Thursday, August 28, 2014
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The explosion in smartphone technology means companies must rethink their communication strategies as customers demand more timely and relevant information in bite-sized pieces.

Thanks to mobile technology, farmers now seek the latest crop reports or agronomy tips not just in the tractor cab, but at their kids’ ball games or as they wait in the grocery store line-up. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogs mean there are myriad ways to grab growers’ attention. And seed companies aren’t lagging behind when it comes to placing their messages on those miniature LCD screens.

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“Social media shifts how we communicate and how a customer wants to receive information and interact with a company,” says Laura Nguyen, a public affairs consultant for Digital and Social Media, who is the architect of DuPont Pioneer’s social media strategy. “That allows us to build much richer relationships with customers at a local level and a personal level,” says Nguyen. “We can now interact with and understand where a customer is at all along their journey with us. It allows us to be more competitive in the space because it allows us to give a different type or level of customer service.”

Shannon Latham, vice president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds, understood the importance of social media early on, establishing her blog, The Field Position, about five years ago. She jumped into blogging with both feet because she saw that social media platform as a way to truly live the family company’s brand.

“Our brand’s personality is high tech, useful, energetic and personable, so our blog allows us to convey that personality,” says Latham. “As a high-tech company, I think it’s important to our brand that we engage in high tech, whether it’s seed or communications technology.”

Latham was blogging before most people had even heard of a blog. She admits that she got a lot of blank stares when she first mentioned her idea around the boardroom table. However, the blog, which started humbly with 145 unique visitors in June of 2008, now has an average of 4,407 unique visitors per month.

But the figures don’t tell the whole story, admits Latham. What’s far more important is the real-world evidence of how engaged her customers have become with the company, its principals and its employees. “I can’t believe the number of times I step on to a farm and somebody will say, ‘Oh, hey, you guys just went to Hawaii, I’ve always wanted to go there!’ or ‘My wife and I went there for our honeymoon,’” says Latham. “It becomes the conversation-starter and the icebreaker, and often it allows the customer to talk first.”

Assessing Value
To assess the value of social media, such as blogs, Facebook or Twitter, there are all kinds of analytical tools that are either built into the platform or can be linked to it, which collect data about the volume and type of traffic the site receives. This can involve tracking the number of unique visitors per day, the most popular posts, tweets or updates, the best time of day to update them, the gender and age of the audience being reached, and many other metrics.

Nguyen says the real question, when it comes to assessing the value of social media, isn’t ‘What’s the return on investment?’ but rather, ‘What’s the return on engagement?’

“At the end of the day, if we have a grower who has a question, whether he is happy or unhappy, we can actually manage and monitor that interaction online,” says Nguyen. “Let’s say we have a grower who is posting something about not being happy with his yield this year. We can identify the issue and reach out to his representative, who can reach out to him and say, ‘We noticed online you had mentioned this, this and this—well, let’s talk about that and figure out how, as we take a look at planning for next year, we can make sure that we take these things into account.’ Without these tools, we had to rely on the customer reaching out to the representative.”

Nguyen is quoting a real-life example, and the customer in this case was so grateful that he ended up tweeting a thank you to the representative and spreading the word via Twitter about the good customer service he had received. “That is definitely a high ROE,” says Nguyen.

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Seed companies are using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogs to build richer relationships with their customers.

Reaching Out
Latham says the blog is still her main vehicle to connect with customers, and she uses Facebook largely as a tool to drive people to the blog. Over the years, she has developed a formula that seems to work by designating specific days for different types of blog posts that are geared to different audiences. On Fridays, blog posts involve recipes and features on farm families. On Tuesdays, the blog hosts a regular column, Musings of a Pig Farmer, by a local pork producer who discusses issues that impact the livestock industry. Wednesdays, during the growing season, the blog offers crop reports with agronomic tips.

“We look at it as a way of reaching out across agriculture because we are all in it together,” says Latham. “It goes a long way in building relationships, and helps us showcase our agronomic strengths as well. It helps build trust and credibility from the salesperson’s perspective and gives them another touch-point with their customers.”

Social media does require a time commitment that you must be prepared to give, says Latham, especially if you want to do it right. She spends at least an hour a day, and often more, updating social media sites. She disagrees with some experts who suggest that updating social media two to three times a week is sufficient to build an audience. “I think people’s expectations have changed, especially with the explosion in mobile technology,” she says. “They expect you to be online more often than two or three times a week. Many people check their social media several times a day.”

Latham believes some companies entering the social media space are missing the point by making their sites too “corporate.” “It’s supposed to create an online conversation,” she says.

Pioneer has taken lessons from some of the other big brands that have launched social media strategies, and are making sure that they are not just communicating their messages but listening to feedback from their customers and the industry as a whole. “The listening part is really important,” says Nguyen. “Social media is more about the community and less about us. We have a better pulse of what our growers are doing and what other growers are doing. We can share agronomic information because it’s valuable to a grower—whether they are our grower or someone else’s—social media is built around the premise of being a resource.”

Some businesses are hesitant to engage in social media, fearing that disgruntled customers might make their faults glaringly obvious for everyone to see. But Nguyen’s experience across different industries has been exactly the opposite. “Most of the time, it’s a really positive experience,” she says. “And for those times when you do see people who are venting or sharing their opinions online, they just want to be heard. If a company can [allow that kind of feedback] and actually do something about it, then that is the true value of social media.”

Angela Lovell

Getting Started

Shannon Latham, vice president of Latham High-Tech Seeds and a social media pioneer, offers tips for getting started in social media.

• Research. Be a consumer first. Subscribe to and read blogs, “like” Facebook pages and follow Twitter sites that interest you, even from outside your industry. Keep notes of what you like about how they do things.

• Train yourself. Effective use of social media is easy to learn, whether it’s how to blog or how to best utilize a Facebook page or Twitter account. Check online for resources that will help.

• Be real. Represent yourself and your company authentically.

• Update often. Develop a presence by updating your social media presence frequently. You will need to commit time each day to be truly effective.

• Change it up. Don’t allow your social media sites to get stale. Make changes and add new features as you go along.


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