Building the Farm
In the 1980’s, John and Karen Pendleton were like most every other farmer in the Kaw Valley. The Pendletons had a growing family. They also fed cattle and grew crops on a multi-generational farm.
Then the farm crisis happened.
With the farm economy seeming to collapse around the Mid-West, the Pendletons were looking for something else to help supplement their farm income. Some farmers planted strawberries while others planted pumpkins and banked on a Fall seasonal boost to sales to get them through winter
John and Karen planted a half acre of asparagus hoping the harvest would establish a local niche market and generate enough extra income to keep the farm afloat and provide for their growing family. Little did they know that growing asparagus would lead to a growing business that would revolutionize their farm.
At their “you pick it” farm, customers come from all over the Kaw Valley to pick asparagus, peas, and a host of other produce. In addition to the “you pick it” portion of the business, Pendleton Farms also offers a variety of bedding plants and cut flowers. Although she has a degree in public relations from Kansas State University, Karen is also a talented floral designer and accepts commissions to plan floral arrangements for a wide variety of events.
Our Location is an Inconvenience
While the Pendletons aren’t hundreds of miles away from the closest city (Lawrence is 5 miles away and Kansas City is 40 miles away), most of their customers come from over 25 miles away which makes their business a destination agritourism stop. “We’re not convenient,” Karen says. She continues, “We’re also a seasonal business. The challenge we have is getting people to drive a considerable distance to our farm and do so at the right time. Everything is determined by the weather and our crops.”
Unlike other crops, asparagus is temperamental at best. “The challenge with asparagus” Karen says, “is it goes from first quality to second quality rather quickly. After that they’re no longer good to sell. If asparagus can be picked one or two days before it expires, that’s a big deal. Our challenge is getting people to our farm at exactly the right time.”
Like most rural businesses, the Pendletons cannot compete on convenience which can be difficult in an age where everyone has a busy schedule. Karen can push advertisements out all she wants but ultimately she has to find any way she can to draw the right people into an experience on their farm at exactly the right moment. This makes traditional media channels almost impossible.
A Lost Crop
This year Karen and John faced considerable weather challenges at the start of their growing season. As they walked their fields they began to notice that most of the asparagus was wind-damaged. At just 6 inches and badly formed it wasn’t ready to be picked and not of the quality to demand a premium price. A freeze was coming. They might just have to throw all the profits from the week away.
A freeze would have ruined their crop long before a radio advertisement could be made. Asparagus would be no good for consumption in the amount of time a newspaper ad could be purchased. Karen took a picture and turned to a social solution.
A Social Solution
Karen took a picture of the oddly-shaped and wind-blown asparagus and posted a special offer. “We posted a picture to our page on a Friday afternoon. Fifteen minutes later the first car showed up. An hour later we had a parade of cars and our parking lot was packed. They weren’t just casually driving by to see what was going on at our farm. They were flying in, jumping out of their cars, and going into the fields to pick the asparagus.”
“That post about asparagus reached 3,500 people by the end of the afternoon” Karen said.
Jon says, “Social media has absolutely revolutionized our business. We can spend a ton of money on traditional advertising and not even tell if anything has happened.” Karen adds, “People’s lives are so busy, it just seems so different now.” Their social platform is resonating with their audience.
Social media plays an integral part in the Pendletons’ business strategy, and we can learn a few tips from how Karen and John approach social media. While these tips shouldn’t be broadly applied to every single social media post you make, you may find some “golden nuggets” of wisdom to inform future postings.
Tip 1: Create an Insider Club
Karen has created a group of loyal followers that are eager to read her content and find out about the latest specials or events. Karen says, “The first people to know anything about picking are on our email lists.” She lets the subscribers know first about every event or sale. It’s her way of rewarding their loyalty and making sure their content is valuable. In fact, if you try calling and asking for upcoming dates or events, she might encourage you to sign up for the newsletter to find out.
Her email subscribers are privy to insider information, and their eagerness for their promotions is evident in her 40% + open rates. Karen says they put considerable effort into not burdening people. “We only send the newsletter out when something is really worth saying. We have a tremendous loyalty for people reading it and we’re proud of our open rates.”
