Gaining and retaining consumers from on-farm special events

Final report for ONE15-229

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2015: $9,427.00
Projected End Date: 04/15/2018
Grant Recipient: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Marie Anselm
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County
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Project Information

Summary:

Hosting an on-farm special event to attract and retain customers is a common marketing strategy for many farms, but apart from anecdotal evidence, there is limited documentation of these events’ overall effect on customers. This study examined the effectiveness of on-farm special events in gaining and retaining customers for farms by surveying visitors to Open Farm Day, a large annual on-farm special event hosted in Madison County, NY. The project lead developed two electronic surveys administered to Open Farm Day visitors who agreed to be contacted via email. The first survey was sent in 2015 and 2016 and the results aggregated. The second survey was sent in 2016 only to respondents of the initial 2015 survey to gain responses from visitors one year after attending Open Farm Day.

Results from these surveys showed that the event generated large day-of sales with 90.4 percent of respondents purchasing product at the event. Visitors also reported learning about new farms and farm products and an overall positive event experience. There were statistically significant differences between first-time and repeat event attendees. Repeat attendees were more likely than first-time attendees to purchase product, visit more farms, and report intent to return to Open Farm Day. First-time attendees learned about more farms and products than repeat attendees and made more first-time purchases from farms. However, not all first-time attendees were first-time farm customers and not all repeat attendees were repeat farm customers. Overall 40.1 percent of respondents that purchased product from farms at Open Farm Day did so for the first time at the event; this was true of 55.4 percent of first-time attendees and 25.8 percent of repeat attendees.

The follow-up survey found that after Open Farm Day 58.5 percent of respondents revisited farms and 78.5 percent made purchases from farms they visited at Open Farm Day throughout the year. A majority of respondents, 64.6 percent, reported attending Open Farm Day the following year and of those who did 97.6 percent still reported learning about new farms and farm products at the event.   

These results demonstrate that on-farm special events are effective at generating sales the day-of the event, drawing in new potential farms customers, and creating awareness about farm products. However, the extent to which these events can create long-term customers remains unclear. On-farm special events can to draw large numbers of new potential customers to farms, and create more purchasing opportunities for existing loyal customers. Farms that host on-farm special events should be aware that first-time and repeat event attendees respond differently to these events and plan accordingly. Any farm hosting an on-farm special event should have a clear plan as to how they will use the event to achieve their marketing objectives. To be successful, on-farm special events should be used as part of an overall farm marketing strategy.

The project lead presented the results of this study to agricultural educators and to farmers in two separate workshops. A recorded version of the farmer presentation, along with a fact sheet with survey results, is available online. An article on this project's findings is also published in the summer edition of Cornell Small Farms Quarterly.

Project Objectives:

The objective of this study was to gauge the effectiveness of on-farm special events as a marketing tactic to gain and retain customers for direct-market farms. By surveying attendees of Open Farm Day, a large annual on-farm special event, this study generated valuable data for farms and organizations that coordinate on-farm events that can assist them in achieving their desired marketing goals. To achieve this objective, the project lead developed and administered two distinct surveys to visitors of Open Farm Day in 2015 and 2016 to assess how attending an on-farm special event affects, if at all, consumers’ purchasing habits.

Introduction:

This study is unique in that it gained information directly from on-farm special event attendees, addresses on-farm events as a marketing strategy for direct-market farms, and provides information on customer attraction and retention for small to mid-sized farm enterprises.

To date, there is not extensive research on the effectiveness of on-farm special events as a marketing strategy for direct-market farms. Related research on agritourism focuses on year-round or seasonal agritourism operations and the activities they offer. This is distinct from on-farm special events which take place in one day, as opposed to over the course of a weekend or season. Additionally, direct market farms that do not otherwise engage in agritourism may host on-farm special events; these farms are neglected by current studies that examine farms that already have a strong agritourism component to their operations.

