Relationship Marketing in the Digital Age: Helping Farmers Grow Their Businesses Through Online Marketing

Final report for ONE18-313

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2018: $14,495.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Maryland Farmers Market Association
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Juliet Glass
Maryland Farmers Market Association
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Project Information

Summary:

The project goal was to provide four farmers selling through Maryland farmers markets with the tools and skills to grow their sales and customer base through a greater and more effective online marketing presence. For each farmer, this project: 1) established a baseline audience reach for each farmer; 2) did a comprehensive brand exploration to identify strengths, pain points, and goals; and 3) devised individual comprehensive social media strategic plan and 4) provided one-on-one coaching and technical support.

Across the board, participants saw an increase in audience reach with a 10% increase in Facebook follower on average and a 20% increase in Instagram followers on average. Hard sale data was harder to come by but participating farmers all report they think that increase social media use increased their farmers market sales. 

Project Objectives:

The project objective is to provide four farmers selling through Maryland farmers markets with the tools and skills to grow their sales and customer base through a greater and more effective online marketing presence. We foresee that this effort will yield increased sales resulting from greater brand recognition and desirability, customer loyalty, and promotion of the aspects of their farm and/or products that make them unique. Other farmers will benefit from the results in multiple ways:

  1. MDFMA will develop and publicize brief, accessible toolkits for farmers on how to replicate successful practices used by the farmers that participated in the grant.
  2. MDFMA will refine its training tools to incorporate only the components that farmers deemed valuable, and will make our coaching services available to farmers throughout the region who sell through Maryland farmers markets.
Introduction:

The data are irrefutable: a robust online presence is requisite for successful marketing in the digital age. According to Forbes, 92% of marketers attest that social media is important for their business; Hubspot reports that social media yields nearly double the impact of traditional marketing. Yet adaption amongst farmers is lagging: a 2016 Farm Futures survey revealed that only 9% of farmers use Facebook for business purposes.
While little research exists specifically on farmers and online marketing, a 2014 study found that farmers’ use of Facebook positively impacted farm revenue. Regionally, farmers have expressed awareness of a need for integrating greater online presence into their marketing efforts. In the University of Maryland Extension’s 2017 Direct Marketing Sales Survey, 42.4% of farmers reported plans to make changes in social media use or content, more than three times the number who planned to make changes in any other aspect of their marketing strategy. These data demonstrate recognition amongst direct marketing farmers that effective online promotion is a critical part of operating a successful business.

The importance of engaging customers through online channels is amplified for farmers selling directly to consumers through farmers markets. Farmers market shoppers buy their food at the market for a range of reasons: concern for the environment and the desire to decrease their carbon footprint; preference for an outdoor and/or community shopping experience; desire for freshness, quality, and seasonality over convenience. Another important reason that these shoppers chose to spend their food dollars at the market: they know the food is grown, harvested, and sold by somebody they know and trust. This personal connection with the farmer is a crucial value-add for these shoppers and is at the heart of “relationship marketing.” In other words, the direct relationship with the person growing the food is unique to farmers markets and gives the shopper a superior shopping experience found only at farmers markets.

Online marketing is an important and low-cost way for agricultural producers to deepen this human, personal connection with the shopper and facilitate the latter’s transition into a loyal customer. Second to personally selling their product at farmers market, online marketing is the most powerful tool that agricultural producers have for telling their stories, putting a face on their farms, and setting themselves apart from the competition, such other farmers, food delivery services, and large supermarkets. Anecdotally, farmers throughout our region report decreasing farmers market sales; however, adoption of new, strategic promotional tools can play a vital role in helping direct marketing farmers bolster these flagging sales.

With consumers increasingly using social media to inform purchasing choices, utilization of these platforms is vital for direct-market farmers. This shift places added strain on farmers, whose operations leave little time for customer-facing aspects of their business outside of their time at farmers markets. There is a lot of information available online about social media marketing, not much is tailored to the needs of farmers who depend on direct marketing for sales.  In other words, there is a real need for resources and guides to support farmers in integrating online marketing tools to maximize sales, extending the advantages of relationship marketing that is the crux of selling directly to consumers at farmers markets, in a way that coordinates with their schedules and reflects sensitivity to their unique assets and barriers.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jarrah Salazar Cernas
  • Kevin Tuckey
  • Rebecca Seward
  • Suzanne Behrmann

Research

Materials and methods:

The first step of my project was to establish a social media baseline for each participating farmer do a Social Media Audit. I checked all their answers for accuracy simply by looking at their social media accounts (and website), and I transferred this data into a spreadsheet. All five of the farmers who originally agreed to participate in the project did the initial audit, and this stage was completed by the end of March 2018.

