Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Social Media for Market Research: An Example

Social media tools (Facebook, Twitter) you use for your business marketing can also be leveraged as valuable tools for collecting feedback from your followers or customers (i.e. market research).  I have seen one really good example (though I'm sure others exist!) of an ag business using social media to generate and collect feedback.  I asked Julie Finchbaugh from Flinchbaugh's Orchard some questions about her experience in gathering feedback from her business's Facebook followers.

Ag Entrepreneurship: What made you decide to gather feedback from your Facebook followers?

Julie Flinchbaugh: All throughout the year, people suggest ideas or share comments with us.  But, I wanted to find out just how many thought the same thing.  So I comprised a list of feedback I felt I had received in the past, and composed questions based on those!  My goal is to not only entice new customers, but make our Market the best shopping experience while they're here, and if satisfying one more of their needs is the way to do it - then that is what I will do!

AE: How did you decide upon "Survey Saturday?"

JF: "Survey Saturday" was just one of those ideas that randomly popped into my head on a Saturday, that I though about posting a random question, and the whole plan seemed to work!  I didn't want to make it an excessive questioning period, and it seemed that Saturday might be the day, giving individuals something to look forward to throughout the week.  I wanted them to have to check back each week to keep them involved.

AE:What was your goal with the surveys?

JF: It was kind of three fold.  First, I wanted to see how many people out of our total following would respond (we had 93 out of I believe 850-ish followers responds at some point) - to determine if our Facebook marketing was working.  Second, I wanted answers to the questions I posed! Third, I wanted to be sure I created a bit of buzz during the winter months gearing up for our season opening!

AE: Were the responses what you expected?

JF: I really did not know what to expect, but I was so very shocked by the participation.  I found that most questions that revolved around them selecting an 'a, b, c, d, or e' answer garnered the most feedback.  It seemed the open-ended questions were "too tough" or something for them.  Some of the specific answers they provided shocked me some...I was really surprised how many people just wanted "fair" prices vs. having to use coupons or loyalty cards.

Post showing a change made as a result of Survey Saturday.
Notice the number of likes, comments & shares.

AE: What changes did you implement as a result?

JF: Well, we have found a local supplier for all-natural freezer beef, a larger selection of veggies, have implemented a "Little Sprouts" summer class for children, and are considering offering surprise discounts for Facebook followers for specific days or weeks.  Our e-newsletters have been redesigned to offer more "how-to" information and are spotlighting on more of our local items.

AE:What impact has doing the surveys had on the business?

JF: I feel as if I/we know more of what our customers are thinking each day they pop into the Market.  In understanding what they are "thinking" I don't doubt my decisions nearly as much - which is refreshing.  I feel as if I am not taking a gamble half as much when I select new products or develop new ideas.  I believe it has also opened up a channel for even better conversation with our customers too...they are more willing to share ideas or concerns with us!

If you have a Facebook or Twitter presence for your ag business, consider leveraging it to do some market research.  With just a little effort you can gather valuable information and feedback to help with the business decisions you may be faced with.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Find a Mentor!

If you are thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, you likely have family members and/or friends who are supportive of your ideas.  But, do you have someone who will be brutally honest about where your business is headed?  Most family members and friends might not be be able to go there.  You need a mentor!  A mentor is someone who has "been there, done that", can give you advice based on experience, and most importantly, tell you the truth.  

In an article for, Janet Crowther and Katie Covington (founders of, a website for DIY design and crafts projects) rehash their experience in finding a mentor.  “The only way to find mentors is to be out there, meeting people and asking questions,” Covington says. “We’ve met people at events, through friends, on Twitter and by following blogs. As long as you are respectful of time, mentors are almost always willing to help you and your company evolve. We look for mentors who believe in us, have experiences that are vastly differently from ours, and are always creating.”

Crowther and Covington found a willing mentor in tech entrepreneur Cindy Gallop.   “After talking with Cindy for 10 minutes, she was making parallels between For the Makers and a handful of other people she knew.” The companies don’t have a ton in common, “but both of our companies are about giving people tools to create something for themselves,” Covington says. “Mentors can use their experiences to frame your business in a unique way.”


 When looking for a mentor, Gallop advises, “Don’t just fall in love with someone’s reputation, perceived celebrity or name. Identify someone who could be directly relevant to what you want to do, or who is pursuing a similar vision. And someone who is likely to have the time and the inclination to help you.”

As an ag business owner, do you have a mentor?  Has someone ever asked you to be there mentor?  What great advice has your mentor given you?

As a future ag business owner,  have you tried finding a mentor?  Has it been easy or hard to get someone to help you?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Are You Ready to Take the Entrepreneurial Plunge?

Leaving your job to start your own business is one of the biggest decisions of your life.  You have to think about a lack of financial security, the possibility of failure, and hard, hard work.  If you aren't willing to live with these uncertainties, entrepreneurship might not be for you. But if you are risk averse and looking to take the entrepreneurial plunge, below are some things to think about before leaving your day job.

In a recent article, Paddy Spence (a former VP of marketing for Kashi who left the company to create the all-natural Stevia beverage company, Zevia) details why he decided to become an entrepreneur.  "It's important to be aware of what appeals to you most when you make this decision; whether it's the idea of managing a business or building a business," says Spence. "For me, the excitement came when I had the opportunity to build something based on a cause that is significant to me."

Some advice from Spence:

Start with passion: Remember, what defines an entrepreneur is to go beyond thinking about it, ignore the calculated risks and do it.

