SWAYING SALES DECISIONS
INFLUENCER INVOLVEMENT, SUPPORT CRITICAL TO SUCCESSFUL MARKETING
by Jerry Schleicher
All business-to-business consumer audiences have individuals or groups of individuals who "influence" purchase decisions. That's especially true in agriculture, where the success or failure of a marketing plan can hinge on an influencer's attitude toward a product, a service ... or the marketer.
Building "equity" with influencer audiences through research and development, professional development, and basic educational and training activities provides marketers a platform - a bank account, if you will - from which they can draw upon the equity and expand sales.
Many farmers won't consider trying a new crop protection chemical or concept unless their crop consultant or PCA first recommends it. Independent consultants - cotton consultants, for example - routinely count on field trial data developed by credible university researchers and extension cotton specialists to help them determine how products perform under varying field and pest pressure, and climatic conditions. Likewise, livestock producers depend on their veterinarians and nutritional consultants who, in turn, look to university and extension specialists for independent product evaluations.
"Most of the producers we've polled tell us they make decisions in consultation with one of several audiences, depending on the type of decision being made," observes John Martin, director of marketing communications for Uniroyal Chemical/Crompton Corporation, Middlebury, Conn.
´´In the cotton market, consultants have great sway in the choice of insecticide, post-emergence herbicide, and some even influence defoliation decisions," he says. "Retailers get involved in variety selection and fertility, and have varying influence on other decisions. Extension specialists influence all decisions, and depending on the region of the country, can sometimes be of equal importance to consultants and retailers."
Little wonder that agribusiness marketers eagerly seek out extension specialists to evaluate new crop protection products and seed varieties in cooperative field trials. Animal health companies seek out university and extension specialists to conduct clinical and pre-clinical trials of new vaccines, pharmaceuticals and other products.
Although field development activities generate independent and credible product performance data, generating the data and presenting it to the end user aren't the same thing.
With professional integrity and credibility at stake, university and extension specialists are understandably reluctant to endorse specific products. So, what can marketers do to build equity among the various influencer audiences for products and services?
That's where a carefully planned influencer relations program can help.
"Building equity in the agriculture marketplace - and within the influencer community - is not unlike building equity in a bank account," says Jerry Duff, president of The Duff Company, a Kansas City-based marketing services firm that develops influencer relations programs for agricultural marketers. "The goal is to build the 'bank account' to such a level that you can make withdrawals.
"You begin by establishing 'centers of influence' who support your product or practice, then construct programs that allow you to expand this sphere of influence," he continues. "The end result may be strong product-use recommendations or it might be that you neutralize an opponent. Both situations can be beneficial, since they create a more favorable selling environment."
An effective influencer relations program goes beyond setting up cooperative field trials with university researchers, or sponsoring a plot tour or field demonstration at a university research farm. It also goes well beyond just bringing influencers together for a sales pitch, according to Duff. Every activity must deliver professional value.
"Generating new performance data for a product or practice is part of the equation," he says, "but, you build equity by providing an acceptable forum for the exchange of the information that provides the greatest benefit to influencers, marketers and producers alike."
Duff cites the annual Uniroyal Chemical Cotton College as an example of an information exchange program that has withstood the test of time. Sponsored by Uniroyal Chemical/Crompton Corporation since 1994, Cotton College brings as many as 130 cotton consultants, university researchers and extension cotton specialists together to share their latest research data, observations, theories and concepts with their peers.
Martin says participation in Cotton College is kept low to give attendees an opportunity to meet and discuss issues in a smaller, more intimate setting than industry-wide events. Participants include newcomers who are attending their first Cotton College, as well as consultants and researchers who have returned to the event year after year.
"I was an extension cotton specialist in Lubbock when I attended my first Cotton College," says James Supak, Ph.D., professor emeritus and extension specialist at Texas A&M University.
´´Back then, there was a fair degree of uncertainty about harvest-aid recommendations for different areas of the country," Supak explains. "I found that the Cotton College gave me an opportunity to learn how different harvest-aid products worked under different crop and climate conditions in other areas of the country. It also gave me a chance to get acquainted with the researchers at Uniroyal Chemical who I could call on when I had difficult questions."
While Uniroyal Chemical/Crompton Corporation product development managers serve as moderators for program sections addressing cotton diseases, weed and insect control, and harvest-aid practices, the program is designed to provide meaningful information with a minimum of product promotion.
"We concentrate on building equity in Cotton College, which benefits Crompton Corporation," explains Duff. "The real value of this annual event is the exchange of bonafide and credible information that will ultimately benefit the cotton producer."
Because the Cotton College has earned a reputation as an important forum for the latest cotton research and production information, the event also draws broad coverage from the farm media. Last November's Cotton College in San Antonio attracted editors and reporters representing all of the leading farm publications serving cotton producers from Virginia to California.
Since the Cotton College is not intended to sell product, how does Crompton Corporation evaluate its return on investment?
´´The Cotton College template is one of the best models I've seen for building equity among a critical group of influencers who can make or break our products in the marketplace," observes John Sierakowski, director of marketing at Uniroyal Chemical/Crompton Corporation. "We definitely see value in continuing the program."
Duff says the value of the Cotton College can be measured in terms of the positive, productive working relationships that have been forged among researchers and consultants with Uniroyal Chemical's field development and marketing managers. Much of the information and research data presented during the event finds its way into university recommendations. The information and data presented is extended to farmers and other consultants via Uniroyal Chemical/Crompton Corporation newsletters and marketing materials. Farm media who cover the event often publish articles based on presentations and interviews conducted during the event.
"While Cotton College is the centerpiece of our Influencer Relations Program, it's not all we do," adds Martin. "Our sales and product development people maintain contact with key influencers in their territories year-round and keep them up-to-date on our product performance trials, new product testing and research activities.
"We feel it's important to maintain a high profile with the influencer communities," he continues. "They require technical information to help producers make product decisions, and we make it our mission to supply it to them."
"Influencer relations programs like the Cotton College succeed for one reason," Duff concludes. "They provide equal value to the sponsor and the participants." AM
Jerry Schleicher is creative supervisor at The Duff Company, Kansas City, Mo., and writes about agriculture and aviation for various domestic and international publications.