Tweeting, messaging, blogging and Skyping are all the rage, but does social networking really work with fullservice ag retailing?
While practically every business under the sun has a website, and many have Facebook pages, few go beyond a markets page, news services, products and a listing of managers to contact. Lack of interest might suggest that social networking doesn't f it the industry.
Curt Dannen, branch manager at Crop Production Services in Tangent, Ore., believes it does. His staff is actively involved in the latest digital tools, using them not only to reach customers, but also to communicate more effectively with each other.
"I'm glad we are doing it," he said. "This is how information is being exchanged with the younger generation who have grown up with computers. They are comfortable with it and are using it all the time."
Here, Dannen is talking about both his younger employees and his younger farm customers. To ignore that, he says, is to ignore the future. "There is no point in saying we don't need it because we've never needed it in the past," said Dannen. "We have to gear ourselves for the future."
Tangent CPS is definitely geared up when it comes to social networking tools, but it's selective. There is no tweeting and very little done with Facebook. However, the branch's blog looks like a website that is constantly
refreshed with reports from agronomists and links to information of interest to customers. Customers are instantly notified when new material is added. Staff are all on smartphones for communication and photo purposes and use Dropbox to share pictures from the field with each other. Google Hangouts, with video chat capability and photo sharing, is used whenever staff want to share information or communicate as a group.
Social networking for all ages
If all that sounds like a bunch of young staff getting carried away, it's not.
In fact, according to Jason Bennett, sales manager, it was Pat Boren, a senior fieldman, at a brainstorming session who suggested a need to make better use of the internet. It was a need Bennett recognized.
"We want to communicate to our customers, and we have some who soak up the technology side with variable rate controllers, smartphones and the newest gadgets," he said. "When it comes to our growers, perhaps 75 percent or more have smartphones. Depending on customer preference, we can send information directly to their phone, send them to Dropbox to see images and a write-up or tell them about a video of a f ield visit that was just posted to the blog."
Bennett emphasized that older customers and staff can be as hungry for the technology as anyone. That said, it was a younger staff member who took on the challenge to develop internet capabilities. "Tanner Sheahan is a big gadget guy who really likes this kind of stuff," said Bennett. "He did the research on options, came up with how we could do it and did the design. It is his baby.
He is a good writer, and he makes it look good." Having a young fieldman also interested in social media and digital tools was a win/win for Dannen and Bennett. It satisfied a business need and gave an employee the added challenge and fulfillment. What they didn't do was create a new position or change duties. Although the added work took Sheahan's time and attention, he continued servicing customers, and the rest of the team adjusted the workload around the new tasks.
"We operate as a team, and we all have duties that affect everyone else," said Bennett. "We all have our own customers, but we operate as if every customer is ours as a team. He does this because he likes it, and everyone else does their share elsewhere."
Adopting the appropriate tools
The first step was to go digital with the branch newsletter. Setting up www.tangentcps.com using Blogger, a Google product, allowed the branch to have a website-like presence with easy access by the entire staff. "It's a central place to post information and links to articles of interest, update growers on meetings and such, as well as review research and highlight our agronomy division," explained Sheahan. "I do the management of the site, updating and revamping the information. Most of the staff pitches in to write things. I tend to write a bit more about agricultural technology."
Sheahan is quick to adopt useful tools. Frequent contributors have direct access through their Google+ account, identifying them when they post a blog entry. Another Google tool called Feedburner automatically sends out e-mails to the viewer list when there is new material posted. Gathering the list was key to success. Staff made every effort, and continue to do so, to gather e-mail addresses at meetings or when talking to growers. Blog visitors can add theirs.
Timing for the social media effort turned out to be ideal. Within months of establishing the blog/website some four years ago, stripe rust was discovered in a previously resistant, select wheat variety. Tangent CPS staff were the first to post pictures and to report on the advance of the disease. Growers and others noticed.
"We started getting calls from universities around the area," said Sheahan. "If you did a Google search for stripe rust in wheat at that time, our blog was one of the top returns. We had articles every week with pictures and comments from the universities as to why and how it happened and how the year differed from previous years."
The attention and the effective delivery of key information proved the blog's value to growers and staff, suggested Sheahan. "
The results helped establish the blog as a legitimate way to get information out to growers and continue to establish us as market leaders and advanced agronomists in our area."
Local focus, national reach
The local market is the focal point of the blog. "We have 60 to 70 out of the total of 85 to 90 followers, who represent the majority of our larger customers," said Bennett. "We try not to put too much in a post, but suggest they contact their agronomist for more information. Customers will reference the blog, so we know they are reading it. Some will ask for follow-up all the time, and others ask occasionally."
Focusing locally in the Willamette Valley hasn't limited the reach of the blog, which gets hits from around the world. "Using Google Analytics, we can monitor what posts are most visited, where viewers are coming from and more," said Sheahan.
Staff does follow certain guidelines. Rates are never discussed. Neither are specific recommendations, much less any off-label research. Vendors are not allowed to use the blog as a sales point.
The blog is also not a cheerleader for agriculture or the industry. Neither Dannen nor Bennett sees their role as peaking to urban audiences on behalf of agriculture.
As a result, the Tangent blog may offer the best kind of promotion of agriculture to a non-farm audience. It allows farm and nonfarm viewers alike to see and understand what a professional agronomy staff does.
"Through our blog and our community outreach locally to schools and other groups, we try to show good stewardship," said Bennett. "Through our work, we try to show that we are good stewards of the land.
That is as much a message for our customers as for anyone else."