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How un-marketing builds web community

May 25, 2010

One of the strongest dynamics in our social media experiment on The Farm is the tug-of-war between the “social” and the “selling” goals at the heart of marketing on the web. How do we balance the passion of our farmers and their community with that of John, the accountant? Sustainability, remember,  must put food on the tables of people who work the farms that preserve the planet.

Social networks sprout from feel-good intentions to educate and advocate. We make new “friends” and amass “fans” who rally around our “cause.” If you’re lucky enough to run a business inspired by a legitimate cause, this all falls into place naturally and readily. In fact, it can fall into place so well, your community can take on a very active social life of its own. At times, if your experience goes back far enough, it can even harken the nostalgic enthusiasm that brought us together at town hall meetings that took place in actual town halls and political passions that packed us into store-front campaign offices. In other words, we easily can get carried away and forget the not-necessarily-feel-good half of the job: selling the product.

The Un-marketing of goods

The good news is the fix is easy. That’s because social media is the un-marketing of goods and services. Done right, social media marketing doesn’t actually sell products (or services); it sells ideas, causes, knowledge. The currency is customer loyalty. You can take it from there.

In marketing, you gain. In un-marketing, you give. In marketing, you generate leads. In un-marketing you generate resources. In marketing, you connect people to your product. In un-marketing you connect people to people. Un-marketing focuses on supporting your customers’ need to benefit a common good. (Even if that good is clean laundry or kicky handbags.) You contribute knowledge and leadership that move the cause forward. You contribute a collaboration platform where relationships develop so that customers can engage with your business to help you become a better change agent. You listen, they listen. You react, they react. You invest in them, they invest in you. By empowering them with brand promise of wisdom, guidance, and advocacy, they empower you with the exponential power of brand buzz.

Un-market like you market: talk to needs

Long before social media co-opted content by relabeling “information” and then convinced everyone it was something new, we here in the communications business still knew that words worked best when they came from the customer’s point of view. When they explored customers’ needs and demonstrated your organization had purpose and not just profit on its mind. Communications, content, inputs – it’s all the same. But in social media, the organization; the products, the services are collectively once-removed from the customer. In a good way. In social media, the needs you meet are less self-oriented, more global. And when you go global, by default, you have community. You have people communing in social networks, rallying around the cause that brought you there in the first place.

So how do we un-market the farm? What are the global needs of pastured chicken and egg shoppers?

1. Soul Food Farm’s customers first and foremost want wholesome inputs. They care about honest food, the local sources that can ensure that honesty, and the farmers who can bring it to them.

2. They also care about animal rights, restored soil, clean air, pure water, community well-being, nurtured children, healthier have-nots, and, well, haves for that matter.

3. These terms happen to be most of the keywords that we optimize in our communications.

3. On Twitter, we use these searches to find and follow other sustainable farms, writers, blogs, websites, organizations and associations that also advocate for sustainable farming and (fill in one of our key words.) We unearth layer upon layer of influential thought leaders, groups, organizations, associations all supporting these causes. We glean  their resources and knowledge and share the love.

4. As agents of change, we help expand our social network by amassing other businesses that can empower our causes. So we direct our followers and fans to those businesses, who by thriving on the viral attention bring longevity to their support.

4. We post tweets that link to all of the different kinds of sites mentioned above and the resources they offer and/or recommend.

5. Every few days, we also post something about the farm, its products, and/or the community supported ag. (CSA) program. We mix it up to remind the community that, hey, after all, we are still selling chickens and eggs.

5. We “like” like-minded pages on Facebook. Interestingly, we found that our Facebook fans engage most with posts about food values, healthy and creative cooking, followed by farm events and then by food politics. We post and contribute proportionately to these pages, directing their fans to helpful resources and sometimes back to us.

6. The Farm hosts tours and cooking workshops as another way to become a resource rather than simply a sales force. We use the web community to spread the word as well as to offer educational resources or inspiration that comes out of these events.

7. A few weeks ago, the farm hosted a series of talks, farm visits, and school assemblies with Carole Morison, a celebrity chicken farmer who converted from industrial chicken farming (bad) to local food systems advocacy (good). We currently are in the middle of packaging video and photos to share with fans, friends, and other sponsors with whom we worked that week.

8. These will help us initiate a living archive of resources, again to demonstrate the farm’s expertise and online community stewardship. We will create a YouTube channel where we will expand our social network to include conscientious folks who tend to gravitate more towards visual communications. Don’t forget, YouTube is also a social network. It’s not just for posting and viewing, but there we aim to be just as engaged as we are on Twitter and Facebook.

9. Ditto for a photo sharing site and a bookmarking site. Those are in progress.

10. The Farm has a blog that serves a four-fold purpose: Farm “shingle,” Farm news source, CSA communications, and e-commerce. It is not an issues or industry news source, and we’ve determined at this point in time, it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of that out there, and our public networks are showing signs of tangible rewards. To gain critical mass for Farm outreach, as mentioned in a previous post, the small town paper is alive and well as one of the most trusted sources of news and information.

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