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The New Town Crier: Demystifying Twitter and Other Social Media

By Michelle Podolec

Farmer and entrepreneur Gordon Sacks of 9 Miles East Farm in Northumberland, NY, has found success with an integrated social media outreach strategy that involves a website, Facebook, Twitter, Constant Contact email newsletters

You’ve heard all the hype: supposedly everyone is using social media these days.  But as a small farmer, how can social media help you and your business? Creating an online presence using the free or low-cost online software applications provided by social media sites can help drive new customers to your business. This can be a wonderful low-cost way to advertise your business and expand your market.

Online social media tools liked Twitter and Facebook allow users to keep in contact with lists of friends and connections, and send these contacts short updates.  Social media sites are accessed through the internet.  If you happen to have a smart phone or other internet connected mobile phone, these social media sites have downloadable ‘apps’ that place a shortcut to your profile on your device and make accessing your profile quick and easy.  These applications can be used to enhance conversations between you and your customers, and can drive more views to your websites and blogs by allowing instant updates to online content.

Tips to make your social media a success:

• Start slow. Commit to one or two postings of new content each week, and see what kind of a response you get from your customers. Not every social media application will suit you and your business; don’t be afraid to bail out if after a decent trial period, you are unsatisfied with customer response.
• Begin small. Social media relies on personal connections between individuals to be a success. Limit your early connections to good friends and customers who you know have an interest in your farm and activities, and grow a larger audience as you become more comfortable.
• Separate business and personal life online. Sites like Facebook offer different features in personal and business pages. Use a dedicated business profile for your social media and keep your topics on farm work, products, staff, and news about your farm and neighbors. General farm family news and updates can be fun to share occasionally, but keeping work and play separate helps you maintain a professional business image and ensures personal privacy.
• Pick a topic. Create a list of topics, activities or concerns that come up during your farm year, and use these to help guide your social media outreach. Think seasonally – summertime is great for conversations on crops, insect pests, hot weather, and grazing, while wintertime is more appropriate for conversations on seed selection, books you are reading, conference reviews, and cold weather animal care.
• Keep it short, interesting, and fun. Gordon Sacks gave us the following great advice… “People don’t have time to read an opus on the woes of your wet spring and how it delayed planting, or the problems you’re having with flea beetles. I’m not suggesting you romanticize what is clearly a very challenging business, but focus on what will be of interest to your audience.”
• Have conversations. Ask questions of your friends and followers, and leave comments on other people’s posts. This is a great opportunity to get feedback and talk about new ideas with your customers and friends. Share links to resources and articles that interest you and relate to your farm business.
• Use pictures. People are more likely to click, comment, and linger on your profile if you share photographs of you and your farm. Be cautious when using hosted sites, and make sure you read the Terms of Use completely for each hosting site, notes Ontario County extension specialist Jim Ochterski. “Anything shared that goes undeleted is open for Facebook’s use. Be judicious: Facebook content gets passed along in directions you would not expect, and Facebook has the right to use anything you post, even if it is not consistent with your intent. Make sure that everything you share is truly meant to be public and openly sharable everywhere.”
• Promote your social media presence. Now that you are comfortable with your social media activities, share your profile information on brochures, your website, and at your business.
• Be consistent with updates. Friends and clients can’t have a conversation with you if you don’t post updates to your social media. Assign yourself a regular and frequent dates or times to devote to creating your posts, and your friends and clients will learn when to watch for new information coming from you. People quickly lose interest in your site if content is old – keep it fresh!

Farmer and entrepreneur Gordon Sacks of 9 Miles East Farm in Northumberland, NY, has found success with an integrated social media outreach strategy that involves a website, Facebook, Twitter, Constant Contact email newsletters, and even a LinkedIn resume. Every week during the growing season, Gordon and his crew harvest what’s in peak season and cook hearty, full-flavored meals that put the focus on high-quality ingredients.  His clientele subscribe to weekly meals just like a vegetable share in a CSA.  Gordon says, “We communicate with our customers and community to help them understand what we can do to make their lives easier. E-mail and social Web sites like Facebook are great tools for telling our story, but even better than that, they allow customers to share their appreciation for our farm with their friends.”

