by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you want to increase your farm’s business, it helps to tell its story. Doing so attracts more customers and possible strategic business partners – and that was the subject discussed by a panel at the recent Alfresco FLX, “Telling Your Story.”

The Alfresco FLX virtual panel this year included Jenny LePore, director of public relations and social media for the Martin Group in Rochester, NY; Amy Colburn, marketing director of Life in the Finger Lakes Magazine; and Stephanie Hanna, digital content creator for Sip and Savour Rochester.

Current times have certainly challenged both farms and food businesses; however, they’ve also brought unique opportunities.

To share a farm’s story, it’s necessary to use the internet and reach out to the media. “We want you to tell your story,” Colburn said. “It’s important to understand that not every company can hire a large PR firm. Many are Mom-and-Pop shops or solo entrepreneurs wearing may different hats. It’s maybe the most critical of the hats you wear.”

While the world seems to be going virtual, Colburn said print is experiencing a revival.

“Printed magazines have never gone away and have lasting legs,” she said. “We need digital, social media and print. People like beautiful imagery and the lasting impression print gives them.”

She said the best way to share a business’ story is to tell an authentic story – and it should be positive. “Consumers like the rising-from-the-ashes stories,” Colburn said. “People like to hear stories of hope and overcoming obstacles. We’re all in the same weather. Be as authentic as you can and keep your eye on the sunshine after the storm. People will connect with you more as a business than if you stay in the negative.”

All beginning writers learn to “show, don’t tell.” Hanna said that’s good advice that she follows with social media. “Authenticity is so, so important as you engage your audience and share your message, along with being clear with what you want to communicate,” she said.

In addition to great content, engaging visuals have become essential. “It’s being able to captivate with photography and showcase a story through that with Instagram or a visual post or print materials,” Hanna said.

Many farmers say they lack the time to take photos and videos, write content and post on social media; however, Hanna said it’s important to find the time.

“It’s not about not having enough time but how your audience wants to invest their time,” she said.

LePore has directed public relations and social media for 12 years on projects ranging from a small hot dog stand to a Fortune 500 company. She has worked with Grow New York and Wegmans food stores.

“Figure out what is that story and what you need to say, who needs to hear it and where they are,” LePore said. “Make sure it’s relevant and you’re speaking to them in a way that connects. Don’t assume you know your market. Be mindful of your key messages. Figure out your key venues for communicating. Figure out the best fit for your company.”

According to Colburn, it’s all about the audience. “Know what your audience really needs,” she advised. “You have several story lines in whatever kind of business you’re in. It could be the people behind the business, your supply chain, changing your business plan and model, your goals for the future. I think you have to be cognizant as to what’s relevant at that moment of time. You have to be attentive to the nuances of your area.”

Novelty helps too. Repeating the same story causes consumers to either become bored or feel the business has lost its authenticity.

LePore believes flexibility is key to success in telling a business’ story. “Being able to pivot your strategy where you need to and not be tone-deaf is important,” she said. “You have to understand comfort levels across the board. Maybe instead of a new product, emphasize safety, like how spaced your chairs are on your back patio. Read the room. Understand your customers’ headspace and crafting your message.”

For farm businesses selling value-added products, it may mean walking a fine line between sounding inauthentic to cash-strapped customers and offering a welcomed break to the “new normal.”

“You have an audience that’s split,” Colburn said. “In the last two months, you have people at different comfort levels. Some are ready to venture out and some are afraid to venture out. You have to be able to read microcosms of communities and approach them differently.”

Hanna does this by asking consumers for feedback in polls. She then uses this information to craft more effective messages and images.

Websites should begin with the basics, such as location, hours and contact information, and add what LePore calls “foundational tactics.” “You need a website that’s informative: the brand, the mission. Show the history. It’s a great place to put some time and energy. Figure out which communication vehicles make the most sense. Social media is where people start their searches, but you have to maintain it. It has to be timely and relevant.”

For example, starting a Facebook page and then not posting for months may lead customers to think your farm enterprise has closed or your agritourism location is out of business. Newsletters and blogs can also provide a connection to customers; however, it’s vital to choose what’s both effective and manageable. Though PR firms can help, LePore said business owners can also “reach out to that reporter or editor with a strong story and see if they’ll write a news story.” Social media influencers can also help spread the word.

Colburn said she welcomes calls from people interested in having Life in the Finger Lakes write a story about their business and works to accommodate their schedules for interview times. “I’ve said ‘Call me in the car on the way to work,’” she said. “Take on what you can. If you can only have a quick conversation with an editor, do that. Not a lot of people will knock on your door to write an article about you. We love when people contact us.”

Many farmers don’t believe they have an interesting story, but Colburn disagreed. What may seem ho-hum to you is possibly fascinating to others.

“Don’t think your story is boring or not worthwhile or someone else has a better story,” Colburn said. “Everyone wants to hear it. You’re inherently interesting for the path you follow.”

She gets ideas by looking at periodicals in bookstores. “Drawing inspiration from someone doing it right is the oldest trick in the book,” Colburn said.

In a similar sense, farmers can look at other farms’ websites, articles, blogs and newsletters to analyze colors, images, words used and more to create their own messages.

Colburn added that paid advertising is also extremely effective as it allows business owners to express the exact desired message. Sending a press release is free; however, “we’d rarely publish a press release without forming it into our own brand. We can help you,” Colburn said.