The second step of the project was to have each participating farmer engage in brand exploration with the goal of helping me understand their mission, how they want to be perceived by customers, and what they see as their strengths and weaknesses. Based on my experience working on branding and re-branding projects, I developed a Put a Face to your Farm worksheet. I asked participants to set aside about 30 minutes fill out and all five of the original farmers who originally agreed to participate completed the questionnaire by the beginning of June.

The next phase of the project was for me to draft a social media strategic plan for each farmer and arrange a one-on-one meeting to go over my suggestions, get feedback, and provide any other technical support. For three of the participating farmers, I took high-quality photographs for them at the farms which I shared with them for their use. After the meeting, I revised the social media strategic plan, integrating each farmers’ feedback, and including sample social media posts using real pictures from their farms.

This was when the project became considerably more complicated since we were bumping up against the peak of the growing season and the participating farmers had a wide range of experience and comfort level working in social media. The work was stretched out considerably by some farmers needing to me to reschedule visits. Moreover, one farm (Blades Orchard) didn’t respond to calls, text messages, or emails. I did finally hear back from them in October, but at that point, it was too late for me to get started working one-on-one.

In order of when I was able to do the one-on-one meeting and write them a plan:

Redtree Farmstand: The farm visit and social media strategic plan were both completed by the end of June. It was during the visit that I learned that Rebecca (who was pregnant with her first child) had decided that she no longer wanted to be a vegetable farmer and starting in the 2019 growing season, the farm would focus exclusively on flowers. I made some considerable revisions to the strategic plan to reflect these changes.

Chicano Sol: The farm visit and social media plan were both completed by the end of July. Chicano Sol was a particularly challenging case for this project since the farm was pretty inactive on social media, had let the farm’s domain name expire, and had lost its website. In a sense, all the farm’s 2018 marketing was done as if the internet didn’t exist. Before the visit, I spent some time trying to get the Chicano Sol domain name back but was unsuccessful. On the visit, we went over the strategic plan, and I highly recommended that she get a functioning website up and running on a user-friendly platform like Squarespace. I also took a set of high-quality pictures for of the farm and shared with her, with the thought that she could use them on the new website. Jarrah did end up building a website in February of 2019 and I helped her with producing copy and making the information architecture more user-friendly.

Tuckey’s Mountain Fresh Meetings and social media strategic plan were completed mid-September. The farmer and I had difficulty setting up a time to meet at the farm, so we decided to meet at a market instead, which is good because it turned out that my strategic plan assumed that Kevin Tuckey had a basic understanding of social media platforms and how to access them on his phone; this was not the case. We quickly decided that a series of one-on-one meetings where I would help him install different apps on his phone, show him how to use them, and practice posting. After a few meetings like this, I revised the social media strategic plan and met with him a final time to review.

Shepherd’s Whey Creamery Farm visit and social media strategic plan completed by October. Although Shepherd’s Whey has a decent social media presence, it turns out that it was being managed by Suzanne’s daughter who has moved away for college, and the staffer that Suzanne had lined-up for the season and who was going to manage social media, didn’t materialize.  Given Suzanne’s staffing problems, we decided that the best path forward was for us to work one-on-one. Suzanne was somewhat comfortable on Instagram and very comfortable on Facebook. I showed her some basics (including how to cross-post between platforms) and went over the social media strategic plan. Upon learning that a goal of the Creamery for the upcoming season was to increase wholesale and restaurant accounts, I made some revisions to the final plan to target those markets.

The four social media assessments/strategic plans are confidential and are not intended for public distribution. However, these reports were the blueprint for the 2020 Social Media Toolkit for Farmers & Agricultural Producers, a guide intended for public consumption and that we hope will be helpful for farmers near and far. 

Research results and discussion:

The key metric for this project is audience reach (number of followers on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) and gross market sales. I started tracking each farmers’ audience reach in April, noting the social media platform (Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) and the number of posts they did each month. Before starting the project I collected total gross sales data for 2017. I had hoped to collect sales data throughout the season, but wrangling that information from farmers during the season proved to be impossible. I was unable to collect gross sales data for 2018, but in a feedback survey all two farmers agreed and one farmer strongly agreed with the statement "I think that my increased social media use has improve my sales."

The two outside conditions affected that affected my project are weather and participants willingness to follow the advice and suggestions of my strategic plans. The 2017 growing season was terrible in the mid-Atlantic region; 2017 was the wettest year on record with 300% more rain than average. These wet conditions not only made it a tough year for growing it also impacted sales at farmers markets since rain means less foot traffic and fewer shoppers.

The second condition was participation by farmers. As the old saying goes, “you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” and this aptly summarizes my experience with three out of four of the farmers, who did not follow the basic guidelines of the strategic plans that I wrote for them, including consistent posting. In each individual case, this is understandable. One farmer was expecting her first baby, another farmer was unexpectedly short-staffed, and yet another found that much of her farm was submerged in rainwater. Tuckey’s Mountain Fresh has made the most progress in terms of consistently posting, but the content (captions and images) of his posts can use a lot of improvement, and I am not sure if that level of creativity is in Kevin’s wheelhouse. Nevertheless, his audience reach numbers improved drastically and with more practice (and coaching) I think this will continue to be the case. 

