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'BUZZING' ABOUT AGRICULTURE
It's been going on for years at farm stores and coffee shops in rural communities. Some might dismiss it as gossip, but agrimarketers are finding out that old-fashioned word-of-mouth tactics can be valuable components when used correctly in the marketing mix.

Word-of-mouth, also called grassroots marketing, is defined by George Silverman, author of The Secrets of Word-of-mouth Marketing, as "communication about products and services between people who are perceived to be independent of the company providing the product or service, in a medium perceived to be independent of the company."

Jamie Greenheck, senior vice president and senior partner at Fleishman-Hillard, Inc., Kansas City, Mo., simply describes it as "the spread of great ideas and innovative products through one-on-one relationship building." Greenheck and her firm are actively helping marketers implement word-of-mouth techniques to move markets and maximize budgets by using some basic communications principles.

GETTING STARTED

To initiate a grassroots campaign, Greenheck says marketers must first identify and analyze their target markets, which means looking at community demographics, the media and the "buzz generators."

Next, a community organizer is selected, which is usually an experienced person familiar with a particular industry or product. Depending on the product or issue, this may range from a veterinarian to a farm wife, an extension specialist, a university professor, or a farmer, all of whom know a community and are well respected. The community
organizer helps customize and target the message to the individual community and builds a base of local influencers that mobilize the word-of-mouth effort.

Influencers, or buzz generators, are well-connected and influential members of a community that spread the word-of-mouth message with credibility. "The key to a successful word-of-mouth campaign is reaching, influencing and mobilizing those who are well connected and influential, farmers who are early adopters of an idea or product, and those pre-disposed to sharing information," Greenheck explains.

PEER EDUCATION

For five years, Beck Ag Com has been consulting with various organizations on how to effectively implement word-of-mouth marketing strategies. An example is Beck Ag Com's Ag Telecom® programs, which unite a group of similar ag professionals on the telephone. Whether they are apple growers, soybean farmers or golf course superintendents, Ag Telecom participants learn by talking with their peers about a specific product or technology. Educationally based, the forum provides participants the opportunity to learn from peers who have tried the specific product or technology. "It's through sharing those experiences that individuals are able to move from awareness of a product to adoption and increased usage of the product," says John Finegan, president of Beck Ag Com, Sacramento, Calif.

"The power of word-of-mouth marketing comes from the fact that it totally enables the participant," says Stephanie Liska, development director, Beck Ag Com. "Word-of-mouth unites a group of people talking about a product because they want to learn more about what works, how, when and why, for whom, and where," Liska adds.

"Participants actually enjoy our programs because they provide 'Edu-Tainment'...we facilitate learning and product verification in an enjoyable, interactive way," says Finegan. He explains that unlike the Internet exchange, teleconferences involve voice-to-voice communication in a third party, non-threatening way. "It is very much like a conversation at the coffee shop with like-situated peers," he says. "It is through that dialogue that a transformation occurs. Participants' understanding of a product or scenario in which that product is used is changed because of that shared experience, idea or learning. There is a progression in their state of understanding.

"Something really unique occurs with word-of-mouth marketing," Finegan continues. "Individuals have the chance to learn about someone else's direct experience with a product. They have the chance to ask questions that might impact their specific situation - to pool their experiences. They learn about a product because they want to."

MAXIMIZING MARKETING

According to Greenheck, grassroots marketing is not for every market. She says the technique works best when applied to three situations: When re-launching or repositioning a product; launching a new-to-the-world product; and when managing issues and product perceptions.

For example, Greenheck and Fleishman-Hillard, Inc. worked with Monsanto, St. Louis, to launch Posilac bovine somatotropin for increased milk production, which experienced low consumer and producer acceptance when it was approved for market in 1994. Monsanto went to action, enrolling the help of veterinarians, animal nutritionists, and dairy producers to spread the word about the benefits and safety of the product. Steven Bierschenk, marketing director, Monsanto, says, "The vets and industry professionals were a great source of strength in the marketplace that targeted early-adopters and influenced purchasing decisions."

The company also found an interesting way to break the ice with an extraordinary RV known as the "cow cruiser." This vehicle, with the face of a cow painted on its side, was driven to dairy farms and agriculture events to promote open, friendly dialogue about Posilac.

Lastly, Monsanto began hosting a Dairy Women's Conference to include a sector of the dairy industry that was often ignored by other manufacturers. Bierschenk explains, "The conference created an image of Monsanto being a true partner in the industry." He adds that it has been an extremely effective grassroots technique that has "taken a life of its own." Bierschenk says attendees of the women's conference have now started their own local peer groups that continue to spread the good word about Posilac and Monsanto.

"Agriculture is better suited for grassroots/buzz generation than any other industry," says Greenheck. "This is because agriculture is a small industry with easily identifiable leaders. Also, the technology itself and the people in the industry are prone to 'show and tell.'"

CRM AND SALES

"We see word-of-mouth marketing work for both us and our customers," says Rebecca Bull, Elanco marketing associate for veterinary products. "We see endless ways to keep the conversation fresh and to keep the peer-to-peer education continuing."

"Typically, you see increased sales approximately three months following an individual's participation in a peer-to-peer program," Bulls explains. "Long-term, this is a relationship builder. Through these programs, we provide continuing education credits to veterinarians, and we can help our overall sales effort. The combined benefits of education and sales means stronger relationships with customers and better long-term sales."

David Flack, group vice president of The Scotts Company North America, says, "We have probably done 10 or so programs and are experiencing excellent results in terms of delivering our product message and generating solid grower leads for the sales force to close." Flack adds, "It is simply amazing to listen to a grower sell other growers based upon his experience with your product. A high profile grower used as a peer will sell more product in an hour on the phone that our sales force will all week."

"Word-of-mouth actually helps you do a better job of CRM," Finegan contends. "As we find participants, we update our clients' database. We make a connection with each customer and prospect. We then enable these participants to personally interact with others about the featured product. It applies torque to strategies using CRM as it actually helps speed the decision process and accelerates the product adoption phase."

MEASURABLE RESULTS

So how is word-of-mouth marketing measurable? "Following a program, we know who we have reached and who we haven't. We know who has participated in a conference or a call and who has paid attention to which tactic. We can, and do, follow up with participants to measure their buying behaviors. We also ask how much our process affects user behavior," Liska concludes.

Greenheck offers some tangible measurements that a client took following its first word-of-mouth marketing campaign, which was launched in 10 markets. When comparing these first markets to others, the company saw:

• Advertising was 6.8 times more effective

• Print advertising was 25 times more effective

• Trade efforts were three times more effective

• FSIs were 3.2 times more effective

"Grassroots marketing, when done correctly, is not inexpensive," Greenheck explains. "But the return on investment, in the way that it stretches your dollars, is worth looking into."

Flack sums it up like this, "The way I look at it, I could spend $100,000 in a trade journal with no measurement for impact, or I could spend $100,000 with word-of-mouth and know I got my message to the right customer. I also get his/her feedback on the product and their intent to purchase."

"Word-of-mouth marketing works. That's the bottom line," says Finegan. "Savvy marketers want tactics they can measure and tactics that generate results. Word-of-mouth marketing offers both." AM

Agri Marketing would like to thank Kathleen Erickson of Erickson Communications, Clarks Hill, Ind., for her contribution to this article.


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