Some studies in the field of tourism and event management explore the social impact of local municipality events, but not in relation to farms, consumer retention, or long-term impact. Marketing studies that address consumer retention are usually from a large-firm perspective, which is not always applicable for local farms. Further, consumer retention studies do not examine events and instead focus on other marketing tactics that many farms do not use or cannot easily measure, such as online advertising and email campaigns.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Wendy Burkhart Spiegel
  • Jimmy Golub
  • Bruce Rivington

Research

Materials and methods:

To measure the degree to which on-farm special events help farms gain and retain customers, this study utilized customer surveys to solicit feedback from attendees of an on-farm special event, Open Farm Day. The project lead selected Open Farm Day as the on-farm special event to use in this study as it is a well-established annual event in its seventh and eighth year at the time of the study. Additionally, the event is consistent, held the third weekend in July each year, and draws hundreds of visitors. At Open Farm Day visitors are able to visit 30+ participating farms in Madison County, NY that all open the same hours and offer different activities for guests. During the study duration from 2015 to 2016, 40 unique farms participated in Open Farm Day, of which 30 are direct-market food and fiber farms. Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Madison County coordinates Open Farm Day, overseeing farm registrations and event promotion.

To determine how on-farm special events such as Open Farm Day gain and retain farms customers, the project lead planned a two year study of Open Farm Day visitors utilizing electronic surveys. The project lead developed and tested visitor surveys between April 2015 and June 2015. On Open Farm Day in July 2015 the project lead worked with all participating Open Farm Day farms and CCE Madison County to collect email addresses of Open Farm Day attendees. Each farm required guests to sign-in to their farm on a form that requested attendees leave their email if they were willing to be contacted at a later date to take an online survey.

In October – November 2015, after collecting and recording email addresses, CCE Madison sent Open Farm Day attendees electronic surveys. CCE Madison also made a link to the survey available via a Facebook ad on Open Farm Day’s Facebook page. This initial survey gathered information on respondents’ familiarity with farms and farm products from Open Farm Day. It also asked respondents to identify whether or not it was their first time attending Open Farm Day; this was done as an attempt to isolate the effect of attending the event on visitors. Taking the survey offered respondents chances to win gift cards donated by Open Farm Day farms as an incentive to complete the survey. The survey also required respondents to leave their names and email addresses with all responses kept confidential. This was done in order to track customer responses in the future.

Between June-August 2016 and the project lead developed a second survey as a follow-up to the first survey sent in 2015. The goal of this second survey was to follow-up a year later with survey respondents to learn about how, if at all, their purchasing habits with Open Farm Day farms changed since the event. CCE Madison sent this survey out in November 2016 only to email addresses left by respondents of the 2015 survey; gift cards were again offered to respondents to complete the survey. The survey required respondents to leave their name and email addresses to compare their 2015 and 2016 responses.

Additionally, in November 2016 CCE Madison also sent out the same initial 2015 survey to Open Farm Day 2016 guests. The purpose of repeating the first survey was to gain more responses from Open Farm Day attendees for a more robust data set. The survey process for this survey was identical to the 2015 survey; email addresses in 2016 were collected the same way as in 2015, another Facebook ad advertised the survey, and respondents were still offered farm gift cards as an incentive. Respondents were again required to leave their name an email address for response identification purposes.

From January – May 2017 the project lead reviewed, organized, and coded survey responses. For the first initial survey, sent in 2015 and 2016, the project lead aggregated responses to create a larger data set. Before aggregating responses, the project ensured there were no duplicate responses by reviewing respondent name and contact information. Since the survey link was made available to the public, the project lead also removed any responses that indicated the respondent had not attended Open Farm Day. For the follow-up survey sent in 2016 only to respondents of the first 2015 survey, the project lead organized respondents’ answers so that they could be compared across 2015 and 2016.

June 2017 – October 2017 the project lead analyzed data from the Open Farm Day surveys. This study used prior attendance to Open Farm Day as an indicator to distinguish between new and repeat customers. To compare differences between new and repeat customers the project lead used z-score tests to determine if there were statistically significant differences between these two populations. For Likert-type responses on a scale of 1-5, the project lead added scores together and compared them using comparison of means tests.

In November 2017 the project lead presented results from the study to agricultural educators at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Agriculture, Food and Environmental Systems In-service. From January 2018 – March 2018 the project lead developed a workshop based on study results for farmers, held in April 2018. During this time the project lead also developed a fact sheet with study results and recorded a presentation that they made available online. The project lead also wrote an article to share results for publication in Cornell Small Farms Quarterly.

Research results and discussion:

This study surveyed attendees to an on-farm special event, Open Farm Day, to observe how, if at all, these events are successful in gaining and retaining farms customers. The original study design was to survey Open Farm Day guests at the event in 2015 and then mail respondents a follow-up survey in 2016 to uncover if they altered their farm purchasing habits after the event. Instead of doing paper surveys at Open Farm Day, the project lead used post-event electronic surveys in order to simplify data entry, extend the length of the survey, and hopefully gather more complete responses from participants.

