Monday, January 28, 2013

Instagram and Small Businesses

Using photos in your social media efforts can provide amazing results. Recently, I heard Julie Flinchbaugh (@flinchsorchard) talk about her most successful Facebook posts (as measured by Facebook Insights) of 2012.  The top ones all had an image.  Photos capture a moment unlike words ever could (unless you use 1,000 words, or so says the proverb).  Is there any wonder why, then, two of the hottest social media tools are Pinterest and Instagram?  We've discussed Pinterest in this blog a few times.  (Check out Lots of Interest in Pinterest... and Pinterest Secret Boards - Make Use of Them for Your Business. That first one needs a bit of an update...)  Let's briefly talk about Instagram, though.

My Instagram page as viewed on a web browser. Your business's pics in this format could be very engaging!
Instagram is a photo-based social media tool designed primarily for mobile phones and tablets.  (The website is a relatively new feature.)  It allows the user to snap a new pic (or use one stored on the device), edit it (notice the various effects in the pics above) and add a caption.  The user can also share the photo to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and foursquare.  Users of Twitter and Facebook will also recognize the usefulness and power of @ mentions of other users as well as hashtags.  These act just like they do in the other tools.  Finally, all content is public by default.  Users follow each other similar to the Twitter model and, like Twitter, you can make your profile private.

I made this Granny Smith
tower. What if I had linked it
to my favorite orchard or grocery
store?  What if I had tagged a friend
to tell them how good the apples were?
According to its website, Instagram currently has over 30 million user accounts and over 5 million photos are uploaded each day.  Individual use of the tool continues to grow.  Here are 6 ideas how you might use it to connect with your customers and tell your business's story....

  1. Post pics of cool stuff around your business; how you make your product, the view from your farm market, a customer enjoying your product.  Be sure to add appropriate hashtags to expand your reach.  Add a comment asking for people's thoughts or challenge them to identify what they see.
  2. Add a personal touch if customer relationships are important. Pics from a family vacation, holidays, or weird things you see on any given day are all good stuff.  Show them whatever you are comfortable sharing.
  3. Tie Instagram to your other social media accounts.  This will help you spread your word and hopefully attract people to connect with you in multiple ways.
  4. Encourage users to post pics of themselves using your products.  Ask them to @ mention you.  You might even create a hashtag to group all those pics.  (This could be a photo contest opportunity if you can decide how to judge them. Random drawing, perhaps?)
  5. If you have a retail location, encourage users to post photos and tie them to foursquare check-ins.  This builds your presence on foursquare and adds that powerful image to what might otherwise simply be a check-in notification.
  6. As with other tools, be social with it.  Like things that those you follow post (if you really do like it).  Comment on it.  Respond to comments on your pics. Etc.
I've grown to enjoy Instagram for its simplicity and ability to engage another user (including a business) around a photo.  With just a bit of thought, I think there's a lot of potential to use it effectively in marketing a small business, especially food and agricultural businesses.  If you follow me (jeffhyde), I'll absolutely follow you back!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Finding and Keeping Your CSA Members

by Brian Moyer, Penn State Extension Program Assistant

Think about who your ideal CSA member is. Find them and keep them.

One of the attractions of having a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm is it allows you to focus more on farming and spend less time on trying to figure out where you are going to market your harvest. While there may be some truth in that, one still needs to find the "community" portion of the CSA that will support your farming venture so let's look at some ways to find shareholders or members and explore some methods you can use to keep them.

According to a survey of shareholders of CSA's in the Mid-Atlantic Region that was compiled by Lydia Oberholtzer for the Small Farm Success Project, on average, CSAs have to replace 55% of their shareholders every year.  This can be a lot of work and worry every winter when you'd probably rather spend your time planning and ordering seeds for your upcoming season.

Who Are Your Shareholders?
Spend some time learning about the members of the community you want to grow food for. What are their staple foods? What do the demographics look like?

