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How Chickens Tweet: Caution for Massive Micro-Media

February 15, 2010

Ah Twitter. So easy, so simple, so little. So not to be taken lightly.

The first few discussions about the Twitter potential for Soul Food Farm underscore just the magnitude the tiny, 140-character micro blogger can wield among social media platforms. It also served as an important reminder how essentially “social” the planning process must be.

If you live and/or work (eat, breathe, sleep) social media marketing, your creative juices would whip up into a froth over the opportunity to connect consumers with an undeniably wholesome food they would practically taste as the savory words “pastured chicken” pass their lips. . . whose hearts would swell knowing their meals support pro-social, green-earth values. And chickens? How cute. How fun. How tempting for a b-2-c campaign that combines the best of the Web’s visuals, promotion, up-with-people values. Palpable isn’t it? Brian, Deb, and I immediately thought Soul Food Farm’s Twitter presence could combine a smart, gutsy-but-chic hen attitude with an iconic avatar visual. Our “hen about town” would make occasional cheeky comments about calling her posts “Tweets” instead of clucks and would dispense folksy charm farm news, inside scoops, commentary on farm and foodie blogs, intelligence on the virtues of whole, sustainable farming and food.

I proposed the idea to Soul Food Farm owner and chicken farmer, Alexis. A “gutsy-but-chic” woman with attitude herself. She respectfully considered the idea overnight. She respectfully declined it the next morning. Understandably. Sustainable farming on a small local farm demands a delicate balance between business and advocacy. As a relative newcomer to the business whose products happen to be highly regarded by highly respected chefs, restaurateurs, and meat purveyors, Alexis felt our Twitter idea might appear too commercial and gimmicky – possibly compromising her position and their support. She didn’t say as much, but sometimes you just “get” these things after a good night’s sleep.

So we initiated Soul Food Farm’s twitter platform with some fairly straightforward posts about the farm, the blog, the new Facebook page, a few news items, ideas about chicken food pairing and recipes. Bonnie Powell, who is Soul Food Farm’s CSA manager, blogger, a writer and sustainable farming advocate sent us an urgent email: she wasn’t convinced the strategy was right. From her perspective, Soul Food Farm’s social media strategy needed a tone that honored the community’s tremendous support of Soul Food Farm. Bonnie didn’t squash the idea, but she cautioned it doesn’t feel authentic to the Soul Food Farm ‘voice.’ “Let’s check it out,” she advised. She sent an email asking for feedback from three other people who know Soul Food Farm and who employ social media to advocate for sustainable farming and food. She asked them, could the Twitter posts potentially confuse fans of Soul Food Farm, as it is not clear who is doing the tweeting? Could we experience a backlash against what might appear to be an inauthentic feel of the posts?

Smart woman: she worked alongside many of the people who helped Soul Food Farm recover from a devastating fire and whose patronage originates as much from that shared struggle as from the goodness of pastured chicken. Here’s the feedback we received from her contacts (makes for a long long post, but just too insightful to cut):

“I think you’re right to proceed with caution, but I don’t think it’s as fraught as you think.

I find that unless I am told otherwise, I always presume the person tweeting is the principal “face” of the farm/shop, the person who I know. And then I’m always a little amused (at myself) when I find out it’s not that person — especially when I have a personal relationship with the person I thought was tweeting. So there’s that: Even cynics like me make leaps that aren’t necessarily intended.

But I also understand it’s not really a reasonable expectation: I don’t think that Sam Mogannam writes every word of BiRite’s tweets, any more than he writes the website or press releases or the cute signs in the store. (Maybe he does, but I don’t really expect it.) If the Twitter account is @SoulFoodFarm — and not @FarmerAlexis or @AlexisSoulFood — there’s some built-in transparency; you’ve set the expectation that it’s someone (or multiple someones) connected with the farm but not necessarily Alexis or Eric. Nobody thinks that Alexis is writing the blog, right? Some farmers do write (Andy/Mariquita, Nigel/Eatwell, etc), but I think in the case of SFF it’s clear that Alexis doesn’t. And people don’t mind that.

Greg Massa (@massaorganics) and Steve Sando (@ranchogordo) are probably the only two food people I follow who manage their corporate twitter accounts like personal accounts. It’s great for them because they are both such public, animated people, and their personalities are a big part of their brand. And they’re also both clearly in their element — at least in Steve’s case, he’s been living his life online for as long as I’ve known him. It would be weird if he ‘farmed out’ his twitter or his blog, because he is so naturally gifted at social networking. I suspect Greg is similarly inclined, tweeting from his tractor and all. 🙂

If you want to make it crystal clear, you could periodically tweet things like: “Alexis and Eric are going to be moving the chicken houses today; 400 new peepers arrive Monday!” or “Alexis reports hens are almost back to spring laying levels: CSA members can order 2 doz eggs per drop after 3/12” — tweets that occasionally make it clear that it’s not Alexis who is tweeting. I don’t think you have to spell out WHO is tweeting, so long as you aren’t actively pretending to be Alexis.

From another advisor:
In terms of backlash, I think the big thing to be conscious of the fact that it really has to feel like it’s coming from the heart of the farm, not from a PR factory; it’s easier when your PR person is also a friend. I like the stuff you’ve tweeted so far, but maybe a little more day-to-day “hey, here’s what’s happening on the farm” and a little less “here’s what you can buy from us” would be nice.

I monitor both of Soul Food’s social streams: FB and twitter – and haven’t noticed anything out of sync with my (albeit distant) perception of the farm. In general, though, there should occasionally be some direct communications – if you get a direct message on twitter, for example, that should be in the voice of the farmer. That creates the authenticity that is the hallmark of good social media practice. It’s also okay to have a “team” that communicates for the Farm. Perhaps on the web site there’s some verbiage about who does what. Nothing fancy but in the spirit of full disclosure.

And another. . .
“Probably the best solution is to put both bios on the SoulFoodFarm Twitter page so when/if people click through they can see that there are two different people sending out tweets. Also consider the fact that a percentage of Tweets are lost to the twitterdom anyway; they slide by in the massive stream of tweets on most users lists.  If a user has a twitter client that makes separate lists of followers then maybe it might be more apparent, but i don’t think it’s too big of a deal.

As far as I’m concerned, tweeting is like blogging, the more tweets you send out the more traffic (or followers) you garner, which in the end, is the name of the game.

Moral of the story: Much of the advise we knew in different contexts; it was helpful and refreshing to hear it in this new one. In general, don’t underestimate the risks of Twitter. Be authentic. Be transparent. Be open.  In the first two weeks, Soul Food Farm’s Facebook page gathered 160 fans and 53 Twitter followers. We have work to do to, but it’s coming along great with the help of a village.

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