INFLUENCING THE INFLUENCER
HOW COMPANIES ARE BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH THESE PROFESSIONALS
by Sabrina Hickel
Professional farm managers, crop consultants and veterinarians serve very different clients, but they have one thing in common: the need to impartially promote, prescribe and sometimes purchase the products of for-profit companies throughout the agricultural industry.
The growing influence levels of each of these groups cannot be ignored, especially by companies trying to sell products in markets with rapidly shrinking margins. But how does a company go about influencing the influencer while showing respect for that influencer's high commitment to impartiality?
For companies like Pioneer, FMC and Intervet the answer is to build partnerships based on a commitment to long-term support, two-way dialog and relevant, straightforward communications.
PARTNERING WITH PROFESSIONAL FARM MANAGERS
Professional farm managers (PFMs) currently manage 12 percent of U.S. corn acres and 12 percent of U.S. soybean acres. With their portfolios nearly twice the size of 10 years ago and the number of managed and non-managed acres under their care increasing, PFMs have a substantial level of influence over agricultural inputs used in the United States.
For Pioneer, one of the world's leading seed companies, their influence represents a considerable amount of business.
To build such a relationship, Pioneer approaches communications to PFMs as it does to its own people.
"We strive to put farm managers at the front of the communications and to communicate with them at the same time as our sales force," says Reeves. "I don't want a farm manager to be caught off guard."
As with other segments of the ag industry, there are traditional ways to communicate with PFMs. E-mail, U.S. direct mail, face-to-face contact, trade shows, field days, agronomy days and activities all work, but what determines the effectiveness of one tactic over the other is the messaging, says Reeves.
"Farm managers need to hear different things than growers," says Reeves. "Sometimes we use the same concept we use in grower communications but we 'reverb' the messages. We make sure that the communications piece recognizes that they are not the person driving the tractor but the professional between us and the farm operator."
Pioneer also has personnel and resources dedicated to developing relationships with this key influence group, which not every seed company does.
"It all comes down to the perspective each company holds on the value of the relationships," explains Reeves. "Some companies may not be aware of the value or influence of the PFM and they choose to go simply to the retailer. As we hope our communications and other efforts show, it is our belief that you cannot leave professional farm managers out of your team."
COMMUNICATING WITH CROP CONSULTANTS
Similar to PFMs, the influence of crop consultants is growing. Cotton was traditionally thought to be the only crop heavily driven by consultants; however, consultant numbers and their level of influence are increasing across many crops and geographies.
FMC is one of the ag chemical companies giving a significant level of its knowledge and resources to this key group of influencers.
The company's commitment to crop consultants, according to FMC Consultant Relations Specialist Tom Quade, was strengthened by an internal planning process which looked long-range at the best ways for FMC to continue helping customers. One answer was to increase its already strong commitment to crop consultants. As part of the process, the company conducted a series of focus groups to better understand what consultants want.
One of the efforts hosted during the past two years was the FMC Consultant Crop Shop, a forum for consultants to share ideas and information. As part of the unique program, consultants defined problems, tested solutions and submitted the results to a panel of industry judges, coordinated by FMC. The panel selected eight winners who traveled to new areas to learn about crop production practices, challenges and solutions their colleagues face.
In 2005, winners visited the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, studying consultant approaches to diverse crop markets and touring vegetable operations and greenhouses. In 2004, winners visited with top consultants and growers in California's San Joaquin Valley.
Quade and others at FMC use many efforts to connect with crop consultants, including supporting state and national consultant associations, attending their summer meetings and providing presentations, and coordinating educational efforts and trial programs.
MAKING VETERINARIANS THE FIRST TO KNOW
Veterinarians also know close to every detail about the needs and challenges of their clients. While the magnitude of their influence is hard to measure when it comes to animal health decisions, experts like Intervet's Marketing Manager for Cattle Biologicals Jeff Baxter know that veterinarians must be the focus in the company's communications plans.
"Our goal with veterinarians is to take them from stranger to friend and partner," explains Baxter. "And that is what we try to deliver so that they are the 'first to know' about news regarding our products."
"You need different methods to reach specific potential customers," says Baxter. "Veterinarians can be reached by PR, one-on-one meetings or even tailored advertising. Advertising and direct mail tend to work for consumers. We use multiple methods to reinforce our messages with different target groups, sometimes starting with testing product messaging with vets because they really understand the end users."
For example, when Intervet tested messaging for Vista, a bovine vaccine launched in 2005, veterinarians told them the term "science" did not carrying any meaning, but that they saw value in terms like "complete protection" and "long-lasting." That type of feedback is invaluable for communicating to both producers and other veterinarians, according to Baxter.
"One essential thing when communicating with veterinarians is to find the right balance between commercial and technical information," Baxter offers. "Our veterinarian customers say that they appreciate when we give them data and science that allow them to make their own decisions."
During the launch of Vista, Intervet specifically focused on educational and technological tactics. In the first launch phase, the company invited a selected group of veterinarians to one of three educational meetings where they could attend continuing education credit programs as well as receive information on Vista. For the second phase, Intervet invited more than 3,000 veterinarians to 30 Regional Veterinarian Focus Meetings, which highlighted educational information on hot industry topics, including Vista.
"This was the first time we conducted educational meetings on such a large scale, but we knew this was the right way to show veterinarians that they are the first to know about our products because they are one of our first priorities," says Baxter. AM
Sabrina Hickel is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Mo.