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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
BAYER CROP PROTECTION USES VIRTUAL ROUNDTABLE EVENT TO EDUCATE WHEAT GROWERS
This is a column about SCAB. I've written about a lot of things in the past six years, but never about SCAB. And this isn't just your garden-variety SCAB, the kind you get when you fall down and scrape your knees or elbows.

Nope. This is SCAB known as Fusarium head blight, the disease that infects spring wheat, durum and barley. And when it comes to promoting efforts to get rid of SCAB, the answer won't be a band-aid and some antiseptic ointment.

VIRTUAL GROWER ROUNDTABLE

In all seriousness, SCAB is one of those fungal problems which growers are never quite sure how to react to. Will it appear or won't it? Does the disease have an effect on yields? And how much yield damage can it cause? What's the window of opportunity to treat and what should you use?

As Bayer Crop Protection, Kansas City, Mo., and its marketing communications agency, AdFarm, reviewed the situation, it became apparent that Bayer's fungicide FOLICUR was a nice fit to manage this problem. That's the good news. The bad news? The product doesn't have full registration from the U.S. EPA. The best that's been done in the past seven years is securing Section 18 registration so the product is available to combat the disease. This is especially important in the Dakotas and northwest Minnesota.

As many of us in marketing and sales are aware, no EPA registration means no promoting the product. But agencies and clients have been able to get around this over the years by developing "educational" tools to get the message out about a particular product. Bayer discovered the best way to get management information out about control of SCAB would be through a virtual grower roundtable (VGR).

"We are fortunate to have a client that can think beyond the norm," says Scott Kurfman, director of client services for Adfarm's Kansas City office. Adfarm also has offices in Calgary, Alberta, and Fargo, N.D. "This is one of those situations where FOLICUR is the leading product to control SCAB, so we don't have to put a lot of window dressing to get the job done."

Clyde Wilson, marketing manager, fungicides, for Bayer Corporation, sees a VGR as a way to "get potential customers to participate without a tremendous amount of effort on their part to accommodate schedules. That's the beauty of this. Efficiency is a big part of the reasoning behind this teleconference."

Imagine a giant U-shaped table in a wheat field in North Dakota. At the open end is a panel of experts on SCAB, from growers to university researchers. Around this table are 400 wheat growers, all waiting for information about how to control SCAB in their wheat fields. "I told Clyde that a virtual roundtable was the answer to the problem of getting the message to his customers," Kurfman says. "It's pretty expensive, but if you look at it on a per acre basis, it has real value."

HOW IT WORKS

There have been two VGRs thus far, one in 2001 and one this past March. Because this article had to be completed before all the results of the March 2002 meeting were formulated, we'll concentrate on the first event. Most of the growers participating in 2001 were primarily wheat growers, while increased focus has been placed on recruiting barley growers for the 2002 sessions.

To promote the VGR, growers were contacted by direct mail and encouraged to sign up for a one-hour telephone session. Each grower was also called and asked to join in the event. The VGR was executed by Beck Ag Com, Inc., Sacramento, Calif., and led by President John Finegan. Beck Ag was formed in early 1997 and has successfully implemented word-of-mouth marketing programs for many of the major crop protection, seed, equipment and animal health companies. Its peer-to-peer conferences have engaged thousands of farmers, farm managers, retailers, vets and other ag professionals.

Beck Ag Com first did a similar project in Canada a few years ago after being enlisted by AdFarm's Calgary office to do the project. "We originally did a project like this with Bayer in Canada," Finegan recalls. "We did it in close cooperation with the M¨nitoba Department of Agriculture and the wheat association. We take the high road using this educational approach. It's not a barrage of advertising and direct mail."

ưayer secured the expert panelists. University researchers with expertise in small grain production - Dr. Marcia McMullen of North Dakota State University and Jochum Wiersma of the University of Minnesota - were part of the group, along with Ron Anderson, a farmer and state association executive from Minnesota, plus two innovative wheat producers from North Dakota - Greg Daws and Michael Brewer.

Those appearing in the VGR need time to prepare and get motivated to succeed. So, Finegan says, "We even have a virtual 'Green Room' to prep the panelists before we start. They also have an idea of the kinds of questions they will likely get from the growers involved in the roundtable. We like them to be prepared."

Prior to the start of the VGR, Beck Ag Com calls the growers who have pre-registered. The listeners are muted during the presentation. The only interactive folks are the panelists and moderator. About 15 to 20 minutes into the program, the moderator offers listeners a chance to ask questions. If a grower's question is used, he/she will then become interactive with the panelists and ask the question in the live format. "This is almost like a radio talk show," Fingegan says.

Kurfman says the important thing is the follow-up after the event to get growers to buy the product. "The more people we personally touch with this the better. The sales follow-up is so important."

To assist in the process following the event, online polling is conducted at the end of the conference, with growers being asked three or four questions. "First we find out if the hour spent was worthwhile and valuable," Finegan says. "Over the five years we've been doing this, about 97 percent have found the effort beneficial."

That question is followed up by more specific questions about contacts from Bayer sales reps and requests for more information. While some of Beck Ag Com's effort through a VGR is meant to leverage the "peer influence" impact of other growers, the Bayer VGR is more geared toward education in a convenient environment - the growers' own home or office - which is legitimized by the reputation of a distinguished panel, according to Kurfman.

"Our experience has shown that the smaller the group the better percentage you'll get for new users of the product," Finegan says. This (the Bayer event) is a large group. It's a little less interactive. There's less peer influence in a large group, but in this case we supplement that with the power of the university experts."

FOLLOWING UP

Kurfman says a VGR should "be a catalyst for follow-up efforts by a company to promote and sell products. "It's one thing to personally touch 400 people in a virtual roundtable," he says. "But it's important to spin out the message to 10,000 wheat growers."

What that means is following up the VGR with such tactics as:

• Direct mail to targeted growers, which includes an audio cassette of the VGR;

• Media relations with appropriate print and broadcast media;

• The ability to download the transcript off of a Web site, complete with audio highlights.

"An effort like this needs aggressive promotion. That's how we like to attack marketing a product for a client," Kurfman says. "I'd rather have three strategies with 10 tactics, than 10 different strategies. That's how we approach business."

Wilson believes for a niche market like FOLICUR, a VGR is "absolutely a top priority" in terms of marketing tactics. "We need a high satisfaction level with this product and growers need all the information they can get to really be on target and get the results they expect. It's information/education, information/education, information/education. You can't get it any better than through this teleconference."

Finegan concludes that customer relationship management (CRM) is the future of agricultural marketing. "This approach - getting growers talking and asking specific questions that fit their operations - is the essence of CRM. You must identify the right target, learn what they need and drive them to go to trial and use."

He adds that as measurability becomes increasingly important, efforts like a VGR are excellent to determine the effectiveness of a program. "With a virtual roundtable, you know who participated and you can figure out how much product they purchased. It's very easy to measure the value. And if we convert one grower through our tactic and he talks to 10 of his neighbors, you get the additional ripple effect." AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.


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