AgriNews (link no longer available)
By Carol Stender

STAPLES, Minn. — Despite challenging growing conditions, bad weather and a lackluster economy, many direct marketers had a good year last year.

How did they do it?

Good advertising, including use of Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Good demand for locally grown foods helped sales, said direct marketing expert Jane Eckert. Eckert was the key presenter at the recent Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s “direct marketing in a lackluster economy” workshop last week.

The workshop mirrored Eckert’s use of technology to deliver the message. The presentation was given in St. Paul and teleconferenced to sites in Duluth and Staples. More than 70 people participated.

Eckert is familiar with direct marketing and promotions. She grew up on a farm near St. Louis. After college she worked in corporate marketing for 15 years before her return to the farm, she said.

She promoted the farm’s apple orchard and made it an agri-tourism stop. It now draws around 400,000 visitors a year.

Eckert left the farm in 2001 to start Eckert AgriMarketing. She consults with direct marketers.

In a 2009 survey of her customers, Eckert learned how troubling the growing conditions were. Of 135 responses, 39 said they had to close their season because of bad weather. There were 117 days when people knew no one would come because of poor weather and about 10 percent of respondents said they had a sales decrease of around 23 percent.

Those direct marketers who had a good season claimed social media marketing helped boost sales. Many customers were also staying close to home due to the bad economy. In their plans for a “staycation” close to home, customers looked for family venues on farms.

Apple grower Chris Curtis of Illinois saidFacebook is an important marketing tool.

“It’s not a fad,” Becker said. “Social media is providing a shift in the way people communicate with each other. It’s here today.”

Curtis gained 5,000 members in three months on his Facebook page.

“It’s now a critical point of our marketing,” he told Eckert.

Eckert offered a word of caution.

“If you can’t keep up with it, don’t get involved,” she said. “Nothing is worse than going on a web site and seeing a list of events from six months ago.”

Through blogs, direct marketers can describe the growing season or the farm routine. Pictures and videos on blogs and web sites captures attention.

The good news is that many of the social media opportunities are free, Eckert said.

It’s possible to develop a personalized web page, but she suggests hiring a web designer for a professional look. Check out designers and their fees and register a domain name, she said.

Coupons are another draw. Coupons are being used by people who fit all demographics and all ages, she said.

“There isn’t a business out there that’s not doing some kind of promotional offer. Why? Because we are in a tougher economy.”

Examples of coupon offers includes a farm that guaranteed one free pumpkin to the family if it rains during their visit.

Maximize messages, she said. “Eat local, buy local,’ is one slogan. Some direct marketers are also talking about their own “green living.” If the bags are made from recycled paper, state it.

Just because you sell healthy, fresh produce to consumers, it doesn’t mean they know how to cook them. Include cooking information and recipes. and offer prepared foods.

Look at payment methods. Young shoppers don’t carry lots of cash nor do they use checks. They are using debit cards, instead, Eckert said.

It is tough to be the producer, hacker and marketer, she said. Hire a media buyer.

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