Knowing who is in your community might influence the products you will offer, drop off points, what kind of shares you are offering, events you may have, and how you communicate with your shareholders.

Finding Shareholders
No matter what form of agriculture you do, you will have to be involved in some form of marketing, and CSAs are no exception. The dictionary definition of marketing is: The total of activities involved in the transfer of goods from the producer or seller to the consumer or buyer, including advertising, shipping, storing, and selling.

Marketing requires three things: time, tools, and a bit of knowledge. Time for marketing is not the first thing we think about as farmers, but maybe it should be. Think of it this way, the harvest isn't fully complete until the food is in the customers' hands.

There are many marketing tools available to us today that can make reaching out to your customers or shareholders so much easier. The trick is selecting the tools that are right for you.  There are the obvious ones: logo, business cards, and invoices. These are very important. They give your business a "look" or "feel" and something that your customers will recognize immediately.  Once you have those basics, how are you going to use them?

How do your potential shareholders get their information? Do they search websites? Do they use Facebook? Do they have a newspaper subscription? Knowing the demographic you are trying to reach will help you select the marketing tools that will work best for you.

Nationally, the demographics of CSA shareholders are suburban or urban, they are educated, mostly female, between the ages of 30 and 49, and are already consumers of organic foods. They want high-quality food and they want to support local farms.

If this is the demographic of your community, then such internet tools like websites and social media might be one of your options.  Ah, but not all social media is created equal. There are demographics for different networks.  For instance, if a majority of your shareholders are women, the social network site Pinterest may be one you will want to look into since a majority of its users are women. Social media can be a good tool for instant and brief communication with your shareholders.

Whatever you decide to use, all your tools should direct people to your website. Think of your website as the hub and your other tools, such as Facebook, Pinterest, blogs, e-newsletters, etc., as spokes. The website is where all the important information should be.

A website should include three main things and they are what farmer Lisa Kerschner of North Star Orchards calls background info, basic info, and bummer issues.  Background information would include letting folks know why they should invest in you.  Are you an experienced farmer or are you just starting out? Why should they become shareholders in your farm? Be sure to include any testimonials from existing customers if you have them.

Basic information would cover things like how much is a share? Where do I pick up my share? What does a share include? What are my responsibilities as a shareholder? Also let folks know if you are partnering with any other farms to provide products for the shareholders.  Bummer issues would discuss: what if I can't pick up my share this week? What happens if there is a crop loss?

Keeping Shareholders
Just as you need methods to communicate with your shareholders, you should provide ways for the shareholders to communicate with you.  You need to know why they join, stay, and leave. How do they use the produce you provide? Is it enough? Is it the quality they expected?

Some tools you can use:
  • Create a "core group" of shareholders for advice, feedback, and planning
  • Create opportunities for feedback (during the season and at the end of the season)
    • Talk to members at pick-up
    • Have a "comment tree" (paper, web, email)
    • Have an email listserv for the shareholders
    • Conduct surveys (email, web, paper) at the end of the season
  • Learn why members don't renew
The biggest reward for taking the time to use these tools effectively is having clear and better communication with your shareholders.  This will results in better retention rates and spending less time in the winter trying to find new shareholders and more time doing other things.

For more information on marketing, check out our website and Pinterest site.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LinkedIn, Part IV: Company pages

Not only can LinkedIn users create a personal page, users can create business pages.  Just as with Facebook and other social media sites, LinkedIn will lead you through the process of building a business page so that you can connect with other users, ask them to provide recommendations, and promote goods and services.  A few things you will be asked to do when creating the company page:

1.  You’ll be asked to provide details about the business (company name, type of company and size, URL, industry, etc.).




2.  Indicate who will be able to post of the page – you have the option to limit posting to the person who creates the company page or allow other company employees to act as administrators, and, provide a contact email address.  (Image from LinkedIn's company page builder example)



One thing to be aware of when registering your company page – domain names with @comcast.net, @gmail.com, or similar are not considered valid. 


