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Pretend it's September and you are a homeowner or gardener in Florida who receives a mass e-mail from a lawn and garden product manufacturer discussing how to prepare plants for snow conditions. Or imagine yourself as a busy Midwest row crop producer who finds advice in his inbox on when to treat cotton for boll weevils. Would this information be relevant to you? Would you read the e-mails or buy anything from the company? Probably not.

This type of one-size-fits-all approach is exactly what targeted and customized e-marketing is eliminating. A few companies have caught on to the importance of relevant information to customers and are delivering customized data efficiently via e-mail.


The Scotts Company, a leading supplier of consumer products for lawn and garden care, has partnered with ExactTarget to provide Web-based, person-to-person e-mail marketing. The unique program delivers customized lawn and garden care advice to the inboxes of approximately 900,000 customers.

Can you imagine creating 900,000 customized e-mails? With ExactTarget's technology, Scotts is able to generate numerous individualized recommendations from a single template, which is based on a customer's zip code, grass and garden type, and continually changing variables such as weather and local growing conditions.

Joel Reimer, manager of interactive marketing for The Scotts Company, says this method has saved the company a significant amount of money and increased its marketing flexibility. "There are 126 tracks or versions of our messages where grass type, zip code, and other factors differ. ExactTarget's software allows us to build those e-mails with Scotts' dynamic content off of a single template," he says.

The company has three main forms of personalized e-mail communication. A monthly e-newsletter titled "Timely Gardening Tips," which targets gardening enthusiasts based on geography. "Grow It" is a weekly yard care alert that provides brief, bullet-pointed information customized by zip code, grass type and other factors. Finally, the company offers a lawn care e-mail alarm service that generates messages four to six times per year to inform customers of when lawn applications, such as fertilizer, should be made. These alerts are also based on geography and grass type.

The key to the success of this sophisticated tactic is the customer's information, which is submitted when visiting the company's Web site. The Scotts Company has been very careful with its online activity, using the Web site as an information resource and to build customer relationships, not as a sales and promotion vehicle. Reimer says, "We don't want to damage our brand with the online activity. That's why we don't sell anything on the Web site; it's all about information to be more successful with your lawn and garden and to develop longer-term relationships with customers."

Scotts is constantly adding to its customer profiles to better leverage its communications. ExactTarget's ability to track the e-mail messages not only helps justify the efficiency of the project but also provides Scotts with more customer profile data. "The tracking system reports back to Scotts the history of a customer, such as when an e-mail message is opened and whether the user clicks on a certain product," explains Chris Baggott, co-founder and chief marketing officer for ExactTarget. "The tracking metrics continually feed the database, which lets Scotts know even more about its customers."

What the company doesn't know about its customers, it works to discover. Through uniquely individual surveys, Scotts asks targeted questions to fill in missing attributes of the customer's profile. Baggott says, "By asking one or two targeted questions, we can learn more about a customer and in turn provide that user with more personalized and relevant content."

"You see a lot of companies investing in CRM systems and collecting data," explains Baggott. "Then they ask, 'What do you do with the data? How do I leverage the information?'" Scotts has answered these questions and is using the extensive data to make customers feel important and valued with information relevant to their lifestyles.

Relevant seems to be the key word in e-mail marketing because everyone knows what annoying spam can do to a brand or corporate image. Reimer says irrelevant communication is an easy way to lose your foothold with customers. "It's easy to see the value of personalized communication. People don't want to talk about gardening when there is a foot of snow on the ground," Reimer notes. "To build credibility with customers, you must demonstrate expertise, and talking about things that aren't relevant is one way to lose credibility."


This concept of targeted e-mail marketing is also crossing over into traditional agriculture. Growth Stage Consulting Inc., Calgary, Alberta, has been creating customized Crop Staging reports since the early '90s.

Using detailed local weather data and information from the grower's field such as crop type, planting date, soil type and moisture, Growth Stage creates accurate models for several major U.S. and Canadian crops from corn to chickpeas. The company is taking this a step further by sending these weekly progress reports to registered growers via e-mail and, in some cases, fax. The reports, which are sponsored by a crop protection manufacturer, serve as a "heads up" for the grower to prepare to spray the crop and provides notice to monitor crop stages on the farm.

Approximately 20,000 growers, 5,000 retailers and a large number of crop consultants receive Growth Stage's reports. Three-fourths of these users receive the crop reports via e-mail.

"Our product is timely agronomic information about how crops are growing and pests are breaking that is sponsored by a brand," says Michael Giles, business development manager, Growth Stage Consulting.

For example, BASF utilizes this technology to assist growers with Ascochyta and Anthracnose management practices for pulse crops such as lentils and chickpeas, primarily in Western Canada. This is how it works: Growth Stage tracks local weather and models crop development, and the grower receives the fax or e-mail report specific to his farm, which notifies him of the approaching flowering date and when to apply a fungicide such as BASF's HEADLINE™.

Michael Schaad, market manager of fungicides and insecticides for BASF Canada, says his company has been partnering with Growth Stage for about three years, and he is very satisfied with the results.

Because of the ability to track the development of crop stages based on weather in a localized area, the sponsored reports are often more efficient than some types of advertising. "Like other mediums, this is a direct, fast form of communication with growers, but with the e-mails he can receive information at the appropriate time and right away check his fields. With radio or print advertising, you don't always know if customers are getting the message," Schaad explains.

Surveys conducted by Growth Stage show that many growers are reading the reports and view the technology as useful to their operations. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed say that they open the e-mails, and 95 percent want to continue to receive the e-mails. These growers not only value the service but they also want to share it. According to the survey, 90 percent would or have recommended the service to neighbors and friends.

"We know from basic studies that 50 percent to 60 percent of customers are using their products in a better way due to the reports. Our alerts are influencing growers' decisions to buy certain products and helping customers to use them more effectively," Giles says.

But this is truly just the beginning of what the technology can accomplish. Consider the potential that Growth Stage tools have as Internet and mobile technology continues to improve in rural areas. For example, the company is introducing new developments in early 2005 that will allow growers, retailers or consultants to receive Growth Stage reports directly to their personal digital assistant (PDA) or to a cellular phone through text messaging.

Registered users with the appropriate technology will be able to receive alerts on mobile devices that will provide brief updates and encourage the user to look for a more detailed report in his inbox or online at the Growth Stage Web site.

Schaad says the potential for this partnership is unlimited. He explains that the only thing holding back new developments in electronic marketing is the quality and availability of technology in rural areas. "It's a matter of taking steps to improve every year in order to be more effective for BASF and the grower," Schaad explains. "By supporting growers with this leading-edge technology, we ultimately hope to help them make the most of every acre."

Time-crunched growers are always on the lookout for tools to help them do a better job, whether it's growing a crop or managing a lawn or garden. Today, sophisticated data collection systems and electronic delivery is making this easier for everyone involved. AM

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