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THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
NOT YOUR AVERGE GROWER MEETING
Anyone who has been to a typical grower meeting in the ag industry knows he or she can expect donuts, coffee, a new mesh hat, and the inevitable sales pitch from the sponsoring company. But in November of 2004, growers, dealers and members of the corn industry who attended one of Monsanto's five "Yield Rallies" quickly realized this was not your average grower meeting.

"Music, two full meals, transportation, an agenda with trial information and reports from university experts, several premium thank you gifts and an extensive question-and-answer-session with top Monsanto officials " this was definitely different from a typical grower meeting," says David Rhylander, Monsanto's U.S. director of traits and the sponsor for the meeting. "From the time the invitations went out, it was our goal to make these Rallies reflect the excitement, innovation and educational nature of the program we were thanking growers for participating in."

The Yield Rallies were the capstone event of Monsanto's Innovator Plus Grower Program, the industry's largest grower field trial with more than 1,800 growers in seven different states who tested a new biotech trait, YieldGard Plus. The trial program was designed to allow some growers an opportunity to test the innovative technology while Monsanto waited for the numerous food, feed and environmental approvals it pledges to obtain before commercially introducing a new seed trait. Growers who participated in the test planted up to 24 bags of YieldGard Plus seed and provided information on planting, pest pressure and yield at each stage of the season.

MEETING THE OBJECTIVE

The goals of the Innovator Plus Program were first to give innovative growers an opportunity to become familiar with YieldGard Plus before its commercial launch and second to give growers, both in and outside of the trial program, an opportunity to see the comprehensive performance data. According to Rhylander, the Yield Rallies were an integral component of meeting this two-fold objective. They were also successful at thanking growers for the time they put into the trial.

"We knew if this was to be a thank you, it needed to be a very academic meeting about insect control and not just a sales pitch," says Dave Smith, president of Petrik Smith, the agency that implemented the Innovator Plus Program. "There were a lot of logistics involved to make this concept a reality, but in the end we saw a tremendous return on investment."

YIELD RALLY COMPONENTS

While strategy was very important in the design of the Yield Rallies, so were the details.

Moe than 1,800 growers from seven different states were invited to one of five Monsanto Yield Rallies as a thank you for testing YieldGard Plus and participating in the industry's largest grower field trial.
The meetings were held in five locations " Champaign and Rockford, Ill.; Sioux City, Iowa; Lincoln, Neb.; and Mankato, Minn. " which were central to the primary target audience, growers and retailers who participated in the program. Those involved in the Innovator Plus Program received a personalized invitation and a postcard reminder to the event in October, as well as follow-up calls arranged by Petrik Smith. Monsanto sales representatives in several of the five locations also made follow-up phone calls to the growers.

Each rally was six hours long, with an agenda of seven to 10 presentations from key Monsanto spokespeople. Specific topics included Innovator Plus trial results, presentations by university experts, information on other Monsanto products, updates on technologies in the Monsanto pipeline, and time for questions and dialog with key Monsanto spokespeople. According to Rhylander, the university presentations helped solidify the educational tone of the meetings.

"These were designed to be educational meetings, not sales pitches," says Rhylander. "The university experts especially gave depth to the program and helped growers with issues facing their regions."

Planned thank you gifts helped move the agenda along as well. Drawings were held at each Rally for Bass Pro Shop gift certificates or a vacation get-away to Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri. Attendees also received several gifts, including a YieldGard Plus blanket made partially from real corn.

Pre-event media relations efforts were also important in ensuring that news of the Yield Rallies and the Innovator Plus trial results reached additional growers. Monsanto's agency of record, Osborn & Barr Communications, identified target media -- regional and state papers, radio stations and TV stations and national agricultural outlets -- and implemented several tactics for announcing the event including media advisories, fact sheets on the program, pitch calls and offers for on-site interviews with growers in the Innovator Plus Program.

"The goal was to get our target media to cover the rallies and increase the reach of the message, particularly with non-participant growers," says Randy Myers, associate public relations director for Osborn & Barr Communications.

A SUCCESSFUL INVESTMENT

Although late-season rains had pushed back harvest to the same week of the November Yield Rallies and attendance was somewhat lower than initially expected, Monsanto believes the program and the Yield Rallies were well worth the investment.

"Typically growers are done harvesting at the end of October, but rain delayed the corn harvest even more than we expected and many growers who had RSVPed ended up needing to harvest their crops during the week of the Rallies," Smith explains. "In hindsight, we could have done the meetings a week later after more crops were harvested, but in the end we averaged 100 people at each of the Rallies, and we received tremendous feedback from the people there."

Following the Rallies, Monsanto sent out a follow-up survey to measure overall satisfaction with the Innovator Plus Program and the Rallies. According to Rhylander, the response was overwhelmingly positive and included comments such as "this is the best meeting I've been to" and "the mix of presentations, as well as the time for panel questions, was excellent."

David Rhylander, Monsanto's U.S. director of traits, speaks to atttendees at one of five "Yield Rallies" held in November of 2004. The meetings were the capstone event of Monsanto's Innovator Plus Grower Program.
"My favorite comment was from a gentleman at a Rally who thanked me for the opportunity to hear from top Monsanto spokespeople since he didn't really get access like that at other grower meetings," recalls Rhylander. "And many seed companies and retail representatives who attended said they wished weather had not kept their customers away because the information was so valuable. With comments like these, the survey feedback we received and the post-event media coverage, we felt like we had a tremendous return on our investment."

According to Myers, four television stations and more than 15 radio and print outlets ran some sort of coverage on the Yield Rallies or the trial program results presented.

"In addition to sharing what growers thought about our product, these events gave our marketing managers a chance to strengthen relationships with key editors," explains Myers. "They also created an opportunity for ongoing dialog with the editors since they were interested in hearing the experiences of even more growers."

According to Myers, the coverage of the Yield Rallies contributed significantly to the 200-plus articles about YieldGard Plus that appeared in 2004.

For Rhylander, one of the best measures of the success of the Innovator Plus Program and the Yield Rallies was the early demand for YieldGard Plus in 2005.

"The 2005 orders for YieldGard Plus and the geographies they're coming from make the success of these programs apparent," adds Rhylander. "We heard anecdotally that the growers who attended the Rallies went home and shared the results they heard at the rallies, but the 'proof was in the pudding' as the orders came in for 2005."

IMPACTING FUTURE PLANS

The feedback Monsanto received from the Innovator Plus Program and the Yield Rallies has had some impact on Monsanto's 2005 marketing and communications plans for YieldGard Plus. One example, says Rhylander, is that there will be another Innovator Plus Program, or something very similar, in 2005.

"Growers in the eastern part of the Corn Belt, such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, haven't had a chance to see YieldGard Plus or YieldGard Rootworm in action on their farms like the growers in last year's Innovator trial," explains Rhylander. "They also haven't had the opportunity to dialog with Monsanto senior management or to see such extensive local and regional trial data. Since these are two things growers appreciate but aren't offered at typical meetings, we believe it is good for everyone if we keep offering them. Innovative programs put us in touch with the most innovative growers, and those are relationships we want to keep building." AM

Sabrina Hickel is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.


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