As with other web tools you use, LinkedIn will also provide analytics pertaining to the number of page views and unique visitors who view your company page, as well as the visitor’s demographics.  In addition, LinkedIn will compare these numbers to numbers for what they call “similar companies.”  So, if there are a fair number of “like” companies who have LinkedIn company pages you may see some valuable data; however, if there are few other businesses with company pages in your category – the available comparison statistics may not be of much use. (Image from LinkedIn's company page builder example)



To build a company page, click the “Companies” tab, select “Search for Companies,” and then click “Add a Company” link, which you will find on the right hand of the screen.  Right now you might find too many ag. businesses listed but why not be one of the first and create your page.  For some inspiration view LinkedIn’s slideshow of “The 12 Best Linked company Pages of 2012” at tinyurl.com/c2t4gr9

Take the time to not only update our profile often but to look through the LinkedIn “Help Center” feature as the tool is likely to continue to evolve.  You are bound to find a feature that you fell will benefit you or your business, such as recruiting for your business (for which a fee is charged), or learn about positions that you might be interested in.  Take some time and navigate through the system to become familiar with LinkedIn and make valuable connections. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

LinkedIn, Part III: Networking and groups

It is quite possible that even those who do not own a LinkedIn account know that the primary purpose is to build and enhance networks.  LinkedIn has a few tools that I have found useful to share with other LinkedIn users and to learn from others in my industry.

Tweet to your links

I am an active Twitter user and have connected my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts such that what I post on LinkedIn can also post to Twitter (I have also done this in a social media dashboard that I use, HootSuite, where I can select the tweet to post to Twitter and LinkedIn).  This is not mandatory; I do have the option of just strictly posting the content on just LinkedIn.  But, think about your audiences who follow/link to you on different social networks you might be involved with – might some of your postings apply to more than one audience?  If so, why save time and post to more than one network by clicking just one “share” button?

How to set up the ability to post to LinkedIn and Twitter simultaneously. 














Why have I chosen to do this?  The more often that my posts appear on any friends’, followers’, or linkages’ feed - the more often they (may) see my posts, topics I like to discuss or contribute to, and may be more likely to read these posts, access my other social media profiles, and view me as more of a resources who shares information that is of value to them. 

Provide and ask those you’re linked to for recommendations

Aside from sharing content on LinkedIn, I have also been asked, and obliged, to provide recommendations for some of my connections.  A recommendation is merely a shot description of the person’s skills, experiences you've had based on interacting with them, and similar.  Consider other businesses that you have relationships with.  If you were to endorse them on LinkedIn – could you help build their reputation and credibility as a leader in their industry? Certainly, you would not want to provide recommendations for each and every LinkedIn user you are connected to, so be selective and provide honest insight as your name, as well as reputation, is tied with you include in the recommendation.

An example of a recommendation I wrote for a guest lecturer who has spoken in one of the classes I teach at Penn State. 

It is not necessary to wait for someone to ask you for a recommendation in order for you to write one, rather anytime you click on one of your connection’s profile you are presented with the option: “would you like to recommend (name)?”  Pretty simple and straightforward just like your ability to add/select keywords that describe your connection’s skills or expertise. 

Join or start a LinkedIn group

The ability to join a LinkedIn group, based on an interest or industry, is one of the strengths of this social network.  Some specifics about groups:

·       You do not need to join most groups to view what members are posting, unless it is a closed group and an administrator must approve your membership before you can participate, but if you want to receive updates with about the group’s activities (posted on your feed page) you do need to join. 

·       You can join up to 50 groups and browse discussions, learn about promotions group members are offering (e.g. classes, special discounts on merchandise), job postings, and see a listing of group members. 
Groups can be very useful resources.  Members post questions and other members can respond or “like” comments.  My own experience with joining a group evolved from connecting with key group members to asking group members to suggest topics for a course I teach.  This informal exchange resulted in some interesting and diverse comments and viewpoints.  Even if you never initiate a discussion, it is interesting to learn from others about how they solved a problem similar to what you are experiencing or learn about potential opportunities. 

