When people first start a homestead business, they often ask if they should take out ads in a local newspaper or on a radio station. They think of traditional marketing, which is how things were done a decade ago or more. Lucky for us, today’s marketing is far less expensive and can be more effective in the long run. In fact, the best marketing is free. Most homesteaders and farmers excel at relationship marketing, which is what corporations big and small are now aspiring to.
What is relationship marketing?
“Relationship marketing is a strategy designed to foster customer loyalty, interaction and long-term engagement. It is designed to develop strong connections with customers by providing them with information directly suited to their needs and interests and by promoting open communication.”
Basically, you get to know your customers, and they get to know you. The Forbes article goes on to say that “emotion” is a huge part of relationship marketing. You are forming that relationship by creating an emotional connection.
And what is our forte in creating an emotional connection? We actually have a lot of them. We have cute baby animals, delicious eggs, beautiful vegetables, and stories of hardship and triumph. Basically, we just need to tell our story.
For more on building your business by telling your story, I recommend the book Building A StoryBrand: Clarifying Your Message So Customers Will Listen by Donald Miller. I found it extremely helpful in figuring out exactly what to say to customers.
Back in the 1990s when I was a newspaper reporter and city editor, we always said that we’d sell more papers whenever there was a picture of an animal or a child on the front page. So, if you happen to have young children and animals, then you’ve definitely got this relationship marketing thing nailed.
Why do farmers need to engage in relationship marketing?
First of all, if you’re talking to your customers, you have a better idea of what they want. Ask them for feedback on your products. Ask them what they would like to see in terms of new vegetables or flowers being grown and sold by your farm.
If you do this through a survey, you’ll probably get a very small percentage of people responding — could even be less than 5%. This is where we can beat big business any day of the week. They can’t get to know thousands or millions of customers.
But if you’re just chatting at the farmer’s market or the CSA pick-up point, these things can be a natural part of the conversation. Or you can send a personal email, or call them to ask their opinion. You can also ask for opinions on your Facebook page.
The most important aspect of relationship marketing is simply forming those positive relationships. In today’s world when we spend the majority of our money through a keyboard, we never have any contact with another human being. Even though online shopping is quick and easy, it does leave a void in our lives. People need to be connected with other people. As our world grows increasingly disconnected on a face-to-face level, people are going to want those relationships even more. Getting to “know your farmer” will become a more natural relationship.
How much do you trust someone you don’t know? Not much! The more that your customers get to know you and like you, the more they will trust you. The more they like you and trust you, the more they will buy from you. On top of that, they’ll tell their friends about you, and that’s the type of advertising that money can’t buy.
How do we DO it?
Relationship marketing can be done in a variety of ways. If you sell at the farmer’s market or have a farm stand or CSA, the most important thing to do is talk to your customers. Ask them about themselves and their lives. You are not just being nosy or creating small talk. You are doing market research. The more you know about your ideal customer, the more you will know what products they need.
There is an old saying that advises, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” You also need to let your customers get to know you, what you do, and why you do it. For example, you don’t use pesticides in your garden because you don’t want to inadvertently kill bees.
You can include pictures of your farm in your farmers market display or on your banner. People can see where their vegetables were grown or where the chickens live who lay their eggs. Let them get to know you through photos, as well as in conversations. Have more photos available on your phone so that you can use them to answer questions — or just show them off like baby pictures.
If you have a full-time job off the farm, mention that — and how you have to get up at 5 a.m. to do chores before heading off to your office at 8 a.m. If you used to live in the city and moved to the country for a more rewarding life, talk about that too. Differentiate yourself from the other farms and Big Ag. Tell your story.
Using social media in your relationship marketing strategy
You don’t have to be on all of the social media channels, but you need to be on one or two. Since Facebook is the biggest, that would be my first choice if you only want to do one. Instagram makes a great second choice because it focuses on photos, which tend to be easy to produce on farms. Twitter focuses more on short status updates.
If you are on Facebook, you need to have a business page. Using a personal page as a business page is against Facebook’s terms of service, and they can delete the page if they discover you are using it for business purposes. However, the business page is a much better option because it provides you with interesting metrics and other information that helps you understand which posts work best with your followers.
On Facebook, post at least once daily even if your page has a small number of followers. Just use your cell phone to take a picture of whatever cuteness you see when doing chores. If you are on Instagram, you can post the same photos on there.
Spend 15 or 20 minutes walking around your farm every week and taking photos of whatever catches your eye. Then use Facebook’s scheduler to schedule a post every day for the next week. If you are also on Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest, you can use an app called Later to schedule the photo to appear on all of those social media channels in addition to Facebook. You can then forget about posting until next week.
You want the vast majority of these pictures to be things that make people smile, such as baby animals, animals grazing or doing funny things, and a close-up of an iris or a shiny striped tomato (everyone has seen plain red tomatoes). If you do have a tragedy, such as a weasel getting into your henhouse, you can share that too, but skip the photo.
One mistake I see in a lot of small business Facebook pages is that every post is a call to action. They are all essentially saying, “Buy my stuff! Buy my stuff! BUY my STUFF!!!” They are using their page as a giant electronic billboard, and people learn to ignore them quickly. Then they think Facebook doesn’t work. But the problem is that they don’t know how to use it. You have to create posts that people want to see, and no one wants to see ads all the time.
In addition to posting photos, you can also post questions to engage your followers, such as “Kale — love it, hate it?” or “What’s your favorite way to cook ____?” Avoid the temptation to add a link because that drives down engagement exponentially. When you include a link, people respond far less, probably because they think they have to read the link first.
You can post links to your blog or recipes or interesting articles, but be sure it’s something that will either create a connection with the customer or will help them in some way by providing important information. Many experts are saying that links are dead on Facebook, but I am still getting good engagement if it leads to an article with information that my followers need.
Having on-farm events is another way to get to know your customers. More importantly, it’s a way for them to get to know you better.
They can see that you’ve accurately explained your growing practices. Your chickens really are running around in the pasture, not living in a large building. They have not been debeaked. Your calves are in the pasture nursing with their moms, not in veal crates.
We’ve done soapmaking demonstrations so that people can see exactly how we make the soap we sell and that we really are using natural oils and goat milk. On-farm creameries often have a glass wall on one side of their cheesemaking room so that customers can watch them actually making cheese.
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