Some ideas to chew on..Working with many farmers with many different website goals, I have come up with a few general principles for farm websites. These have been covered in many other articles in more depth, but I hope it is useful to have them in one place. Update Often / Make it Easy A successful website grows slowly over time and gives return visitors something new to read so they will keep coming back and stay excited about new developments on the farm (surprisingly enough, customers are interested in details like chicken tractors and disease control). Farmers are busy people, so the only way to keep a farm website fresh throughout the year is to make it easy to update, create new pages, or post a blog entry. The best way to do this is to have your website built with a Content Management System (CMS) like Small Farm Central, Drupal, Wordpress, or any other system that makes sense. Aesthetics A farm website should be simple and elegant without using unnecessarily flashy elements. There is so much beauty on each farm: capture a bit of the farm with a representative photograph, put it in the header, add a clean navigation structure, and you have a great farm website. Commerce E-commerce can be a powerful addition to a farm website from pre-selling goods at farmers markets to selling to chefs to marketing items that will ship across the country, but farmers need to be comfortable with the process themselves and give it time to work. Customers will not just come out of the blue to order on your website: you need to advertise, tell your local customers, write a regular mailing list, and any other strategy that is available. It is a powerful tool, but not a free ride to extra sales. Content Use photographs liberally to illustrate points; take time to write about the passion that keeps you farming year after year; make sure visitors know what is currently available and where they can buy your products; and remember that customers are interested in the details that it takes to grow the food because it keeps them connected. These details are something they cannot get from any other source. Contact Make it easy for customers to contact the farm through the website - a link that is clearly labeled "contact" on each page of your site is a good goal. Blogging A farm blog can be a powerful way to communicate with customers because it encourages interaction through comments, keeps the site fresh, and is a good place to tell the farm story over the course of a season. It can be very easy: try posting a photo of farm work with a few explanatory sentences. Take note: either do it right or don't do it at all. A stale blog is detrimental to your goals and is much worse than not having one at all. The time investment will only pay off over time; think years instead of months, so a long term view is needed to successfully use the farm blog. Community Connections Getting listed on local food internet directories is important for a few reasons:
Email Mailing List
Have one; allow prospective customers to sign up for the list on your website.
Small Farm Central starts the traveling web services roadshow this weekend at the Carolina Farm Stewardardship Association's Annual Conference in Anderson, SC.
The conferences are a great way to get energized about sustainable agriculture for me and the attendees - farmers are such a passionate group and the energy is always infectious. We've done a lot of work to improve the booth this year, so if you saw the table last year, I hope you will come back and check us out again!
Here is the tentative conference schedule for Fall 2008 - Spring 2009:
Oct. 31st - Nov. 2nd: Carolina Farm Stewardardship Association's Annual Conference in Anderson, SC
November 6th - 8th: Southeast Strawberry Expo in Charlotte, NC
December 4th - 6th: Acres USA Annual Conference in Saint Louis, MO
December 9th - 11th: Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo in Grand Rapids, MI
January 8th - 11th: Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference in Savannah, GA
January 14th - 16th: Mid-Atlantic Direct Marketing Conference in Atlantic City, NJ
January 21st - 24th: Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group's Annual Conference in Chattanooga, TN
February 5th - 7th: Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture's Annual Conference in State College, PA
February 11th - 12th: Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo in Syracuse, NY
February 21st - 22nd: Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association in Granville, OH
February 27th - 28th: Oregon Tilth's Annual Conference in Portland, OR
If you will be at any of these conferences, come say hello
When farmers are considering a website I often get questions centering around how much business a website will create for the farm. In other words, what is the return on the investment of time and money that goes into a website? We can look at quantifiable data such as hits or direct sales, but often a website is beneficial in ways that defy numbers -- such as professionalism, connection to the farm, and time-savings in having information available for customers. One quantifiable output of a site is the number of emails sent by customers or prospective customers from the contact page of the site (like ours).
It is easy to create new slideshows; they are created with photos already in the farmer's photo gallery. Simply create groups of pictures by going into the manage gallery page and use the "tag" function.
Each photo can have multiple tags separated by a comma. For example, you may want to create a group of photos called "livestock" with all the pictures of your animals. See this screenshot of the manage gallery page for an example:
Now go to "Gallery Slideshow" page to create a new slideshow, select an effect, select the "livestock" tag group an then you will immediately see a page on your site with your new slideshow that would look something like this:
Use the subject line to stand out in a crowded inbox. As I was sending out the first Small Farm Central monthly mailing list of the fall (click here to sign-up), I started to think about email subject lines.