This is the message I wrote and that was posted on my group's page.  Other group members provide thought provoking and valuable replies. 

LinkedIn provides a few tools that can help you identify groups you may want join. You can:

  • do a general search for a group based on keywords (as I write this blog there are 1.5 million groups) 
  •  filter the entire list of groups by language and/or by instructing LinkedIn to only select groups that your connections belong to – doing this narrowed my results to 880. 
If you do not find a group that you want to join you can always create your own.  The process is very straightforward and you have the option of having an open or closed group.  Additionally, you can alert others about your group by using the “invite others” option in each group’s page.  By clicking on this link an email is generated with a brief description of the group’s purpose that you can send to others who might be interested in joining. 

In the last of this series of blog postings on LinkedIn I'll describe company pages and how easy it is for businesses to build their own.  




Tuesday, January 15, 2013

LinkedIn, Part II: Customize your profile page

This blog continues with last week's discussion about LinkedIn.  To learn about highlighting your skills, expertise, and your accomplishments - click here: LinkedIn Part I.

When I first signed up for my LinkedIn account I did not realize that I would be assigned a rather long and difficult to remember profile URL that was a mix of my full name and random numbers and letters.  LinkedIn gives users the opportunity to customize their public profile URL (I changed mine to www.linkedin.com/in/kathymkelley, which I think is much more professional than the automatic URL I was assigned when I opened my account …./in/kathleenmariekelley93dnc9el3).  

I suggest that users customize their URL as soon as possible, because first come/first served - if the URL is available now it may not be in the future.  My name is fairly common so I had to go through several combinations to get a URL that was short and made sense.  Customizing becomes even more critical when a business owner develops a company page (discussed in my next blog) and wants a LinkedIn URL that closely matches their website or Facebook URL.  Grab it while you can!

Not only have I customized my LinkedIn URL, but I have done something similar for the three websites (the maximum I can add) I've added to my profile:
LinkedIn gives users a couple of labeling options when they add URLs to their profile page.   In the edit contact info option I have two choices for describing/labeling the webpage associated with the URL:
  • I have the option of choosing one of the general/generic names produced (personal website, company website, blog, RSS feed, or blog) or
  • I can develop a more specific label of my choosing, though I am limited to 30 characters or less.
I like the option to customizing and think it is more enticing to see a website labeled: PSU Farm Business blog rather than the standard LinkedIn “blog” label.  If an ag. business uses the generic “blog” title someone looking at the profile may have no clue as to the type of blog that they will find after clicking on the URL.   Better to provide a bit of information, even if the description is rather brief. 


Entering customized link descriptions and how they look on my LinkedIn profile.

As you can see, some of what I've described about LinkedIn is similar to what you might have had to provide when you built your website or even when you set up Twitter or Facebook accounts.  LinkedIn does have an extensive help menu and FAQ section – and LinkedIn personnel are responsive when users ask questions via their “Contact Us” form.  This is just the start of our LinkedIn conversation.  Do check back next week when I describe a bit about networking and company pages. 


Monday, January 14, 2013

The Costs of Accepting Credit Cards

Credit cards are a payment staple for many consumers.  Although there are fees associated with processing credit cards, you should consider potential sales losses by not accepting them.  As I always stress, do your research to help you decide if/how you should process credit.  Below are some questions to ask to get you started.


In the U.S. alone, consumers collectively had over 609 million credit cards (Source: "The Survey of Consumer Payment Choice," Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, January 2010).  That's a lot of cards!  One of the main reasons small businesses don't accept credit cards are the fees associated with processing.  You will need to include this fee in your pricing strategy to determine if you will need to raise your prices. 

Questions you should ask:

1.  What fees are charged per transaction?  Do the fees vary?
Most credit card processors charge a per transaction fee plus a percentage of the total purchase price (for example, $0.30 per transaction plus 1.9% of the total purchase price).  Fees can vary depending on whether the customer is in the store and you swipe the card versus typing in a card number or paying online.  Also, the type of credit card may result in a higher fee (for example, an airline miles card usually costs more to process).  

