July Bonus Content! Farm Marketing: Teach Your Customers to be Loyal


July Bonus Content!

Farm Marketing:
Teach Your Customers
to be Loyal
by Diane Baedeker Petit

        I'm learning to play the violin. I know what you're thinking: "Why is she telling me this, and what does it have to do with farm marketing?" You're also probably thinking "thank goodness this article doesn't have sound," but that's another matter. I'll make a connection to farm marketing; trust me.

        So, in the process of looking for online instructional videos and other resources for beginners, I stumbled across a website that bills itself as a place where you can learn to play the violin for free. The site is run by a professional violinist, and while I'm sure that he does have a desire to help beginning fiddlers, there must be financial benefits, as well.

        The site offers instructional videos, free sheet music, educational tools, a discussion forum and a chat room. For those users who want a little more help, one-on-one instruction via Skype is available for a fee. The owner also runs a related website that sells violins and accessories.

        Why am I bringing this up? Because I think there are marketing lessons to be learned, and with a little creativity those lessons could certainly be applied to farm marketing.

        For one, the site has a faithful following of people who use the forum and the chat to ask questions about playing the violin, share tips and experiences, post videos of themselves playing for others to critique, and even to discuss topics not related to fiddling.

        The site owner regularly answers questions and responds to posts himself and frequently appears in the chat room.

        Users consider themselves members of the site, even though no membership fee is charged, and they've conferred near-celebrity status on the site's owner. A few more experienced members are designated "advisors," and they often respond to questions and posts.

        As a new member, I can tell you that I already feel a certain amount of loyalty toward the site and its owner. I appreciate the free and easily accessible online lessons and the welcoming community of fellow adult, as well as young, violin students that the owner has established. So, when I was in the market for a few violin accessories, I naturally purchased them from his site.

        It occurred to me that the same approach could easily work for farms that direct market their products. Many folks who patronize local farmstands and farmers' markets also dabble in gardening or raising backyard livestock like chickens, and they are likely to have an interest in cooking.

        These are topics on which agriculture professionals could offer how-to videos, advice or answer questions. If your website featured not only educational content, but also a discussion forum or chat room, customers could "meet" other customers with similar interests to share tips, recipes, photos or videos.

        Helping to make people better gardeners doesn't mean that you'll lose them as customers. One can only grow so much in a backyard. Someone who grows a lot of tomatoes, for example, may still need to buy the rest of the ingredients for salad or soup or salsa. If you've helped them to grow better tomatoes, you will have established both visibility and loyalty with your customer, so they're more likely to buy those ingredients from you.

        You may be thinking that you don't have time to take on new tasks like making videos, chatting with people online or responding to discussion posts. There are a few ways to deal with that if you decide to add this to your marketing strategy.

        Educational content-like how-to videos, instructions, recipes and photos-would take time to develop, but wouldn't have to be created all at once. That's something that could be done in the off-season and added to over time.

        Like the fiddler website, you could designate "advisors" to fill in when you're not available so posts don't go unanswered. Two-way timely communication will keep people coming back to your site, but conversely, if customers don't get a response, especially if they're looking for professional input, they won't come back.

        Your employees, family members or even regular customers who have some knowledge, skill or experience in the subject matter could serve as advisors.

        If you can find time to make even a few quick "appearances" a day in a chat room or forum, it would show that you're interested in and engaged with your customers. Your customers will get to know you and feel loyalty for your products.

        By positioning yourself as a subject matter expert who wants to help others with related interests, you'll not only enhance your farm's brand identity, you just might start a cult following among your customers and become a virtual celebrity. That can't be bad for business.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.