In short, you get out of social media what you put into it, and without farmers’ buy-in the project never really took off. All participating farmers did have some audience growth, but not what I had expected. You can see the individual audience tracking here

2018 Audience Reach Summary

Chicano Sol

April

December

Change

Facebook Followers

341

357

4.6%

Instagram Followers

247

295

19.0%

Redtree Farmstand

     

Facebook Followers

474

495

4.4%

Instagram Followers

504

599

19.0%

Shepherd's Whey

     

Facebook Followers

941

993

5.5%

Instagram Followers

211

256

21.2%

Tuckey's Mountain Fresh

     

Facebook Followers

98

122

24.5%

Instagram Followers

0

77

7600.0%

For the final report, I was not able to include a case-study, since none of the participants really followed the plan. However, I did write a guide (2020 Social Media Toolkit for Farmers & Agricultural Producers) tailored to ag-based businesses (farmers, value-added food producers, and market managers).  I uploaded this guide to the products section of the portal. This guide will be available to the public on our website in April 2020. I am optimistic that this toolkit can have a positive impact in the agriculture community.

If I were to do this project again, I would work with just one or two farmers and provide them with much more intensive one-on-one coaching, and maybe even doing the posting for them. Of course, there are farmers out there that do a great job leveraging social media to promote their businesses, but I now see that social media is not necessarily an easy skill to just pick up, especially for people who are already over-extended.

Research conclusions:

Farmers are incredibly busy, and they need another thing to do like a fish needs a bicycle. However, social media, if used strategically, can be a powerful tool for farmers who want to grow their brand, increase shopper loyalty, and improve sales.

The key to making social media manageable for farmers is for them takes the time to understand how the different platforms work, make a realistic schedule that works for them, and then sticking to it. The one-on-one work with the participating farmers and the corresponding audience tracking indicates that this works - all the farmers had significant social media audience growth and improved engagement. What's more, they all report that they have a better understanding of how to leverage social media to promote their business and create an online community.  

We hope that 2020 Social Media ToolKit, a distillation of the one-on-one work we did with individual farmers, will be helpful to the agricultural community at large. 

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

8 Consultations
5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers
Education/outreach description:
  • Initial social media audit for five participating farmers. This audit started with a worksheet, Put a Face to your Farm 
  • Analysis of each farmers' online presences (based on their answers to the worksheet and their existing online presence - website and social media). These assessments are written for specific farmers and will not be circulated publicly. 
  • Monthly audience tracking and monitoring of each participating farmers' social media accounts (new followers, number of posts, and cross-posting among platforms). 2018 Audience Reach Summary 
  • Social Media Toolkit outlining best practices for ag-based businesses. 2020 Social Media Toolkit for Farmers & Agricultural Producers 

 

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

I admit that I expected to see more dramatic audience growth with all the participating farmers and about halfway into the grant project, I had to manage my expectations for improvement. However, for this report, I did ask farmers to take a survey (SARE Grant Feedback) on the grant to access changes in knowledge, attitude, skills, and awareness, and their overall feedback was very positive. In other words, they perceived big improvement in their social media prowess and seem to feel empowered by the work we did together.  See results: Farmer-Feedback-SARE.

Project Outcomes

4 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

I collected feedback from the farmers, asking them to assess their social media use and their understanding of how social media works. The results of the survey can be viewed here and are overwhelmingly positive. Here are two quotes: 

Jarrah Salazar Cernas/Chicano Sol
"Juliet went above and beyond. For lack of a better word I had some fears in the beginning and she basically held my hand through it all. She even helped me to get our website current and live again! She had a great attitude through all my frustrating moments! She had also continued to be an outlet when I find myself lost in the tech world/social media and need re-educated."

Kevin Tuckey/Tuckey's Mountain Grown

"Before I met Juliet I didn't know anything about social media so everything I've learned I've learned from her and she even helped me redownload and program my new phone after I lost some of my social media"

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Looking back, I overestimated what I thought farmers could take on. While each farmer does show some improvement in audience reach (which is the key to successful online marketing), none of them really took much of my strategic planning on in a consistent manner.  If I were to do this project again, I would work with just one or two farmers and provide them with much more intensive one-on-one coaching, and maybe even doing the posting for them. Of course, there are farmers out there that do a great job leveraging social media to promote their businesses, but I now see that social media is not necessarily an easy skill to just pick up, especially for people who are already over-extended.

However, I think that the tools that I've developed could be helpful for market managers (or any small, niche food business). I also think for farmers that have a natural knack for communications and marketing, the tools I've developed could prove very helpful. 

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.