BANGOR – Marketing experts advised more than 60 Maine farmers gathered Saturday in Bangor for a “Tilling the Soil” conference that if they want their businesses to grow, they need to begin having conversations with their customers.
Word-of-mouth, or WOM, is the strongest advertising strategy out there, Virginia Miracle said. Miracle is the first person in the country to hold a WOM position in a Fortune 500 company, and is the director of word of mouth at the South Carolina-based Brains On Fire.
“There are 3.5 billion word of mouth conversations daily,” Miracle said, “and food is the number one discussion topic.”
Maine farmers need those conversations to be about their farm stands and their product quality, taste and reliability.
According to a study done earlier this year by Keller Fay Group, a WOM research company, 60 percent of these WOM conversations mention a specific brand.
Keller Fay discovered that contrary to conventional opinion, nearly two-thirds of brand-related talk featured products in a positive light, while fewer than one in 10 conversations featured products negatively.
Also, 41 percent of these conversations refer to items seen or heard in the media, according to Keller Fay.
WOM conversations are considered credible, they are already happening, food is the hottest topic in town, and tapping into WOM advertising is just good business, Miracle contended.
Blogs, Facebook, e-mails and instant messaging account for only 10 percent of these conversations.
“The vast majority – 73 percent – of these conversations are still face to face,” she said.
Mark Goughan of Caribou is a perfect example of WOM advertising at work. At the family farm, Goughan has adopted the moniker of “Farmer Mark” and uses his identity with customers to promote his vegetables and berries. The farm offers hot-air balloon rides, homemade ice cream, a water slide, a corn maze and hayrides. “We stress farm, family and fun with Farmer Mark,” he said Saturday, and “100 percent of my marketing is telling other people.”
When Goughan ran for City Council recently, he only put “Vote for Farmer Mark” on his political material. “I got elected,” he said, which indicates the powerful development of a brand by word of mouth.
Ford Stevenson of Wayne grows strawberries and has only three weeks a season to sell his crop. “All is sold locally and all my sales are due to what people tell each other. They say, ‘My friend told us to come here,'” Stevenson said. He said he spends a lot of time talking to his customers and has made significant changes in the way he does business by listening to what his customers dislike about others.
Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater pointed out that all the marketing in the world won’t do any good unless farmers are shipping and selling quality products.
“Do what you do well and stay with it,” Miracle said, “but don’t be afraid to think outside the box.”
Miracle used the example of the Umpqua Bank in Oregon, which was founded as a place for early lumberjacks to cash their paychecks. For the first 41 years, the bank was stable but had only expanded to six branches.
“People came in, did their business and quickly walked back out,” Miracle said.
Eleven years ago, however, the bank decided to become a community destination, installing a coffee bar, couches, free wireless Internet and a community action program. “Since 1996, the bank now has 134 locations and is listed as one of the top 100 places in the country to work,” Miracle said.
“You don’t have to create a new product like the iPod,” she said.
Miracle encouraged the farmers – who ranged from orchardists to florists to beef producers – to build a relationship with their customers. “When you have this relationship, you already know what they want,” she said.