Conversely, you also have the option to use a credit card processor that offers a flat rate like Square, Paypal, or Google Checkout.   

2.  Are there any other fees associated with processing credit cards?
Find out if there are other costs like monthly fees, regulatory fees, statement fees, etc. All potential fees should be spelled out clearly before signing a contract with a processor.

3.  How much will a terminal(s) cost?
A terminal is the actual machine in which you swipe the credit card.  Opt for purchasing rather than renting a terminal because rental fees are often exorbitant.  For example, purchasing a terminal may cost $200-$350 while renting could cost as much as $139 per month.

4.  Is the credit card processing system compatible with your online store?
You will want your processor's software to be able to connect with your online store so that both your brick and mortar sales and your online sales can be processed together.

Other tips:

-If you already have an established processor, give them a call and try to renegotiate your fees.  Processors sometimes charge higher fees for new businesses because of higher risks.  Being a loyal customer may save you some money! 
-Be wary of a processor that wants to charge you a setup fee.  You shouldn't pay a fee for the "privilege" of using their system.

To read more about credit card processing, check out these two great articles on Entrepreneuer.com-- "5 Questions You Must Ask Your Credit Card Processor" and "How to Cut Transaction Costs on Customer Purchases".

As an ag business owner, do you already accept credit cards?  Do you think that the convenience is outweighed by the fees?

If you don't accept credit cards, why not?  How frequently do you lose customers because you don't accept credit?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Are you LinkedIn? Part I: Highlight your skills, expertise, and your accomplishments

I have been a LinkedIn member for a few years and have made some good connections with other users; however, I wanted to learn how to use this social media tool to help ag. businesses build connections, learn from other industry members, and how to potentially increase business. So, I decide to brush up on my LinkedIn skills and learn about some of the changes that took place at the end of last year – some of which I like very much.

Creating a LinkedIn account is fairly straight forward, much like any other social media account or online account you might have created in the past.  A step-by-step process will prompt you to add contact information, your picture, past and current positions, as well as areas of expertise and your skills, etc. 

Adding more than just basic information

You may be tempted to just add the minimum to your LinkedIn profile – but image how much more professional you will appear if you do provide more detailed information about you, your business, and skills and expertise you possess.

Adding skills or expertise is just a matter of adding keywords, or allowing other LinkedIn users to “endorse” you by adding keywords they feel describe what you have to offer.  For example, my skills and expertise are broad, since I have many responsibilities at Penn State, and include: teaching, public speaking, social media, statistics, horticulture, and similar.  A few of LinkedIn users I am linked to endorsed me for horticulture and blogging.  These short words/phrases really do stick out among all the other information I've chosen to add to my profile page – a real contrast to the paragraphs of information that describe current and past positions, etc. 

A listing of keywords describing skills and expertise. 

Think about keywords you could add to describe your specialties: consulting, public speaking, management, landscape, floral design, event planning, or specific computer software skills.  The possibilities are endless. 


The skills and expertise section is just one of the features that users can use to highlight accomplishments or achievements.  More recently, LinkedIn added a feature that allows users to emphasize projects they have completed, courses they have offered, organizations they belong to, and even volunteer activities and causes they support.  Users also have the option to associate each of these with specific jobs or positions they have held. Some examples as to how ag. businesses can use these descriptors include: 
  • Have you written an article about a topic that would be of interest to those you've connected with on LinkedIn?  If so, enter the title, brief description, as well as the URL that they can click on for easy access. 
  • You can do the same for projects.  Perhaps you/your business provided plant material or landscaped a property that had significant meaning for the community.
  • For honors and awards, maybe your wine was award the overall gold medal winner in a wine competition. Why not let other LinkedIn users learn about this achievement? 
For some of these, such as publications and project, you will be able to “add” other LinkedIn members to the description.  For me, I feel that this blog provides stakeholders with such useful and timely information that I added it as a project, associated it with my current position at Penn State, and added names of other major blog contributors (Sarah, Jeff, and Dana) to give credit where credit is due.  

