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Electronic Marketing Made Easy
by Christopher Clukey

With 37 years in the grain business--the last ten with Carroll Service Company in Lanark, Illinois--Clarence Grant has seen a lot of different methods used to get prices and other information to the customer. He remembers when farmers in the area tracked grain prices through hourly reports on WILL radio out of Urbana-Champaign. Twenty-five years ago a local radio station broadcast Carroll Service's noon and close-of-day bids.Then came faxing, with staff members sending price information to between 250 and 300 numbers each night. Today, Grant sends a daily e-newsletter detailing grain prices and other important information to a similar sized list.

He reports that email has been far more effective and much easier to execute than other methods. When asked exactly how many potential customers the bulletins reach, he responded, "I don't know and don't care." He maintains a list, of course, but it's impossible to know how many recipients forward it on to others. He does know that it covers a geographic area reaching several counties surrounding the Illinois-Wisconsin border, and extends south along the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Carroll Service has gained several new customers solely as a result of the newsletter.

Carroll Service uses this method instead of a website, Grant says, because it gives the farmer "one place to go for their information." Also, email's "push" format brings the company to mind on a regular basis at a time when the grower isn't necessarily thinking of them. Of course, sometimes it's the grower's most important partner that sees it first: "Truth be told, it's the farmer's wife who is seeing this newsletter, most of the time," Grant says. His goals are simplicity and ease of use, and customer interest follows. "The easier you make it, the more customers you have. If a competitor has a website, that's work for the farmer."

For companies that use this method, Grant offers some tips:

  • Use the publication to get special bulletins out. For example, Carroll Service uses red text to call attention to products they're looking for (such as a recent case where they were interested in non-GMO soybeans) and other information useful to their customers.
  • Don't forget that customer replies can carry useful information, or keep them interested. "Throw in a prize," Grant says. "First person to return this email gets a free lunch." Grant also used the email to track rain as Illinois suffered through drought conditions, asking each reader to send an email telling the time and amount it rained at their farm.
  • Be mindful of blind carbon copy security. The information can go to anyone at almost the speed of light, with only the forwarder and the recipient knowing it was sent. Grant also notes that your reader's addresses should go in the Bcc block. Putting them in "To" or "cc" is a common error, and one that gives the world your mailing list.

Don't depend on email to close the deal. "Talk is still necessary," Grant says, and he requires at least a phone call from any farmer interested in selling. Business is still about relationships, no matter how efficient the tools might be. "You want to send to as many customers as simply as possible. That's how you start, but nothing beats the phone or in-person contact."

At Farmers Elevator in Monroe City, Missouri, General Manager Marlin McCormick agrees: "You need to have old-fashioned human contact," he says. The company's website is an effort to facilitate that.

McCormick had been interested in using the Internet to strengthen customer relationships from the time he was managing a facility in Illinois. After moving to the Monroe City facility, he tried what he described as a "canned website" from a company offering electronic services to the ag industry. He soon became unhappy with the site because there was little difference between Farmers' site and the many others the company hosted. He was also dissatisfied with the effect--or lack thereof--that the site had on business. "I didn't think we were getting anything, so we dropped it," he says.

Some time after pulling the site, McCormick met with representatives from DTN who were offering web design services for ag companies. "I thought [DTN's web service] was a great product but I still thought it was canned," he says. He changed his mind after they demonstrated the website's versatility to him. Soon he and his staff were brainstorming to decide what the website--www.farmerselevator.net--would look like.

The site's front page features modules with content provided by DTN, including CBOT-CME quotes, news bulletins, weather forecasts and radar. Other pages include a company history, product information and a portfolio page where customers can look up the price (including high, low and change) for any commodity by symbol. They even have two pages detailing the destruction they suffered in a 2006 tornado and the subsequent rebuilding. McCormick has also launched two newsletters, one for patrons and one for employees. For these projects and other sections of the website, he reports that "a digital camera is a must."

McCormick confirms that the site has been helpful in gaining better contact with customers and suppliers. One supplier had even seen a website as a requirement before doing business with the company. His advice for those who wish to launch or redesign their website? "It needs to look different and you need to say something with it."Back to Articles