it. Without our recipe cards at the stand, far fewer people would have taken the risk to try something unknown.
Our partnerships with local restaurants have offered us a new source of potential income, as well as the opportunity to create local sustainability by picking up food waste and converting it into compost to feed our soil. Previously we had spent hundreds of dollars a year purchasing supplemental compost to add to our beds, but these partnerships may offer the chance to produce worm castings and compost on a larger scale than our limited sole capacity.
Finally, we believe that we have made a substantial start toward diversifying the offerings at the Oshkosh Farmers Market. We have done this not only by educating our customers in how to prepare and cook the unique fruits and vegetables that we bring to market, but also by sharing our knowledge with fellow vendors who stop by the booth. We believe that diversification is essential to food security, and little steps to broaden the community’s comfort zone will get us there in the long run.