I hope your farming season is winding down slowly and that you can breath again after a long season. I see more farmers logging into their Small Farm Central sites and making updates as evidence of that fact.
I would like to say thanks for your support of Small Farm Central, the stories that I hear every day about farms around the country, and the friendships I have made with members. It truly is a pleasure to work with such pleasant folks who are working to invigorate local agriculture. Making it happen at the "ground" level is the real work that needs to be done.
As one Small Farm Central member wrote this week, "have a bountiful Thanksgiving – in my estimation the best of all holidays for farmer folks."
I hope you have a chance to slow down and enjoy food, family, and friends this week.
[Photo by ansik]
A few weeks ago we discussed how many connections you can make through your farm website. Today, let's talk about the safest way to get that email from the customer to you. Each Small Farm Central site comes with a contact form like this. It is your basic contact form: subject, name, sender's email, and email text -- the customer clicks submit and the email is sent off to your email address. You have likely seen contact forms like this a hundred times before. There is a reason they exist -- the other option is not optimal. The alternative method is to make your email address a link. When the customer clicks on the address and a new email message is opened on their computer with your email address pre-populated. This second method is a shaky solution for two reasons:
(What the heck is a CSA?)
A lot of farm photography is fairly easy for the amateur: taking photos of cute young goats, the tractor tilling, or picking peaches. These are situations that are rife with photo opportunities and many Small Farm Central farmers are great photographers (1, 2, 3).
One area that is lacking is the CSA box: I have not seen a photo that fully evokes the freshness and culinary possibilities of a CSA share. It seems like an important photograph to take because the customer is asked to outlay $300-500 at one time for a product that has not even been planted. A photograph that makes the food look vital and irresistible would be a great final motivator.
Too many of these CSA box photos have bad light or just show the food sitting in a box or a bag. They are not compelling.
Well, this week, I saw a great CSA share photo from Village Acres Farm:
Mm! I can almost smell those onions sauteing and winter stew bubbling!
Can you do better? Send them over and I will post competing entries in comments.
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.)