by David C. Aeschliman
Editor's Note: In the first of a three-part series, Agri Marketing magazine investigates how the traditional channels of marketing message distribution are changing. In the next two issues, we'll cover how media planners and buyers, ag agencies and, perhaps most importantly, agribusiness marketers are making marketing decisions and their plans to reflect these changes.
While all agrimarketers recognize there is change down on the farm, many don't realize the impact it's having on the agribusiness industry. Fewer farmers and larger farms - that's a trend that's been steadily and predictably eroding the ag population at 4 percent annually since the 1940s.
But, the acquisitions, joint ventures, mergers and downright business collapses in the past few years are not only changing the face of agricultural consumerism; they're challenging the traditional media industry that serves agriculture.
Communication consumption trends have changed as well. Mass communication numbers are generally down in agriculture. Fewer farmers mean fewer viewers, listeners and readers. More localized and more customized marketing efforts are available and being used. That changes the dynamics of national publications, which have undergone zoning, regionalizing and customizing everything from ad runs to editorial coverage. It changes the dynamics of state magazines and regional and state farm newspapers, some of which have benefited from being able to actually localize as much as at the county level. For example, the Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman, which covers the state's lucrative ag market and its farmer-members, offers every reader a customized county page - 99 versions in all.
The American Business Media - Agri-Council conducted independent research in 2002 that clearly shows newspapers and magazines as farmers' primary medium choice for continuing education and as the source that first introduces new products, equipment and suppliers.
That's good news since agribusinesses tend to use print in these two categories as the basis of campaign synergy. In 1995, industry statistics showed 169 weekly farm newspapers and monthly magazines captured $179 million in agribusiness ad sales. Last year, 173 publications captured $219 million. While undeniably an increase, it barely accommodates 3 percent inflation, meaning sales are flat. Worse yet, the $219 million is down from 2001 sales of $244 million. That drop is leaving publishers in a strategic crunch.
Strategic survival responses from the publishing industry range from "diversify" to "invest in more." National magazines, initially reeling from the ongoing and sustained declines in the number of readers to the more recent sting of fewer agribusiness suppliers, have invested heavily in diversification. Meanwhile, local, state and regional newspapers, as well as state magazines, have hunkered down and taken advantage of the trend in agricultural marketing to localize and customize.
As a result, dramatic overhauls of traditional business practices are taking place. Traditional lines between strategy, creative and distribution are disappearing. Today's monthly magazines now offer many of the services traditionally offered by ad agencies. Concepting, writing, photography, designing, printing and even mailing services are generally among the services of some of today's major magazines.
Calling Farm Journal a publication today doesn't aptly describe it. Farm Journal Media, as it has named itself, encompasses syndicated television, a radio network, a direct mail company, database management systems, an agriculture Web portal through its Internet company, niche publications and, of course, Farm Journal...the magazine. It also publishes Pro Farmer newsletter.
Not all of this transition has gone smoothly. The company incurred a loss in sales over the past 10 years, changes in management and ownership and an unsuccessful bid to go public - all evidence of the changes in agriculture. Yet, to the credit of its current management, it stands solidly today as one of the key movers and shakers of the industry.
Successful Farming, Meredith Corporation's offering to agriculture, has expanded into online delivery of its publication, which sharpened immediacy and abbreviated content. According to private sources, sales are between $25 and $30 million per year. That would represent about 2.5 percent of Meredith's total sales.
SF, as the magazine has become known, launched the first online magazine in 1995. "We're trying to offer new solutions and new dimensions to meet service and product needs," says Tom Davis, SF publisher. "We used to be focused primarily on print advertising, but now we offer a multimedia option with a radio network on 130 different stations, custom publishing opportunities, newsletters and specific types of publications for our clients."
Farm Progress Corporation has also changed over the last few years. The company's vast holdings in state farm magazines have historically been augmented with farm shows. Today, the company hosts five farm shows, down from its high of eight, and publishes 18 current titles, down from its high of 36.
Marketing its database, conducting custom research, publishing niche brochures and other marketing services round out the company. In 1997, Rural Press Limited, based in Sydney, Australia, purchased Farm Progress and combined it with its other U.S. company, Rural Press USA.
Progressive Farmer made significant changes in an effort to survive and thrive in today's agricultural environment. What started as the magazine that focused on the Deep South for decades now covers U.S. agriculture. Owned by media mogul AOL Time Warner, it offers a plethora of services, including the printed magazine, an online version, comprehensive database management, direct mail, telemarketing outreach, custom publishing services and full Web development services.
Publishers across the country, whether of magazines or newspapers, are getting inventive in efforts to accommodate agribusiness' call to "crack the clutter."
Today, you can buy corners, tabs, specials, mastheads, inserts, wraps, inside, outside, upside down and rightside up. Some have even offered the front cover.
Sales presentations have changed as well. Ten years ago, print reps sold print and vied for advertising dollars with other media channels such as TV, outdoor and radio. Today, the large publishers are singing in unison with agency media buyers, who historically tend to tout integrated media approaches.