Information I've added to create a project on my LinkedIn profile. Notice how Jeff and Dana are listed under the "Team Member(s) heading.

After I saved the information to LinkedIn profile, each of them received an email from LinkedIn asking if they would like the description of the project added to their profile page.  If they approved, the description was added.  Now, their linkages can learn a little bit more about the blog and choose to read it and receive updates when we next post.

This is how projects will appear on LinkedIn profile pages. 


As with all of your information on your profile page, you can arrange the order so that if you would like projects, etc., to appear above other information, such as the summary of your background, education, groups you belong to, you can choose to do so.  LinkedIn is truly a tool that you can customize in many different ways.  Next time I'll describe other features that you can customize on your LinkedIn profile.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Five Tips for Farm and Food Businesses in 2013

Take time this winter to consider last
year's results and plan for next year.
Maybe it's too strong a statement but I'll write it anyway.... What you do this winter could mean the difference between flourishing and shutting the doors.  These five tips will help you prepare for the coming year (and beyond).

1. Assess your success - One of the best things to do in January and February is analyze your records from last year.  How was production?  Did you meet your financial and business goals?  Any idea why you may not have hit your targets, whether you were under or over them?  What did you learn that would cause you to re-think what you had planned for 2013?  Maybe it's a little change; maybe it's huge.  Either way, note what it is and make the necessary changes.

Whether you sell on the floor, wholesale, or retail,
you need to consider your markets for 2013.

2. Explore your markets - No matter if you are in a commodity market (like most milk or grain) or a direct market (like a farmers' market), learn about where the markets are expected to go in 2013.  Should you lock in prices on your grains?  Should you pull out of that store and target a restaurant whose chef is interested in featuring locally-grown produce?  Should you change some flavors in your baked goods or cheeses?  Talk to neighbors, industry players, and others who have thoughts/opinions.  Learn from them.

3. Take a close look at policy changes - Will health care reform (so-called "Obamacare") affect you?  Will changes in tax laws or the Farm Bill impact how you do business?  What about this Fiscal Cliff we are hearing so much about?  Although I've not been around as long as some others may have been, I can't recall a year in which there was more uncertainty about government policies that could affect farms and food businesses.

Sarah Cornelisse teaches how
social media can be used to
market and manage a business.
We have more on that and other
topics coming up this year.
4. Learn - Take time to improve your most important production input, your managerial ability.  Attend workshops and conferences.  Take advantage of downtime to talk with friends and neighbors in the industry.  We in Penn State Extension have several workshops coming up and we regularly promote those of other organizations.  Check out our webpage (farmbusiness.psu.edu) and some recent blog posts (here and here) to learn more.

5. Embrace technology - I'm rarely without my smart phone so this one shouldn't surprise anyone, coming from me.  However, I strongly urge you to take advantage of information technology.  I believe that managing data and technology will be what differentiates successful from unsuccessful businesses, including farms and food businesses.  With data and information all around us, the advantage will go to those who manage it best and use it to make the best decisions.  Some examples:
  • Take time to follow the right people on Twitter.  (BTW, I'm @jeffhyde.)  
  • If you are thinking really long term, talk to a business consultant to see what they can do to help you make sense of the information that's out there.  
  • Join LinkedIn and connect with people in industry, academia, and some who are like you.  
  • Like some businesses on Facebook or start a page of your own.
There are so many ways, including tons in addition to these, to "listen" in today's connected world.  Believe me, "listening" is much more valuable than "speaking" on social media.  (To learn more, check out Sarah's post, "The Value of Social Media as a Market Research Tool.")  The trick is weeding out the noise.

There's always a lot to do in any business.  Make sure you attend to these things and have fun.  Love what you do!