As a farmer and business owner, think of social media as an opportunity to have brief, casual online interactions with your clients as you go about your daily tasks.  Many customers enjoy learning more about your daily activities on the farm, crop conditions, sneak peeks into CSA shares for the week, and where they can find you selling your product.  These conversations keep customers connected to your business and remind them to look for YOU at the market.

Social media not only keeps your customers connected…it goes beyond that and creates community. Gordon says, “We use e-mail and Facebook to invite people inside [our farm] and build a community that cares about local food. We think that there is a social value to the farm that extends beyond the meals we deliver and the vegetables we grow. Anything that fosters community helps to build that bond and include people in this fundamental aspect of life: growing and preparing food. It sounds basic, but it still means something to know and trust your farmer.”

Most online social media applications are free, and the most popular (and a great place to start) are Facebook and Twitter.  Think of Facebook as a public square where groups of people chat and share information, and Twitter as the town crier shouting out headlines and hot topics.  Other interesting options for small farmers include YouTube (post videos of your farm activities), and Foursquare (share your location as you travel about to markets and stores).

How can you use social media to make your business a success?  Take advice from other experienced farmers. Gordon Sacks shares the following from his experiences with social media:  “Make it interesting and fun for people. Share your expertise in a small specific way, with concrete detail…  Social media is an intimidating term, but it’s really pretty easy to use simple tools to reach out and share your enthusiasm for farming. Make the time every week and get your message out there. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Once you have explored the basics of social media and have developed a familiarity with the applications, you may find you want more information about your followers and help managing your new activities online.  Management sites like Hoot Suite help you schedule and organize your posts to social networks, and can assist you by automatically sending scheduled updates while you are away on vacation or facing a busy harvest season.  Online analytical tools like Google Analytics can help you assess what topics excite your customers and what times of day your profile receives the most visits.  You’ll know you’ve really made it in the social media network when your Klout networking score rises, and shows your online reputation to be growing grows in leaps and bounds.

The internet offers small farmers many ways to access their customers in free or low-cost ways.  Give social media a try and see if it fits into your plans for advertising and marketing your business!

Social Media References

Facebook www.facebook.com A must-visit site for young folks, and rapidly growing in popularity with baby-boomers, this is the best place to start if you’re considering online social media. Easy to learn with pages available for personal or business use. Share status updates, pictures, web links, GPS locations, and more. Free basic services for business use.

Twitter www.twitter.com Participate in fun, fast paced conversations with your ‘followers’ using this short message service. Best for those who like to share news clippings, snapshots, and stay on top of the hottest topics. A great site for networking with other farms and agricultural organizations. Free

YouTube www.youtube.com The best site for amateur videographers! Post videos of your farm and market activities, link your profile with other friends and businesses. Access thousands of people looking for fun, interesting, thought-provoking videos. Free

Foursquare www.foursquare.com This mobile web application links your GPS enabled phone or device with Facebook and Twitter and enables you to share your real time travels via postings with linked map locations. Great for those who sell at multiple markets, make CSA deliveries, and sell their products at local restaurants. Free

Hoot Suite www.hootsuite.com Management of your social media campaigns is easier when you can schedule updates ahead of time. See all your social networking profiles in one place, and create updates in advance for weeks when you know you will be too busy to update regularly. Free basic services.

Klout www.klout.com Klout uses an algorithm to measure your overall online influence. This interesting site categorizes how you communicate with your contacts and helps you develop a better understanding of the true reach of your reputation. Free basic services.

Google Analytics www.google.com/analytics/ This analytics tool help you gain insights into your website traffic and marketing effectiveness. Free basic services.

Michelle Podolec is the co-coordinator of the Northeast Beginning Farmer Project.  She may be reached at (607) 255-9911 or mls266@cornell.edu.

To learn more about 9 Miles East Farm, visit http://www.9mileseast.com/

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