What's more, if a sales rep can't get space sold, perhaps he or she can get a newsletter, insert or direct mail piece sold.
Mary Carroll-Jacques, regional manager of Farm Journal Media, makes note of how the media dollar has diversified and segregated with the intent to integrate those messages out at the farm. She says, "Our core magazine is still the highest dollar investment from our advertising clients, but direct mail is also big. And, the good thing is most of those who advertise on the Internet are also buying print."
LOCALIZING AND CUSTOMIZING
While the monthly magazines have been expanding into other media to offer supplemental marketing outlets, they have also made an effort to localize editorial content. That seemingly ironic move brings nationals eye-to-eye with the medium that's been solidly positioned at the local level for years - namely, farm newspapers.
"That's interesting, because these niche media on a local level never planned on competing with the big nationals," says Amy Keith McDonald, president of the Ag Relations Council. "A lot of people we're talking to are going back to the niche providers with advertising money." She says she's seeing a funneling of financial resources into one-on-one relationship building, including such marketing outlets as training sales personnel, trade shows, dealer support programs, co-op advertising and direct mail.
Ag Alert, a California Farm Bureau newspaper, tops the Starch FARMS Report in state reach, frequency and performance scores such as spent most time with, most valuable and most read. But, what's a newspaper doing at the head of the class in what could arguably be the nation's premier agricultural state?
"We have a simple vision," says publisher Bob Krauter, "deliver timely, topical and comprehensive news and information weekly to California farmers and ranchers. What makes us unique among other farm publications is our ability to know about emerging issues and commodity needs through our comprehensive newsgathering system, our professional staff and a network of 53 county Farm Bureau offices."
What is Ag Alert's key? Local, local, local ... done intensely and extensively. That's a strategy that hones in on depth, not breadth. Yet, it seems national farm magazines reaching hundreds of thousands of farmers are attempting to establish those one-on-one relationship marketing positions.
Gregory Moore, group publisher for Lee Agri-Media, one of the fastest growing ag newspaper publishing entities in the country, says he sees that as well. He first points to those publications' ad campaign "positioning" statements as evidence. Then, he adds his thoughts: "I've been in ag publishing long enough to see the monthly magazines attempt a variety of initiatives to reach the local level," he states. "But they have a dependence on national advertising. With industry consolidation and tighter ad budgets, they've made some difficult decisions that reduced local coverage and editorial positions."
Moore further says the media buying mentality of "first with monthlies and fill in with farm newspapers" is shifting. "They get more frequency and targeted messaging in localized ads and editorial content."
Finally, Moore points to one category in Starch FARMS he says is critical. "'Most likely to visit a dealer after reading an ad' is the reason for advertising. You combine our local relationship strength with direct marketing and you're going to move product," he says.
Capital Press, Salem, Ore., shows through Starch FARMS that it earns two hours of time spent by each reader each week. And, it has a subscription base of 40,000 ranchers and farmers, so there's no question it's delivering messages of high interest.
"I think agribusinesses are learning quickly we're out here on a very simple, very powerful, very local platform delivering hard-hitting messages that sell products," says Spencer Dennis, who oversees national accounts for Capital Press. "I call them 'purchasing' messages because they move the reader to purchase products.
"Agribusinesses are hearing more noise at the local level, and they don't dare ignore that noise ... that's their dealers talking. They want to keep them happy, and they're learning that supporting them out here may be the best dollar spent if you're measuring sales results from marketing dollars spent," he says.
There is no question the publishing industry is on the move. The traditional magazine and newspaper publishing landscape is shifting ... rather quickly as evolutions go. The monthlies are moving toward full-service ad creation and distribution channel development. This triple-pronged strategic approach of a) expanding into other media b) moving into the creative world traditionally held by agencies and c) moving toward more localized and customized messaging seems to be working.
What were once declining or flat sales are now flat or slightly increasing.
Meanwhile, the weeklies (i.e. newspapers) are finding solace in the fact that the ugly stepsister they've always been to the state and national books seems to be gaining in popularity. But they, too, are taking advantage of holding dominance over the local relationship marketing by moving into customizing even further. And they are also developing online products, direct marketing and database management capabilities.
Bill Schuermann, publisher for Agri Marketing, holds an industry position that allows him to observe industry trends. "One thing is for sure. Agrimarketers are undeniably wanting more measurable return on their investments. The print industry has responded with activity to show they can deliver it."
The battle isn't over; media planners and buyers are taking note, and agribusinesses are continuing to shift funds to enhance both the message and product movement.
In the next issue, we'll investigate media buyers' responses and agribusiness input to these trends, and how they're investing funds. AM
David Aeschliman is the owner of Results Inc., Davenport, Iowa, a comprehensive sales and marketing strategic planning and execution firm. This article is based on market research Results conducted with agencies and agribusinesses. For more information, visit www.resultsimc.com.