In 2015, the project lead emailed an initial survey to 561 unique email addresses and made a link to take the survey publicly available; this survey received 196 responses. To increase the data set from 196 responses, the project lead repeated this survey process again in 2016. In 2016, 564 unique individuals received the survey and 170 responded. In total, 1,125 people received this first survey and 366 responded making the response rate of emailed surveys 32.5 percent; however since a link to take the survey was available publicly a precise response rate is not known. In 2016, the project lead sent a follow-up survey only to individuals who responded to the first survey sent in 2015. This follow-up survey was sent successfully to 188 out of 196 respondents; 65 responded for a response rate of 34.6 percent. The follow-up survey did not produce a representative sample, but indicates the experiences of many continued supporters of Open Farm Day.

These visitor surveys measured Open Farm Day visitors’ current and past purchasing habits, familiarity, and experiences with Open Farm Day farms. To observe if attending Open Farm Day influenced visitors’ purchasing habits/experiences with local farms, the study categorized participants as “first-time attendees” and “repeat attendees” to learn if there were differences between them.

Survey results are listed below. Table 1 displays aggregated data from the 2015 and 2016 survey detailing all, first-time, and repeat Open Farm Day attendees’ habits. Table 2 displays the range and average number of farms attendees visited and purchased product from for the aggregated 2015 and 2016 survey. Table 3 indicates all, first-time, and repeat Open Farm Day customers’ experiences with the event from the 2015 and 2016 aggregated survey. Table 4 shows results from the follow-up survey sent in 2016 to respondents of the initial 2015 Open Farm Day survey.

Table 1. Habits of All, First-time, and Repeat Attendees 2015 & 2016

  Response All attendees (n=366) First-time attendees (n=182) Repeat attendees (n=184)
Do you currently purchase products from local farms?^ Yes 87.4% 86.2% 88.6%
No 8.8% 9.4% 8.2%
Unsure 3.8% 4.4% 3.3%
         
Were you familiar with any of the farms you visited prior to Open Farm Day? Yes 71.3% 58.8% 83.7%***
No 27.6% 40.7% 14.7%***
Unsure 1.1% 0.5% 1.6%
         
Did you purchase product from any of the farms you visited? Yes 90.4% 87.4% 93.5%**
No 9.6% 12.6% 6.5%**
       
Had you purchased product from these farms before? ƚ Yes 59.6% 43.9% 74.1%***
No 40.1% 55.4% 25.8%***
Unsure 0.3% 0.6% 0.0%
         
Do you plan on attending Open Farm Day next year? ǂ Yes 91.0% 86.3% 95.6%***
No 0.3% 0.5% 0.0%
Unsure 8.8% 13.2% 4.4%***
^ First-time attendees n = 181
ƚ First-time attendees n=157, repeat attendees n=170
ǂ Repeat attendees n=183
*** Difference between first-time and repeat attendees significant at p < .01
** Difference between first-time and repeat attendees significant at p < .05

Table 2. All, First-time and Repeat Attendee Farm Visits and Farm Purchases 2015 & 2016

  All attendees First-time attendees (n=182) Repeat attendees (n=183)
Average number of farms visited 4.77 (n=364) 4.41 (n=180) 5.13 (n=184) ***
Range of farms visited 1-17 1-17 1-11
Average number of farms purchased product from 2.72 (n=327) 2.64 (n=157) 2.79 (n=170)
Range of farms purchased product from 1-10 1-10 1-6
*** Difference between first-time and repeat attendees significant at p <.01

Table 3. Experience of All, First-time, and Repeat Open Farm Day Attendees 2015 & 2016

  All attendees (n=365) First-time attendees (n=182) Repeat attendees (n= 183)
I had an enjoyable experience at Open Farm Day 4.75 4.76 4.74
I learned about new farms at Open Farm Day 4.61 4.68 4.54*
The farms I visited were well-maintained and appealing to visitors 4.62 4.66 4.57
I plan to visit the farms I went to on Open Farm Day in the future 4.30 4.33 4.27
I learned about new farm products at Open Farm Day 4.33 4.42 4.23**
Open Farm Day provided me with an authentic farm experience 4.34 4.38 4.30
I will purchase product from farms I visited at Open Farm Day in the future 4.46 4.42 4.50
Responses are based on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being "strongly disagree" and 5 being "strongly agree".
** Difference between first-time and repeat attendees significant at p < .05
* Difference between first-time and repeat attendees significant at p < .1

