Monday, October 20, 2014

Know Your Audience - Are Agvocates Missing The Mark?

Copyright: <a href=''>jumbo2010 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Photo credit: 123RF Stock Photo
Though agvocacy is one of the biggest buzzwords in the online ag community, it would appear it hasn't gained the traction most would desire. If you follow a handful of vocal farmers on Twitter or are an agvocate yourself, it's easy to start to feel overwhelmed with what many are calling 'attacks' on agriculture.

Have we not given agvocacy enough time? Is the content we're sharing not worth following and taking notice? Are we "preaching to the choir" too much? The possibly over-used metaphor often accompanies a challenge to tweeters, bloggers and writers, industry and farmers alike to appeal to the public and "tell our story".

But there is one problem. The public isn't listening. You can write the greatest literary work in the world, but if no one reads it, what has been accomplished?

Some are quick to point out, "we" (a reference that somehow is meant to encompass all of the vast, diverse and unique facets of the agriculture industry into one group) don't have the audience "they" (being anyone who might represent a different viewpoint) do. 

First off, this is true. But "they" didn't start with a million followers. They started with one or two, just like me and you, and the similarities don't stop there.

In fact, they are are us - they worry about the health of their children. They see a better future for the environment around them. They seek the highest value return for their money, even that which is spent on food. They are deeply passionate about their cause, to the point of emotional attachment and are driven to do something about it. Their audience is even the same as ours.

So then, the question becomes, how did they develop this mass appeal and apparent influence and what are we doing wrong?

The simple answer is to say it's fear mongering. I disagree with this, at least to the extent of explaining how these food bloggers got their start and developed a following. Fear mongering may aide the hype, but I don't think it has staying power. Fears are confronted and subside with time.

No, they simply understand the audience better than we do. They are part of it. They are the consumer and they don't even have to try to appreciate the challenges, concerns, hopes and desires of the audience we so desperately try to target. 

Our point of uniqueness is being a farmer, but our downfall is that we forget. We forget we are so unique, that while we are also consumers, we have a vantage 98% of consumers do not. Think like the ever-passionate and often-animated Crystal MacKay, Farm and Food Care Ontario Executive Director;  "if you've ever used the word "teat" in a sentence, you're not like them."

We don't need to do a better job explaining what we do. We are very good at that. Most people just don't care. They don't care because they can't relate and understand why they should care (and 'because we grow your food', is unfortunately not reason enough). We need to do a better job understanding consumers. 

Fortunately, this is pretty easy because they are everywhere! The challenge for most of us, myself included, is to stop agvocating long enough to hear what they have to say. Strike up conversations with people in the grocery story, "city friends" or the parents of your kids' friends about what they're purchasing and why. Then listen! Don't interject or try to counter or persuade. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason! You'll learn far more about what's on their minds and be better prepared to tell a more meaningful story. Not suggesting it didn't have meaning before, but 'getting in the consumers' head and removing that farmer bias is the only way we can start getting our message to the masses. Until then, we will only ever be preaching to the choir.   

Monday, October 6, 2014

Advice to a Young Aggie (Or insert your undergrad major here)

At some point, I crossed the threshold from being 'recently graduated' to a full-blown alumni. It's a little surreal, being invited back to Career Week to impart 'wisdom' when I'm still seeking it wherever I can find it myself. Nonetheless, these events always offer a chance to reflect on what you've learned and how far you've come. Here are my big three pieces of advice for today's Aggies (or any undergrad) + one bonus from my friend, Rebecca. 

1. Do something different.
You might be absolutely positive about the industry you want to work in, but even if you are passionate about nothing else, try to work outside it, just once. If this seems scary, then start by taking some courses that interest you but might be completely unrelated. As one of my coworkers and fellow speakers this evening put it, "college is your time to explore." Try summer jobs or course subjects that seem intriguing but your practical, 'left brain' tells you are not 'good experience'. Everything is an experience from which you can learn, related or not. This is probably my biggest regret. I was so set on my destination, I missed the scenery along the way... trips to Belize, history class, College Pro Painters. All experiences I regret missing.

2. Ask for opportunities.
For as many jobs that are posted, there always seemed to be just as many that are not. If there is a particular industry, firm or role you're interested in, seek out someone to talk to and ask about the opportunities that exist for summer students or recent graduates. They may not be hiring, but they may know someone who is and if you're particularly driven, they may even create an opportunity for you. What's the worst thing that can happen? 

3. Get your hands dirty.
I don't know how many tires I shined. In fact, I wore Eau d'Armorall for an entire fall. Luckily, I was never in one place long enough to worry if it was offensive. My point is, we all started there with the  'dirty jobs'. The boss doesn't care what you know (because honestly, you actually know nothing) but really wants to see if you're willing and a team player. It's a test of character no one teaches you in a textbook. These days, those stripes are no easier to earn but far fewer seem willing. Roll up your sleeves and pitch in. I guarantee it will not go unnoticed. Too few young people think they graduate to be the CEO. The lyrics are for a reason; "We started at the bottom now we're here."

Get to know your classmates.
More-so in a tight-knit industry, agriculture obviously being the example, there is a strong likelihood you will not only work with, but work for, support, collaborate with the people sitting around you in those AGR classes. Make an effort to get to know as many of them as you can. Down the road you'll not only be a hero when you know "X" at "that company" and can call them up, but you'll be relieved you remember their name when you stand behind them in the lunch line at the farm show.

Because someone has to make that hood sparkle and get that rubber shining! My first major "event" as Promotions Coordinator at John Deere. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Our 3-D World is Very Grey

There is only grey. Lots of it and all shades, but there really is no black and white. I found myself thinking this tonight after another supply management debate. People want to believe the world is either one way or it is the complete opposite. They think if its this way, then there is that effect and if not, then all hell will rain down.

It's so not that simple. Every issue is a complex and tangled web of connections and consequences, making no answer a clear 'right' or 'wrong'. It is all grey.

This is one thing my MBA has helped me understand. I am also consciously aware that I think in "layers", perhaps as a result of my MBA or I am just more aware of it today than I was two years ago. It also is the challenge many leaders face; you see the problem or opportunity at hand in 3 dimensions and people want to think it's one. Leaders need to hone not their persuasion skills, but their ability to converge these two vantage points into one that people can not only easily understand, but also want to engage in because they see a direct benefit in doing so. Often that benefit needs to be personal.

That takes great communication. According to Robert McKee, that takes a story. I don't think a story can be told in 140 characters either, so Twitter is a great communication channel but is it the place to engage and tell your story? If not, then how else are you going to capture that audience?