This is, perhaps, the most important aspect of the mailing list because it determines if the recipient reads and acts on the email. If the subject line is uninteresting and causes the reader to ignore the email, then any text in the body of the email is meaningless.
I read into the subject methodology (see links below) and apparently the best route is A/B testing on possible subject lines. So if you have a mailing list of 95,000 -- a few days before the big delivery test one subject line to 1,000 readers (the "A") and another subject line to 1,000 other email addresses (the "B"). Then look at opening rates of the emails and the winning subject line goes out to the remaining 93,000 recipients.
Well, when your email list is in the low 100s instead of the low 100,000s, you don't have the luxury of A/B testing.
So I guess us mortal mailing list managers have to try our best with the tools we have.
The October '08 mailing for my list was entitled:
"City Farmers get innovative with backyards and SFC cleans house"
which I think has to be better than:
"October 2008 Farm Marketing Newsletter"
Maybe you can think of an even more engaging subject line than I picked?
I think email subject lines are important for the farm mailing list because it absolutely does determine how many people open the message. Your customers are busy people just like you and you have to make them care.
Farmers have a distinct advantage over Target or Zappos.com because you have authenticity and you are selling something that consumers are actively searching for instead of a pair of shoes that can be bought at a dozen other outlets.
A good rule is to focus on what your customers care about first, so instead of:
"Weekly Product List for the week of May 5th",
try, "Last week for Asparagus! and see our young chicks grow"
This creates a feeling of urgency for asparagus and the promise of pictures or stories connects the reader to the farm. This type of subject line gives the potential reader a firm idea of the value that they will get if they click on the message.
If you want to go deeper into subject line research, you might like some of these articles:
We've written about mailing lists a number of times in the past here on the blog
Photo by procsilas
The new Small Farm Central site was released this morning. Thanks for the great design work, Nathan.
This is a big improvement over the previous design and it is a good base to build another year of great web services for farmers.
Come over to http://www.smallfarmcentral.com to check out the new site and let us know what you think!
Farm blogging is not necessarily difficult and time-consuming. Try regularly posting a photo and frame with a few words of background -- a vibrant photo with an engaging description will go a long way in creating a connection with your customers.
It shouldn't take you more than 10 minutes to post a blog entry like this. Perfect for those summer weeks when the last thing you want to do is write a long blog post.
Eugene from Catskill Merino, a sheep farm and Small Farm Central subscriber in Goshen, New York, does this consistently and effectively. See here or here.
Of course, every good rule is flexible and it is a good idea to break this rule if you do not have anything to say with a photo. If words do the job and you can't find a good photo, break the "one photo, one blog" rule!
(Whew, I made it to the end of the post without using some hackneyed "picture is a worth a thousand words" reference.)
Small Farm Central's latest development project was quietly released a few weeks ago (besides the Small Farm Central project we also provide professional web consulting and development services to agriculture-related organizations).
BuyLocalPA.org's goal is familiar: connect eaters with local sources of food. The technology takes the next step in modeling a local food system by combining the latest web mapping technology from Google Maps with advanced profile creation, local food event management, comment functionality, and more.
The site is open for free to any local food business in Pennsylvania, so if you are in the state head on over to the site and sign up.
Some sample searches:
Map the Pittsburgh area: http://buylocalpa.org/map/15224
Map Philadelphia: http://buylocalpa.org/map/19146
Who is selling lettuce currently near Pittsburgh: http://buylocalpa.org/map/search?text=lettuce&zoomlevel=9&zip=15224
Farmers Markets in Eastern Pennsylvania: http://buylocalpa.org/map?zip=19149&checkedcats=15
Events Near Pittsburgh (local food week is coming on September 21st): http://buylocalpa.org/map?lat=40.466800689697&lng=-79.993499755859&zoomlevel=10&checkedcats=event
A Few of the Innovative Features
Current Products: One of the big questions consumers have is: what is in season now? If you are looking for local corn in February, the site should reflect the fact that farms do not have corn available at that time. Farmers on BuyLocalPA.org create a list of all their products at the beginning of the season with general start of end dates of availability (using a fancy "slider" control) and then the software that runs the site takes a look at that list each week and automatically adds and removes products that should be in or out of season. Of course there is the ability to override the system just in case a strawberry crop fails.