Table 4. Habits of 2015 Open Farm Day Visitors One Year After Event

  Response All attendees First-time attendees in 2015 (n=23) Repeat attendees in 2016 (n=42)
Since Open Farm Day 2015, have you revisited farms since 2015? (n=65) Yes 58.5% 65.2% 54.8%
No 29.2% 30.4% 28.6%
Unsure 12.3% 4.3% 16.7%
         
Have you purchased product from any farms you visited at Open Farm Day 2015 since the event? (n=65) Yes 78.5% 78.3% 78.6%
No 15.4% 17.4% 14.3%
Unsure 6.2% 4.3% 7.1%
         
Did you attend Open Farm Day 2016? (n=65) Yes 64.6% 56.5% 69.0%
No 35.4% 43.5% 31.0%
         
Did you learn about new farms and farm products at Open Farm Day 2016? (n=42) Yes 97.6% 100% 96.6%
No 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Unsure 2.4% 0.0% 3.4%

The large majority of Open Farm Day attendees expressed that they currently purchase product from local farms with no significant difference between first-time and repeat attendees. Perhaps expectedly, this shows that attendees of on-farm special events already demonstrate an affinity for supporting local farms and local foods. Repeat event attendees were more likely to already be familiar with farms they visited on Open Farm Day prior to the event (Table 1) and visit more farms than first-time attendees (Table 2).

Open Farm Day generated a large number of day-of sales with 90.4 percent of respondents making purchases at the event. Repeat attendees were more likely to purchase product than first-time attendees (Table 1), however there was a not a significant difference between the number of farms first-time and repeat attendees bought products from (Table 2). Of those respondents that purchased product from farms at Open Farm Day, 40.1 percent did so for the first time, representing truly new customers (Table 1). First-time attendees were more likely to make first-time farm purchases at the event than repeat attendees. However, 43.9 percent of first-time attendees that bought product at the event were making repeat purchases from the farms they visited (Table 1). This group could already be farm customers that are simply attending Open Farm Day for the first time. Conversely, 25.8 percent of repeat attendees made first-time purchases (Table 1), showing that farm visitors may not always make purchases on their first farm visit but could be convinced to do so in the future.

Overall, 91 percent of visitors reported they intended to attend Open Farm Day the following year (Table 3). There was a statistically significant difference between first-time and repeat attendees and their intent to attend the next Open Farm Day; 95.6 percent of repeat attendees planned to attend again versus 86.3 percent of first-time attendees. The exact reasons behind this discrepancy are not known, but it does not appear due to differences in visitors overall Open Farm Day experience. Information in Table 3 shows that first-time and repeat attendees reported high levels of satisfaction with many aspects of Open Farm Day. The only statistically significant differences between first-time and repeat attendees in the experience with Open Farm Day were learning about new farms and new farms products at the event (Table 3).

The second year follow-up survey produced a small sample size with a high proportion of repeat to first-time attendees, but can provide a snapshot of some Open Farm Day attendees’ habits after the event. Since Open Farm Day 2015, 58.5 percent of respondents said they had revisited farms and 78.5 percent had made purchases from farms they visited at the event (Table 4). Many respondents attended Open Farm Day 2016, 64.6 percent, and of those that did attend 97.6 percent reported learning about new farms and farm products (Table 4).

Research conclusions:

This project sought to track the purchasing habits and experiences of guests of an on-farm special event in order to learn about how these events may help farms gain and retain customers. The on-farm special event studied, Open Farm Day, appears to generate large day-of sales, create marketing exposure for farms, educate many first-time and repeat customers on new farms and products, and create an overall positive event experience.

Based on this study, farms should be aware that first-time and repeat event attendees respond differently to on-farm special events. Repeat event attendees are more likely than first-time attendees to purchase product at the event and visit more farms. However, first-time attendees still purchase products at high rates and report learning about new farms and new farm products. First-time attendees were less likely to say they planned to attend the event the following year. This could indicate that although they have high-levels of satisfaction with the event, farms could do more to hook first-time attendees as customers.

On-farm special events can gain farms new day-of customers as evidenced by 40.1 percent of those who made purchases at the event doing do for the first time. Attendees that purchased product from farms for the first-time at the event were more likely to be first-time attendees, but repeat attendees also made first-time purchases.

