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What Marketers Can Learn From Farmers

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Marketing is a game of seasons and cycles. We deal with ups and downs, timing, and patience. It's a lot like farming, actually. Farmers have to deal with seasons, and so do you.

Planting time comes first. Farmers have to respond to variations in the weather and get their crops into the ground at the right time. Then they have to guard and support the growing crop, which weeds, insects and weather will threaten at critical stages. Farmers expect this and they respond accordingly.

Eventually, it's harvest time. The whole family goes to work bringing in the crop. Once the crops are harvested, it's time to get ready for the next cycle. Sometimes farmers plow the stubble from last year under; sometimes they burn the fields to release nutrients for next year.

You have seasons in marketing, too. You plant your new campaign, adapting to the changing market to get it out at the right time. Once the campaign is growing, you have to guard and support it. You know that competitors, upset customers, or even suppliers will threaten your campaign, intentionally or not. You expect this and adjust the campaign in response.

Eventually, you'll harvest the rewards: sales. Everyone in the company may have to go to work bringing in the new business. Finally, at times you will have to tear out old campaigns to make way for new, or maybe even burn the old efforts to the ground in order to move on. You may even need to completely discard your previous efforts to get ready for the next cycle.


When the environment changes, you have to adapt. In our newly social world, broadcast marketing no longer thrives as it used to. You may also need to burn down some old ideas and make room for new ways of building relationships with customers.

Let's take a look at three critical reaping rules in farming, and look at how they apply to today's marketing.

Reaping Rule 1: You reap what you sow

If farmers plant wheat, they can't expect to harvest sorghum—that's obvious. But this principle also applies to the quality of what they plant: if they buy cheap seed wheat that wasn't cleaned of weed seeds, they'll get a field full of weeds with their wheat.

Marketers also need to think hard about what they sow. Know what kind of results are reasonable from the media you choose and the campaigns you plan. Watch out for those cheap campaign seeds. I've heard businesspeople say, "This isn't the best marketing tool, but it is cheap, so we'll do it." Taking that approach will bring in a thin harvest: some good stuff, but a lot of weeds, too.

Marketing takeaway: Every interaction with a customer is a seed you're planting. Make sure it's high quality. If your company's customer interactions are scripted, automated, and cold, don't expect to reap loyal and passionate customers.

Reaping Rule 2: You reap after you sow

Farmers know they won't get results immediately. I'm not sure marketers have learned that yet. Farming and marketing both require patience.

In farming, we know how long various plants take to mature, so we can estimate how long it will be till harvest. In marketing, it's not as much of a science, but your experience plus the experience of others can give you a good guideline on how long it will take to get results.

Marketing takeaway: Consider adding a line to your marketing plans that details the maturing period. Project how long it will take to get measurable results. And stop chasing every new and shiny object before the current plans have had time to mature.

Reaping Rule 3: You reap more than you sow

Farmers may plant two bushels of seed wheat per acre, and pull in 75 bushels per acre at harvest. Advertising to the mass market used to be the way of reaping more from marketing efforts.

In today's highly networked economy, your customers are multiplying your efforts in similar ways. Giving outstanding service to a single customer may generate hundreds of positive impressions with other potential customers. Your response to one customer directly on a social network is observed by many other customers.

Marketing takeaway: Remember that every online interaction has three sides: you, the customer, and everyone listening. For example, a hotel manager responding to a negative review on TripAdvisor [tripadvisor.com] is not just responding to that one former guest. The manager is also forming the opinions of all potential guests who view the listing, because they are wondering how the hotel might respond if they, too, had a problem. The manager's response must not be defensive and it must show that customers can trust the hotel to step up in case something goes wrong.


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Becky McCray shares useful lessons for urban and rural businesses in her new book, Small Town Rules, written with Chicago entrepreneur Barry Moltz. Becky publishes the popular website Small Biz Survival. She also owns a liquor store and a cattle ranch in Oklahoma.

Twitter: @beckymccray

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  • by Frank Orman Fri Oct 12, 2012 via web

    I use the farming metaphor all the time at my seminars so I really enjoyed reading your article. I use it also for ideas generation. More often than not, with clients or with staff, when you plant an idea, like a seed it takes its time but often germinates eventually into something wonderful. However, I must admit that, as much as I love planting metaphorical seeds, my back garden is a mess. Oh well, can't be good at everything! :-)

  • by Nick Stamoulis Mon Oct 15, 2012 via web

    " If your company's customer interactions are scripted, automated, and cold, don't expect to reap loyal and passionate customers."

    A great point! Every touch point has to count for something.

  • by Brian Blake Mon Oct 22, 2012 via web

    That Becky McCray is one smart businesswoman (and farmer, apparently!). I love the idea of reaping more than you sow. The internet has made the world a small town and people will tell the world what you do and how you treat them... Good or bad.

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