Slurping is a usual accompaniment to a Social Media Breakfast, as caffeine is in the mission statement, but when you add a delicious, organic, healthy breakfast to it that was as pleasing to the eye as to the tummy; you have a knock-out gathering to be sure!
The attendees at a packed house in the Goodman Community Center were treated to a meeting that was bountiful in content, aroma, nutrition and of course, networking. Greg Brickl, marketing communications director at Organic Valley (OV) cooperative gave an insightful overview of the evolution of Organic Valley “we were born in response to fundamentally broken food system” and their goals to market the best product, establish fair prices for producers and enable healthy human livelihood.
The brand, born 1990 with seven farms, now 24 years later boasts a contingent of 1,700 farmers in 36 states and one Canadian province. One reason for their growth is the solid partnership philosophy “it is important to us to stabilize prices to make sure farmers are paid for their actual price of production, not what a commodity broker in China decides.”
A love story
The venture into social media in 2009 was a natural way to connect with their very loyal following of customers. What happened next was what Greg termed “talking about love.” Yes, a love story, replete with the all the passion, turmoil and tumultuous talk that only comes from passion. Enter stage left: milk and chickens.
Greg displayed a number of quotes from customers posted on their Facebook page “I love, love, love your product.”“I have a relationship with the pasture butter, how could anyone eat any other butter?”
But then another character entered the scene, who went by the name of Rumor.
“The Peta story is very disturbing, now that I see how your egg laying hens are crammed in your henhouse, Organic valley is a lie.” “I had to like you so I could dislike you” said another.
Facebook and the viral nature of a supposed “expose” exploded with a video that supposedly showed harmful farming techniques in play associated with Organic Valley. From their first post in January, 2009, they went almost a year and a half without any issues involving crisis communication in the social space. Then they experienced three meltdowns in ten months.
The Raw Milk Issue
The first cow to raise its head was the Raw Milk Issue. Lasting four weeks, with the ranking of “seven” on a scale of 1-10 in severity, this issue pivoted on the presumption that Organic Valley and its policies were getting between raw milk fans and their source. “We stopped promoting on social, as we had to spend all our time responding to negativity. “ As a result, Organic Valley shut down use of Facebook as a means of positive promotion. “We knew if you post something fun in your newsfeed in the middle of this intense discussion, the detractors would use as megaphone against us, so our postings went quiet.
September and October, 2010 was dominated by a defense of Organic Valley’s position on the amount of room hens can have to lay eggs. A photo distributed on PETA of hens crammed into an awful space was incorrectly attributed to an Organic Valley farmer. Lasting four weeks, with another “seven” on the severity scale, Organic Valley experienced an “intense bombardment of the full PETA brigade” of attacks and accusations that simply were not based in fact. Greg shared that Organic Valley was the originator of the standard that stipulates certain square footage per bird. So again, for that time frame, they lost the use of Facebook as a proactive marketing vehicle.
The Coexistence Issue
In January/February of 2011, Organic Valley was accused of “being in bed with Monsanto.” I can’t say I entirely understood this issue, but Greg said “it was absurd, we are fighting for food systems that are the antithesis of what Monsanto stands for.” The posting bombardment lasted ten weeks, with a severity of “ten” on the scale. Its impact was again, a loss of Facebook as a tool in their marketing plan.
Crisis Communication Response Plan
It was evident with the succession of intense issues playing out in the viral space they had to quickly adopt best practices. Greg discussed the importance of preparation: “have plan that assigns roles, lay out a
response development process and post etiquette guidelines yesterday.”
The key tenants of the OV plan are:
Stick to plan but be ready to change it for effect
Respond to every complaint quickly
Formulate responses not for the one but for many
Do not use robotic public relations speak
Do not censor posts or ban users unless they violate etiquette guidelines
Tell the truth
Greg shared “You have to remember you are responding to 1,000s who are looking, not just the one complainer.”
Leslie, the Social Media Director for Organic Valley then took the podium to share more stories and strategies she is employing in their social media experiment. With the declining open rates from their e-newsletter, it was apparent “we had to find another method to build our audience, deliver content that people found engaging, and that they in turn would want to share to create more positive brand impressions.”
Make them smile
As their postings increased, their audience grew 6%, and their reach doubled over time. “I try to find something that will make them smile.” A simple post featuring a photo of their different milk cartons asked “which one is your favorite?” garnered tremendous engagement. She noted “I am always surprised when we provide an opportunity to talk about our product how much they will say!”
It also never hurts to bring out big guns, as she drew laughs with a photo of a cute calf. “This is always a sure fire way to get a lot of activity!” Leslie noted a lot of time she doesn’t know what to expect from a post, that it can be unnerving when you take chances. She related a story posted on April 1 with a photo of a large heifer, with the accompanying text proclaiming how this cow will be producing chocolate milk due to its new diet of cocoa beans.
“You just never know what they will take from your posts.” She noted she sees a lot of social media activity on holidays, and had fun with a photo of butter vs. organic butter, asking “can you tell which one is ours?” She wasn’t anticipating that people didn’t have the same knowledge base, and it generated lots of fun and enlightening discussion.
Being a likeable resource
As part of their strategy to increase their fan base, they have done giveaways exclusively directed at building the social media audience. “Be our valentine, if you love us, like us, and see what other folks are saying” accompanied by an “ultimate coffee connoisseurs giveaway.”
She also has terrific success with connecting consumers with farmers, and telling stories about farms, farmers and families.
In addition, OV has partnered with Holistic Moms online to increase their reputation as a valuable resource for moms, and have co-hosted Twitter parties where the topic was grass fed dairy. They answered questions directly from moms, and had their milk product manager on the line. Over 2 million impressions were tallied from this one chat.
Social media has also been a tool to tout OV acting as an advocate for mission-aligned causes, such as posting photos of rallies in D.C. in “Franken Veggie” costumes, and promoting local farm events. “It is important to us to demonstrate our commitment to local communities. Even though we are a national brand, we are a regionally based organization, so we post local events we are going to, profiles of farmers in an area, and content tailored to specific areas as well.”
“It is all a big experiment and we find a lot of engagement from surprising questions, something as simple as “what do you use our creamer for” brought in a lot of terrific input that does nothing but build positive impressions and expand our fan base in new ways for our products.”
Photos by Bob Wydra of Did It Direct, carbon responsible marketing firstname.lastname@example.org