A year after the event, visitors still report frequently visiting and purchasing product from farms they visited. While the goal of this study was to learn more about how on-farm special events may or may not be effective in gaining farms new, long-term customers, this study did not obtain sufficient data to make conclusions in this regard. However, in terms of customer retention, though it is difficult to say how many attendees of on-farm special events will become long-term farm customers, these events can still be a useful tool for farms to retain existing loyal customers.

Farms looking to host on-farm special events should expect a mix of new and loyal customers and tailor their event and expectations accordingly. On-farm special events can be successful in gaining farms new business the day of the event, but to retain customers, farms should have a clear marketing plan in place as to how they will use the event to capture repeat business. Farms may consider offering promotions to visitors at the event, targeting their event advertising, and collecting customer information to make the event successful. On-farm special events can contribute to customer attraction and retention and should be used as part of an overall farm marketing strategy.

Participation Summary
40 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

63 Farmers
72 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

In November 2017 the project lead shared results of this study at the Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Agriculture, Food and Environmental Systems In-service training. The audience of this event included Cornell Cooperative Extension educators from across New York State.

In April 2018 the project lead presented a workshop of study findings to farmers; severe weather limited attendance to this workshop. To reach more farms, and to make the presentation available in the future, the project lead recorded a video presentation of the study results and posted them online. The project lead also developed and made available online a fact sheet with study results. To advertise the website containing the project presentation and fact sheet the project lead sent a press release to regional media outlets. The project lead also authored a paper detailing study results for release in the summer edition of Cornell Small Farms Quarterly publication.

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

At the time of this report's completion there have not been reported changes to farm operations as a result of this study. Agricultural educators have reported that as organizers of on-farm special events, they have, or will use information from this study to improve their events. This is feedback from David Cox, Agricultural Economic Development Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension Schoharie and Otsego Counties:

“As the founder/coordinator in 2013 of Family Farm Day (FFD) in Schoharie and Otsego Counties, and now to include Delaware County in 2018, I am grateful for the professional assistance provided by Marie Anselm. In fact FFD was modeled initially after Open Farm Day in Madison County when Marie was present.

At the Cornell Agriculture In-service in November 2017, I made a point of attending Marie’s presentation, Gaining and Retaining Customers from On-Farm Special Events, only to find yet another ideal tool, a data collection model to emulate while trying to improve our methods to attract new and returning visitors to FFD, as well as reasonably determine economic impact in the region due to a significant agritourism event. Needing two years of data for comparison, our 2018 Farm Participant and Visitor Surveys now will be compatible to that collected in 2017. Showing Marie’s PPT to our FFD Planning Committee, I noted, “This is the type of data that will benefit our program and constituents. I can’t wait!”

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Reflecting on this study, the main challenge was collecting enough customer responses to obtain a robust data set for statistical analysis. Even using an event that attracts hundreds of attendees, it took two years of data collection to obtain enough observations to make comparisons among event attendees. Also, conducting a multi-year customer survey dependent on customers responding a year after taking an initial survey proved difficult in gathering sufficient responses for statistical analysis. The methodology for this study could be changed to collect information closer to the actual event date. I believe that surveying respondents after the event was more feasible than during the event, given the structure of Open Farm Day. However, surveying customers a month or less after the event and then again after six months instead of a year may have produced more customer responses.

Additionally, isolating the effect of attending an on-farm special event was challenging as there are many factors that may influence attendees’ patronage of a given farm. This study addressed this by relying on customers to self-report their familiarity with farms, purchasing habits, and past event attendance. In the future, survey questions could be constructed somewhat differently to address these topics with more insight. Using an on-farm special event that only takes place at one farm may make it easier to isolate the effects of attending such an event because it would mean only analyzing experiences with one farm instead of many. Also, collecting demographic information from attendees would be useful to explain purchasing habits.

While this study cannot definitively quantify the extent to which on-farm special events are successful in capturing new long-term customers for farms, it does offer insight as to how customers respond to these events. This study can help those who host on-farm special events, or are considering doing so, to have realistic expectations about how customers will respond. First-time and repeat attendees responded differently to Open Farm Day, which is useful for farms to know to customize their marketing and outreach for special events. From a marketing perspective, gaining customers is different than retaining customers. Gaining customers typically takes more resources than selling more product more frequently to existing customers. Farms should not rely on farm events as their main way of gaining new customers and should also see them very much as ways to maintain and upsell to current customers. Knowing this can help farms customize on-farm special events to meet their marketing needs. On-farm special events should be seen as part of an overall marketing strategy to be truly successful in creating long-term customers.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.