Tip 2: Create Immediacy
“Immediacy works” says Karen. In the asparagus example, Karen fostered immediacy on several levels. First off, there was a freeze that was going to ruin the crop the next day. Secondly, a price discount immediacy was in effect. Lastly, they mentioned they were mowing what was left tomorrow. This immediacy got people into the door in a frenzy.
Retailers have used immediacy to sell products for years and this tactic is hyper-accelerated online. While the green industry, especially those involved in selling perishable products, are particularly well positioned to use immediacy to drive sales, other businesses can craft messages to take advantage of people’s innate desire not to “miss out” on products or services.
Most people think that coupons or expiring sales are the only way to establish immediacy. This approach treats your products only from a transactional utility and not a relational experience. Communicate the increased quality of experience your customers will get by acting now.
For example, you can chat about the weather being beautiful in the morning (perfect for being outside) or activities that are “seasonally special.” Other examples might be mentioning you are running low on a certain product, ordering deadlines for holidays like Mother’s Day, and other time-sensitive events. You shouldn’t push immediacy in every single post. However, it can be a powerful psychological marketing tool in the right conditions as long as you don’t overuse it.
Tip 3: Share Your Culture
Karen and John love farming. For the Pendletons, social media is an extension of that joy and they want to share it.
“How many fun things happen in a day?” she replies. “It’s fun to share those things. I’m out here, and I get to share this with other people.”
The asparagus and many of the other products they raise end up at farmers’ markets on the weekends. On Spring and Summer Friday nights, Karen is usually watching the beautiful and expansive Kansas sunsets as she picks her harvest for the following morning.
“I get to see the best sunsets,” she says. “Every Friday I get to share that online. I’m picking basil on Friday nights and I pick until dark. So every Friday night I get to share that. So many people comment about the sunset pictures I post as I pick the basil I sell the next day. I get to relate that sunset experience to our product. Those things make us real. They know I didn’t buy that basil from a box. They saw me pick it on Facebook.”
The Pendleton’s communicate their unique culture around the farm to their customers. What might seem every day and mundane to their employees becomes exceptional and unique to those outside of the daily business. The art of communicating culture is making these every day activities seem exceptional.
Tip 4: Have Fun
Karen and John love what they do. It’s evident when you talk to them for any length of time. That fervor for farming and their love of their customers also plays out online. In between constantly answering the phone calls during our interview, she pulled out her iPhone to show me a picture.
“I’m just waiting for a good time to post this. This is John going out on the go cart to go pick asparagus. I’m thinking the caption I’m going to write is ‘Some guys get to go to work and ride go carts all day! Another fun day picking asparagus!’
Karen didn’t take that picture of her husband on a go cart because she thought it was a brilliant piece of marketing material. She took that picture of her husband because it was fun and she enjoyed it. She could then take that picture and share her joy on Facebook with people who follow their family business.
If social media isn’t an exciting part of your day, you’re doing it wrong. We can get so bogged down in analytics, the numbers, and strategy that sometimes we need to step back and realize that Facebook and other forms of online marketing is fun. It’s fun because it allows us to communicate what is important to us.
When we’re proud of our children’s work at school we often put it on our fridge. Facebook can be the same thing. It offers us a platform to share what we’re proud about. It allows us to have fun and share our unique culture.
The Pendletons are a great example of adapting to a changing market, not only in creating a niche market but also in how they approach marketing itself. Karen and John truly enjoy farming and they love to share that joy. This simple truth is most definitely one part of their success on Facebook. We are in a digital age that demands transparency between food and consumer. We’re also in an age where consumers, especially millennials, want to support the people behind the brand. The Pendleton Facebook page is an extension of their lives and their joy of farming. They are marketing on Facebook. However, they are marketing by showing who they are and why they love their products instead of only showing what products are available. In doing so, they are taking a relational approach to marketing instead of a transactional approach, and their customers appreciate it and support them.
If you’re ever in the Flint Hills of Kansas, make sure you stop by John and Karen’s farm and pick some asparagus.