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Step three to value adding: Social media

Social media is a powerful tool to attract customers, but mastering it isn’t as easy as it looks

There’s no doubt that social media platforms are making it easier than ever to stay in touch with existing customers and to expand your market beyond your current reach. But social media is always evolving, and businesses need to be nimble to use these new tools successfully.

The electronic landscape is shifting so fast that what was true last year may not apply this year. And while being active on social media may not require spending your cold hard cash, it isn’t exactly free. To do it well means investing time, and as the old saying goes, time is money, especially since time is something most farmers are short on.

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While any handbook on using social media is likely to quickly become outdated, we’ve asked the owners of three farms that are actively using social media to promote their value-added products to weigh in with their lessons learned and their tips for success.

Our three farms are:

Chris Hiemstra, Clovermead Adventure Farm near Aylmer, Ont. This agritourism destination features more than 30 activities (many of them bee-themed), and a gift shop where the farm’s honey products are sold.

Jan Schooley and her daughter Melissa of Apple Hill Lavender, Windham Centre, Ont. Along with the apples grown on the farm, the venture sells lavender products and Melissa’s pottery from an on-farm store located in a converted carriage house.

Melissa Howell, Brantview Apples and Cider near St. George, Ont. This enterprise is operated by Melissa, her parents Jay and Linda, sister Jen, and brother Dan. In addition to selling apples at seven farmers markets and through their on-farm store, the Howells also operate a pick-your-own business with a corn maze and wagon rides. In recent years they have also branched out into hard cider with the Howell Road Cider Co. and event hosting with Brantview Events Pavilion.

The first choice

Among the most basic and most important decisions is to select which social media platform(s) to use to create your interactive online presence.

Chris Hiemstra says they are active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Facebook is probably most important for them but he sees Instagram gaining in importance “because it connects people over food and stories mostly through photos.” Hiemstra also says Twitter is losing a bit of its edge for their farm.

Instagram is also playing a bigger role at Apple Hill Lavender these days. “Our customers are very responsive to photos,” says Jan Schooley. Like Clovermead, Facebook continues to be important for Apple Hill Lavender but Twitter is losing ground.

The Howells maintain distinct social media for each of the three segments of their business. “They are all connected but we are conscious of the individual targets,” Melissa Howell says.

Facebook is the most important social media channel for Brantview Apples and Cider, she says. During the pick-your-own season, the Facebook page keeps customers updated on which apples are ready for harvest. While the website is only updated seasonally with their store hours, the Facebook page can be a lot more responsive.

People want to see where their food comes from and because many of their customers have been coming to the farm for years and are interested in knowing what the family is doing, these posts also tend to be personal in nature.

By contrast, for the Howell Road Cider Co., posts on Instagram are very targeted and not personal at all. Melissa’s sister Jen, the cider brewmaster, worked with a marketing firm to create a very specific image and brand for the cider, so she sticks to this messaging.

For promoting Brantview’s fully accessible events pavilion, built using repurposed barn timbers and designed by Dan who is an architect, the focus is on posting photos of weddings and other events on Instagram. The target audience is people looking for a venue with a rustic feel, so these posts show off the venue and are not personal.

How often?

During peak season, sisters Jen and Melissa Howell post every day, spending two or three hours a week on social media. Taking the time to create a good post can pay off; one post had a reach of 12,000 people.

Based on five years’ experience watching how people react to their posts, the Schooleys have developed a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t for their farm. They follow an 80/20 rule — 80 per cent of the posts are about the farm and themselves.

“People want to know about the family and the farm, to make that human connection,” says Melissa Schooley, who says she sometimes posts photos of failed attempts to create new products. “People appreciate the honesty and the humour.”

Feathered visitors to the Schooley farm also feature in many of their social media posts. “We love our birds around here,” says mother Jan, explaining that they frequently post pictures of the swallows and robins around the farm.

Only 20 per cent of their posts for Apple Hill Lavender’s are about products for sale.

A summer student is responsible for managing social media content in the busy summer months at Apple Hill. The student, who is returning for her third summer working at the farm, has been trained on the frequency and type of content to post, including recipes and photos of the lavender.

Go for the authentic

The Schooleys don’t repeat posts. They ensure each post is unique because some people follow them on all of their social media channels. “I’d be annoyed if someone I was following was repeating posts,” says Jan.

Melissa Schooley admits it can be hard to devote the time necessary to really reap the maximum rewards. “Posting consistently is best. It’s like a snowball, it really picks up speed and you gain more followers,” she says. She estimates that posting two times a week should be the minimum but two times a day would be better.

Like Melissa Schooley, Chris Hiemstra, who shares the task of managing social media content with his office manager, says it’s a challenge to find enough time to dedicate to social media. During the busy season they spend about an hour a day creating content and responding to comments, but he admits he’d like to do even more.

“We want to bring the quality of our posts up so that they are engaging, relatable and remarkable,” Hiemstra says.

Social media is an extension of the farm in a digital world, says Hiemstra. “It’s about building deeper relationships with our guests, having a dialogue back and forth, sharing what is happening at the farm with our fans, and introducing ourselves to others who fit our tribe but have not met us.”

In Hiemstra’s opinion, authenticity is critical for success. “If we are authentic online and offline, we will have a decent rating. This helps everyone know if we are worth investing their disposable income into.”


Social media tips

Gregg McLachlan, a rural social media specialist and owner of WorkCabin Creative near Port Dover, Ont., says social media gives farmers an opportunity to tell their story. Consumers have a thirst to know more about who is producing their food and how it’s produced. “Social media gives the public back door access like we’ve never had before.”

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are still the big three when it comes to social media, says McLachlan. However, recent changes to Facebook mean businesses will have to change how they use this social media platform. “It’s not about brands anymore, it’s about people-to-people now,” he says, noting that businesses will need to post engaging content that prompts comments in order to succeed.

McLachlan says video is a really good way to engage your followers, but realizing that many people are intimidated by the process, he offers these tips:

  • Authenticity is critical so it’s important not to make them look too staged. “You’re shooting with a phone; you’re not a Hollywood producer.”
  • Videos don’t have to be long. “A 15-second video can work.”
  • Don’t overthink it. “Done is better than perfect. Just get started.”
  • If you’re feeling camera-shy, take a video showing your hands unboxing your product.
  • Do a virtual tour of your shop.
  • Post a photo of your dog. “That gets tons of engagement. Content is everywhere in your operation.”
  • Tell a story about your good deeds or community service.
  • Make your employees or your customers the stars.
  • Show how you make your product.

But watch out. Once you start getting reactions and engaging your customers, McLachlan says it can get addictive.

Find more tips for creating social media content on McLachlan’s blog, ‘Work Cabin Creative.’

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