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Best of NAMA 2020

Michele Payn-Knoper, professional speaker and consultant
In its simplest form, this is a story about hot buttons. We all have them. You know what they are. It's what gets us excited and fired up to accomplish something. To Michele Payn-Knoper, however, it's much more. It's the backbone of her business.

Payn-Knoper, raised on a dairy farm in southern Michigan, is a professional speaker and consultant. Drawing on a myriad of agricultural consulting experiences, she believes there's never been a time when finding your customers' "hot buttons" is more important. She says a hot button is more than just a need in agriculture today.

"It's an area of personal passion or pursuit," she says. Payn-Knoper is of the opinion that too many ag companies focus on their customers' "need for profitability or production, without consideration of their 'real' interests." Knowing customer hot buttons, in her estimation, is what can set your company apart from the competition. Most companies offer good products, and the best offer good service. However, what sets companies apart is the ability to find and appeal to customer hot buttons, which will ultimately make you successful and your customers more efficient, profitable and happy.


Royster-Clark worked with Payn-Knoper to retool Web site content to better appeal to its target audiences' "hot buttons."
Public relations takes on many different forms in today's high-tech world of communications. Today a company's Web site can say as much about where it is headed and how it intends to serve its customers as any annual report, printed magazine or other type of written communications tool, including advertising messages.

Royster-Clark, Norfolk, Va., understands that and decided last year to reinvigorate its Web site. Royster-Clark, led by Francis Jenkins, chairman and CEO, and Ken Moshenek, president and COO, is a retail and wholesale distributor of fertilizer, seed, crop protection and related services with more than 300 outlets (known as Farmarkets) in the East, South and Midwest. It enlisted Payn-Knoper to provide her advice on creating a Web site that appealed to its target audiences and its hot buttons. She had developed relationships with the Royster-Clark people through its work with FFA and other ag associations.

"A couple of people had seen her speak and knew of her ag background," says Julie Schottel, Web systems manager for Royster-Clark. "We asked her to come in and assist us in shaping the message to address the needs or hot buttons of our audiences. Our Web site had been out there a few years, and we really hadn't done much to modernize it."

It hasn't taken Schottel long to grab onto the nomenclature of Payn-Knoper. "She helped us prioritize the audiences our Web site should target and determine what the hot buttons or needs were of our customers," she explains. "She was a tremendous resource for us."

Payn-Knoper says Royster-Clark had needs to reach multiple audiences, particularly producers, with its Web site. "Royster-Clark views quality and integrity as two very important issues," she says. "The focus isn't only on profitability. Farmers I work with consistently speak of their reputation, their integrity and quality of life for their family as being important. It isn't just about high yields. It's about experiencing excellence."


If you go to, you'll see a user-friendly site broken into four basic areas: Products, Services, Our Promise and News For You. Clicking on any one of the four areas gives you a look at what the company is all about. In the News For You section, one particularly strong area is the "Stories of Excellence" area. In it are testimonials from producers about the value they receive from their Royster-Clark dealer.

"My role was to help clarify customers' hot buttons and identify how Royster-Clark's Web site can meet their expectations," Payn-Knoper says. "It's a rule that works in any marketing campaign. Another concept that works well is getting someone else to tell your story. That's where the 'Stories of Excellence' idea came from."

In trying to meet Royster-Clark's goal of developing a Web site with information of unique value to producers and others, Payn-Knoper helped rework the content to make it easier for the proper audience to get to the information they were looking for. "Instead of providing more corporate type of information, we focused on breaking apart the agronomic information from the field management and financial services information."

Royster-Clark strongly felt it was more important to showcase "what they were about, rather than who they were. They wanted to give customers an experience of excellence," Payn-Knoper says. She was impressed with Royster-Clark's creativity and responsiveness to producers' suggestions as they built the Web site.

Schottel adds that she felt Payn-Knoper provided additional insight into what growers were thinking and what they wanted. "When we were writing content, she would come back with 'Why is this important for your target audience to know, or what hot buttons are you trying to address here?' We knew it was important for us to remain focused on the right audience for the message we were trying to convey," Schottel says.


Payn-Knoper is a no-holds-barred, in-your-face, advocate for agriculture. Want proof? Go to her Web site at Advocacy in ag is not an easy thing today in an industry mired in low commodity prices, consolidations that have growers and retailers wondering who's going to be gone next or merge with another company, and constant criticism from environmental activists determined to change/fix production agriculture because they think it's broken.

"Producers and agribusinesses have to more closely connect with consumers," Payn-Knoper says as she refers back to her hot buttons philosophy. "For example, food safety is a hot button for consumers and farmers - the whole threat of bioterrorism and security is vital to all of us. As marketers, we need to remember that 75 percent of consumers think agriculture does only a fair or poor job in communicating about our industry. No matter who you're marketing to, we need to do a better job of appealing to hot buttons while championing agriculture."

While Payn-Knoper was interviewing a Royster-Clark associate, he reminded her: "If you build it, they may not come." She believes that means you not only have to drive people to the Web site using strategic marketing campaigns, but you have to give visitors a reason to stay and help them grow their business. Royster-Clark is committed to doing just that with their new site.

"Strategic marketing isn't just about products," Payn-Knoper says. "It's about telling how your company is committed to the industry. You have to include grassroots marketing to set yourself apart. Royster-Clark's is an excellent example of that."

Working with ag clients such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, Michigan Agri-Business Association, Royster-Clark and others has taught Payn-Knoper to hammer home the hot button concept. "She's a very good sounding board," says Schottel. "We were able to focus the Web site on the things that were most important to our audiences." AM

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

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