Multiple Locations: Each profile can create multiple mapped locations. For example, if your CSA is located 50 miles outside of the city, but you do 15 drop points within the city, isn't it more important for potential members to know where the drop-off points are rather than the actual farm location?
Trading Partners: Farms and consumers can map out their food-shed by creating links on their profiles to sellers, buyers, farmers markets, and other profiles that are on the site. In this way, a consumer that was interested in Turner Farms milk can find out that the milk is sold at Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, and the East Liberty Farmers Market.
Stay Local: Searching and viewing is done at the zip-code level because eaters in Central Pennsylvania are not interested in the local food offerings of Northeast PA.
And many more innovations from event mapping to making local food connections between users (like, how can I find someone to share a side of beef with me this fall?).
The project will be supported by special features that are available only to paid consumer members and paid local food providers. This is an exciting model and I look forward to continued involvement in making it a success.
This is all part of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture's (PASA) outreach to local food consumers. I am proud of this project and I hope Pennsylvanians will find something good to eat!
[The Blog had a birthday while we were away on an end-of-summer blog-holiday. I'm sure you didn't mind since you were out harvesting instead of reading, but we are back at the blog and you will see postings once a week for the fall, winter, and spring.]
The Small Farm Central blog has one year under its belt. I have greatly enjoying writing about web marketing topics from the unique perspective of the small farmer.
For those of you who missed these articles or who have just recently come to the blog, here are some highlights.
10 Highlights from the Early Days of the Blog
In no particular order, but I'll number them anyway.
1. August 21, 2007: First blog entry, What is this all about?
2. August 23, 2007 - November 1, 2007: A ten-part course in web design & marketing for farms, Farming the Web
3. August 27, 2007: Market sales drop at the end of the season, a condensed version of a discussion on the market-farming listserv.
4. Fall 2007: Beth Bader contributed recipes on a weekly basis last fall, this is a list of her contributions and a recipe for Cauliflower, Chard and Leek Gratin.
5. September 12th, 2007: An interview with Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo covers his blog marketing strategy and successes up to that point. Since last year, he has been featured in Gourmet magazine, among others, and his Internet sales have taken off even further.
6. October 9, 2007: Specific ideas to get you started on writing a farm blog, Part 1 & Part 2.
7. October 29, 2007: This blog post on canning, Canning is Ideology in a Jar, received several thousand hits from Stumble Upon and still is the most popular blog entry with over 5,000 views. Honestly, I am not sure why it is so popular, but the link got out to the right place.
8. November 12, 2007: We posted some sample cards to hand out at markets or other public facing places. This is a great way to generate hits on your website and help your customers understand who you are.
9. November 27, 2008: Did you know that there are 9 distinct ways to eat your home-canned food?
10. December 26, 2008: You never know who will visit your website or what connections you will make, so why not embrace the Serendipity Factor ?
To another year of farm marketing blogging and providing great web services to farms across the country. Stay in the conversation: tell us what you think, post comments, and ask about topics you are interested in.
Ever wonder how we control spam on Small Farm Central sites? We use a system that you have seen many times throughout the web called CAPTCHA (which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart).
This is a series of distorted letters and words that is difficult (or hopefully impossible) for a computer program to decipher, but is easy for the human brain to translate.
It's not really important for you to understand the specifics except that a CAPTCHA makes sure that a human is at the other end on comment submissions, emails from the website, mailing list submissions, and anywhere else that we take input from the user.
We use a really interesting implementation of the CAPTCHA called reCAPTCHA (starting in fall 2007) from Carnegie Mellon University which is coincidentally just a few miles down the road in the same city that Small Farm Central is based.
Each CAPTCHA word on Small Farm Central sites is scanned in by a project that is seeking to digitize the literary public domain. There are always certain words that the computer cannot understand as they attempt to encode these books, so the reCAPTCHA project takes the collective brain power that was heretofore wasted on CAPTCHAs and puts it to the task of deciphering these words so that these books can be searched and read digitally in the future.
I won't hope to match the reporting skills of the Wall Street Journal, so that covers the basics: read this Wall Street Journal article for all the interesting details! Thanks, Patrick for the link.
If you want to test a reCAPTCHA for yourself, you are welcome to try leaving a comment on this very entry.