Twitter for farmers

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Is your farm on Twitter? Michele Walfred, communications specialist with University of Delaware Extension, believes more farms should embrace this social media platform. She presented “Yes, It’s Time for Twitter. Really.” as a recent webinar hosted by University of Maryland Extension and MidAtlantic Women in Agriculture.

“This is the platform that confuses a lot of people but for agriculture, it’s really important,” Walfred said. “It’s heavily used by the ag industry and statistically it’s where mothers and food bloggers are. It’s where there’s conversations on the hotbed topics.”

She added that reporters also favor Twitter.

“If you’re looking to get attention about your business, sometimes reporters will look to their Twitter feed to see who’s talking about that topic,” Walfred said. “Those who are in Extension are there looking for grants. Elected officials are also in Instagram and Facebook.”

Organized “chats” and “town halls” on Twitter also attract a lot of attention.

To effectively use Twitter, Walfred said it’s vital to use hashtags with the right keywords, such as #soil for comments on soil health or #corn to talk about corn.

“You want to present yourself not just to sell your wine but also to present yourself as an expert on grapes or a particular type of wine,” Walfred said. “Balance your content accordingly. You want to be seen by the Twitter community as an expert in that field.”

While Twitter can aid in helping people in ag connect and promote their message, Walfred said, “It can be a very nasty place, as it’s unfiltered. There are trolls. It’s very fast, busy and crowded. I want to enable you to share what you’re doing so when people see that, they learn something. There’s quite a lot of negative voices about ag and food production on Twitter.”

While the stream-of-the-public-conscious aspect of Twitter can be crowded and at times negative, Walfred said it’s also ideal for quickly spreading information.

“Facebook is not feeding your information to all the people who like your page,” she said. “Lots of people don’t know that.”

For example, if you post a notice of an open house at your farm, only 30 out of 1,000 will see that, she estimated, because of the algorithms Facebook uses to see who’s engaging with content.

“If you don’t pay attention to it, Facebook figures you’re not interested in it,” Walfred said. “Instagram does the same thing. Twitter is not filtered. If you follow 1,000 people, you’ll see 1,000 people in your feed.” For that reason, however, the messages people do want often become buried.

Walfred also said the mobile and desktop versions of Twitter vary, with the mobile version making it easy to toggle between personal and business accounts. The desktop version isn’t as fluid, but it offers statistics on engagement, unlike the mobile version.

“If they don’t see your content, you might have to post more often,” Walfred said.

Twitter, as a “microblog,” offers only 280 characters per message. Its videos (which Walfred said should be horizontal) last only two minutes, 20 seconds. She said the content should be 50 – 60% original, such as sales or crops available, and 40 – 50% curated content.

“People are interested in what you do,” she added.

Though chopping corn or feeding stock may not seem particularly riveting, the general public has no idea what your day is like, how you care for animals or what tools you use.

“Ag has taken quite a hit in my opinion,” Walfred said. “It’s okay if you’re vegan; it’s okay you’re organic. I’m not here to advocate one or the other. We teach people how to grow organic and how to grow conventional. When we’re talking about GMO versus organic, that’s often talked about and sometimes the science isn’t there or the content is scare tactics. If you see something like that on Twitter, should you post something?”

She views posts about what farmers do as “adding a face and a value” to agriculture. “They see a hardworking family farm that cares about animals and teaching their children responsibility,” Walfred said. “That’s an important message that there isn’t enough of it going around.”

To Walfred, content is vital.

“Post content in your feed about a day in your life,” she said. “Any time you can, connect a family with a farm. Any time you can connect value to what you do, that sends subtle messages. It adds to the conversation.”

She said photos are essential for successful Twitter use because of how briefly people see tweets. Tagging people related to the tweet is also important, as is presenting one’s self authentically and, if possible, injecting humor.

“Consider a personal account and one for your business,” Walfred said. “You want a photo or your business logo identical to what you use on Instagram and Facebook. If you focus on just your business, focus on your business but as a person who owns that business. You have more stretch but I wouldn’t stretch too far. You want your profile to be professional. If I talk about pop culture and politics, will people trust what I say about ag? I don’t want to look silly. I only occasionally put up a picture of my grandson or a trip I’ve taken but I tend to stick with my topic in my profile.”

She also recommended following about 50 ag organizations and the local Extension office. “If you look at who’s following them and who they’re following, you’ll get more ideas,” Walfred said.

Following others usually means they’ll also follow you. But do fill out a complete profile with a photo to encourage this. Walfred said it’s vital to have plenty of followers.

“If you have someone with 10,000 followers and they re-tweet [your post], then those people become aware of you for the first time,” she said.

She added that maintaining a private account on Twitter serves no purpose. Since it’s “social” media, it’s important to comment on other’s tweets and ask questions to help build a following, as is re-tweeting.

“If you share with a comment with something thoughtful and funny, to me it adds more to the post and helps build your credibility online,” Walfred said.

She said popular hashtags should include your state or region to attract locals’ attention, your commodity and any hot issues you want to highlight, such as #FarmHer for women in ag, #AgAntibiotics to dispel the myth that antibiotics are routinely in the feed and #AgTwitter for talking about ag with Twitter. Three to four hashtags are best, possibly worked into a sentence.

She likes to use capitalization in multi-word hashtags so text-to-speech software can more readily read what she has typed. That helps people with vision impairment who use this software.

Walfred advises against using Twitter to direct users to Facebook, since not everyone uses Facebook. Even if they do, it’s yet another step before people can receive the message.

“Look for content you can share,” she said. “If I had a business, I might say ‘Doesn’t this look beautiful?’ It’s not your content, but you’re building goodwill by sharing content from other people. You begin to be more trusted when you’re not always just trying to sell things.”

She used an apple orchard as an example. Growers might talk about varieties they grow, share apple recipes, pass along a cute apple T-shirt spotted at a store or art that features apples. “You become like a museum curator,” she said. “They have different artists. You pull the best from things you’re seeing that you think might be popular with your followers. It builds that trust in what you’re saying if you’re not always ‘tweeting your own horn’ and not always the hard sell.”

She recommends re-tweeting if you want to be sure your message is read.

“It’s very important to understand that because it’s not filtered and you’ll see everyone you follow, it moves very quickly,” Walfred said. “If you posted something at 9 a.m., the post is long gone in their feed by noon. Repeat and stagger your post for different times. If I have something important to say, like an open house, I might post Monday at 8, Tuesday at 10 and Wednesday at 4. I would post other things in the meantime. That’s why the analytics are nice. If you tweeted and it just sat there, you’ll know.”

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