by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

With tighter profit margins than ever, farmers need to focus even more on planning to make their operations profitable. Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) recently hosted “Three Steps to Build Your Profitable Farm” with Larissa McKenna, FACT Humane Farming Program director, as the moderator and Charlotte Smith with 3 Cow Marketing as the presenter.

Smith used her marketing strategy to transition her farm to a profitable business. She saw firsthand how her parents’ dairy failed, resulting in the loss of the farm in 1980.

“I loved the land and animals and providing people with food but I wasn’t going to lose everything again,” she said. “I had to figure out how to be profitable and make this work. I’ve been studying marketing ever since.”

Although she left rural life behind for years after attending college, she returned a decade ago to launch her micro-dairy in Oregon, selling raw milk. Soon, she had other area farmers scratching their heads as to how she had a “mile-long waiting list while they could barely make ends meet,” Smith said.

She said the secret is to create a heart-centered business.

“When you try to sell your products, you tend to want to convince people your products are worth the money,” she said. “It can be a big turn-off.”

Many farmers dislike the sales aspects of operating a farm business. When farmers market from the heart, “sales become easy and natural and you no longer feel ‘salesy,’” she said.

Smith said farmers frequently ask her how they can compete with grocery delivery services and food box companies. She believes the answer lies in creating relationships.

Instead of sounding pushy, the same as every other farm, overly promoting quality or sounding preachy, she said it’s vital for farmers to simply help people.

“When you recognize your product is helping people, you don’t come across as preachy at all,” Smith said. “People will pay more and drive out of their way if you build relationships. If you think ‘I hate people so I’ll never work on building relationships’ that will hold you back. Relationships are what make family farms successful.”

Since farmers can only meet so many people in person – Smith estimates about 50 in-person relationships are possible – using online marketing can extend a farm’s reach.

“I recognized this the first year I had my farm. There was no way I could reach all the customers I wanted to reach,” Smith said. “That’s when I learned online marketing. If you don’t move online, you can’t consistently connect with enough people to build a profitable farm.”

While social media has rightfully attracted a lot of attention in marketing, email marketing is still essential for business success.

“It has withstood the test of time and is the number one profitable way to make money with online marketing,” Smith said. “It makes many times more money than social media. If you haven’t started your email list, start today.”

She emphasized that blind-copying sales emails from a personal account is illegal and could result in emails being routed to spam folders, fines and the account marked as spam or shut down.

Instead, services like Mailchimp or Constant Contact keep it all legal. The service is free for users sending to fewer than 1,000 email addresses. The services also track engagement so users can see what emails work better than others.

“You can see how many open them based upon the subject line,” Smith said. “You can learn what works and what turns people off. It could have something to do with the subject line. You can study that and improve.”

For effective emails, Smith advised sending personal messages, such as “Dear Bob” instead “Hey, everyone” to begin the email. Business email services can pull data from farmers’ lists so that they automatically fill in the correct names.

“Psychologically, when people see their first name, it builds trust, which opens them up to buying,” Smith said.

She said email marketing should focus on the “dream” customers who are engaged, ask questions, show up at events and tell others about the farm.

Once the ideal customer is identified, farmers should grow the email list with devoted subscribers and build relationships with consistent emailing.

Smith said about 80% of buying decisions are made by women, even if a man is the sole source of income in a household.

Once a farmer can successfully use email marketing, it’s time to expand to social media. Keep in mind that only 3 – 6% of social media “fans” see posts because sites like Facebook and Instagram limit the reach.

She said many farmers don’t feel confident talking with customers and potential customers.

“One of the greatest confidence killers for farmers is when you have to get in front of customers and convince them to buy your products,” she said. “But you have a product that is changing people’s lives and you have a responsibility to share it with them. When you come from that mindset, you have so much confidence.”

Smith said many farmers try to be everything to everybody. While it may seem counterintuitive to target a narrow niche of customers, that’s what sells products best.

“If you’re selling to everybody, you’re selling to nobody,” she said. “If you’re trying to reach everyone, your marketing and message will be so diluted and non-specific that it won’t connect with anyone.”

Instead, she recommended selling to that ideal customer, since more people will connect with specific references and they’ll feel like the farmer relates to them personally.

“The more specific you get, the more people from all walks of life you’ll attract,” Smith said. “I write as if I’m writing to that one ideal customer and all your marketing will be directed to her.”

She offered as an example, “I want to sell beef to women aged 25 to 35 who care about their health.”

But farmers can get even more specific.

“I want to sell beef to women aged 25 to 35 who eat Paleo to get fit and improve their health. Bingo! That was even more specific,” Smith said. “If you stop at ‘I want to sell beef to women who care about their health,’ most women would say they care about their health. If you reference a woman practicing yoga three mornings a week, she’ll think you read her mind.”

She added that intentionally attracting the right customers to the business makes marketing fun because there’s no worry about rejection.

Many companies offer a newsletter; however, Smith said no one wants yet another newsletter about updates or specials.

“Our inboxes are full,” she said. “You have to learn how to study the subject lines so your customers will look forward to their emails. Instead, offer a free gift in exchange for their email address.” While offering a tasting, tour or discount seems enticing, Smith said they need a “quick win” they can enjoy right away. Coupons tend to attract people who just want a bargain. Smith also suggested asking for their top questions.

“Answer their top questions in a freebie and they’ll gladly give you their email,” she said.

Many farmers wonder how often they should contact their customers via email. She thinks monthly year-round, even for seasonal businesses, is the right amount of contact. During the season, a vegetable farm may want to reach out weekly.

“Never email less than once a month,” Smith said. “People forget why they subscribed in the first place. If you just post on social media, they’re not seeing it. If you send an email, they’ll more likely read it.”

At first, farmers should send information that helps readers. “It’s okay to send inspirational messages once you have a relationship,” Smith said.

Farmers shouldn’t worry about running out of things to send. Smith suggested recipes using their products, how-to videos, inspirational stories, pictures from the farm, educational articles and answers to their questions.

“If you get regular questions, a lot of your subscribers on your list will have the same questions,” Smith said. “If you email only when you have products to sell, they’ll think you only want their money.”

Finding dream customers can baffle some farmers. Smith recommended community clubs, personal friends, friends of friends, farmers markets, local colleges and local conferences. Participating in farmers markets is invaluable, according to Smith.

“You’re standing up and helping people, complimenting, starting conversations,” Smith said. “That’s far more valuable than any sale you make that day. Many people are trying to push what they have. That’s where intimidation comes in. If you’re there to meet as many people as possible, you’ll sell more.”