Believe in it: Define a product, segment, or category that you really believe in and combine it with a business opportunity in that segment. This creates a fertile business opportunity. Stevia-based drinks are a personal passion for Spence because he wants to live a completely sugar-free life.

Have a plan: careful financial planning is critical right up front. "All emerging businesses need capital to grow," says Spence. "Understanding those capital needs and how achieve them is important going into it, as opposed to trying to figure it out as you go along."

Do your market research: Test and learn. Try things on a small scale. Begin with friends and family and get their input on what they think of your product or service. From there you can go on to larger control tests where you will identify measurable quantitative results and actionable changes you might make in your product offering. "The larger your sample size the more you eliminate bias," Spence says. "Start out with a small group and expand it to get feedback from hundreds or thousands."

Keep your branding simple: "You need to be able to tell the story of brand or product without it being a complicated story," Spence says.

As an ag entrepreneur, what planning did you do before leaving your day job to become a business owner?

As a person thinking about entrepreneurship, what do you think about Spence's advice?  Have you followed any of these tips yet?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Grant Opportunity for Farmers Markets

On May 9, the USDA announced a $4 milion grant opportunity for farmers markets who currently do not accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The grant money is to be used for setting up internet access at the markets so that the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system can be used. Currently, there are over 1500 farmers markets in the USA using EBT. This is a 400% rise since 2008.

"Our country's 7,100 operating farmers markets offer opportunities to our children and their families to access healthy food across the country," said Deputy Secretary Merrigan. "SNAP participation at farmers' markets helps provide fresh fruit and vegetables to families and expands the customer base for local farmers - a win-win for agriculture and local communities...This funding will help SNAP customers increase their opportunities to access healthy, local foods," added Deputy Secretary Merrigan. And evidence suggests they will take advantage of that access. When we couple this approach with strategies like the education, cooking demonstrations, and community support often found at farmers markets, consumption of healthy foods should rise even more."

According to the USDA National Farmers Market Directory (, there are 258 farmers markets in PA and only 48 of them accept SNAP benefits. I think this grant sounds like a great opportunity for our PA farmers markets to grab new customers!

As a farmers market participant, do you accept SNAP benefits? If you do, is it a popular payment option? If you do not accept SNAP benefits, are you customers asking for it?

As a farmers market customer, do you think you would shop at a farmers market more often if they accepted SNAP?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Preparing to Do Business With "The Big Guys"

As a small agricultural business owner, your client-base is probably mainly made up of other small businesses and individual consumers. But what if you have your sights set on a larger client? I recently read an article on that discusses this topic. Below are some tips.

1. Believe in your business. Don't be intimidated by a large company. If they want your products, then they need you just as much as you need them.
2. Do a trial run of the ordering and delivery process. In doing so, the client can see how efficiently your business runs and help alleviate any concerns the larger company may have with using you as a supplier.
3. Look professional. Evaluate your website, business cards, information package, etc. Are they older or out-of-date looking? Jazz them up with new, professional looking materials. It's also important to test your communication devices. Do you take orders via phone? You may need an extra phone line to handle the extra call volume.

Look at the above 2 informational folder examples.  The one on the left just has a sticker slapped on a plain envelope (leaves much to be desired).  On the right, this folder looks skillfully designed and conveys a professional message.

4. The devil is in the details. Are your invoices coordinated with your bank account?  Are all of your insurance policies up-to-date? Are you willing to show past financial statements to the client?

As an ag business owner, have you successfully landed a big client? What tips do you have for other ag entrepreneurs? How is working with a big client different from other clients?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Monitoring Social Media Strategy

I'm developing a social media strategy for our Extension team.  I've been making presentations on this topic over the past few months, and am finally putting in practice what I've been telling others.  Of course, I've been thinking about what our strategy might look like this whole time, but I'm finally writing those thoughts down and clarifying our team's social media goals and objectives.

Part of this process involves thinking about how I, or someone else, will monitor and measure the success of the strategy.  It's important to me to ensure that we're effectively engaging our audience on all of the social media tools that we use and providing them with value, of some sort, in return for following us.  For each tool (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blog, etc.) there's at least one related tool that allows you to analyze and measure in impact of your activities.

To share an example, I recently spent some time reviewing the information I can collect and follow through Facebook Insights.  Beyond seeing how many people "like" our Ag Entrepreneurship Extension Team page and some basic demographic information (gender, age range, and geographic location), I can see which posts had the most "engaged users" (i.e. unique people who clicked on the post) or the most people "talking about this."  Insights provides more than just this overall number.  I can click on the "talking about this" number for any post and see exactly how many people took different specific actions (i.e. liking, commenting, or sharing a post, answering a question, or responding to an event).

What's the value of this?  First, I'll be able to track which posts generate the most engagement with our followers.  More importantly, since the different types of actions people take may indicate different levels of content value, I'll have a sense of which types of posts (or post content) people may value more highly and are thus motivated into taking those different actions.  For instance, I'll know which posts people are driven to comment on, one indicator of value, perhaps leading our team to post more on those topics.  Alternatively, I'll be able to see which posts, or content types, people appear to be less interested in.  As time passes, our team will be able to use this information to adjust our social media strategy to most effectively meet the needs of our social media audience(s).

Monitoring the impact, or effectiveness, of your social media activities is essential if you have business or organizational goals that you're trying to achieve with its use.  Take the time to learn about the different analytical tools available to you and decide what information you'll need to measure your social media success.  Once you're able to start identifying how you best connect with your audience that also moves you toward your goals, you'll feel less like you're running on the social media hamster wheel and instead running a race with the finish line in sight.