Karen Pfautsch, Chief Client Strategist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

The Illinois Soy Association (ISA), like many of our clients, is an established and well-respected agricultural outfit. From a communications standpoint, it does an excellent job working with its many stakeholders, which include state, national, and foreign governments; industry buyers and users of soybeans; and the more than 43,000 farmers who grow them.

Like many organizations, ISA understands the importance of digital execution. They’re committed to ensuring that their digital communications are efficient, cost-effective, and are using the latest technologies and practices to best reach their different audiences. That’s why they asked Rooster to take a look and make some suggestions to potentially improve their digital performance. And, because ISA was nice enough to let me tell their story, it might serve as a case study for other ag companies and organizations who want to improve their own digital execution and increase audience engagement.

Singing from the same hymnal. Legendary communication theorist Marshal McLuhan famously noted, “The medium is the message,” suggesting that the choice of­ the delivery mechanism is more important than the actual message it carries. And in the case of ISA, their media choices were solid. They have a good website, a strong digital presence, and established social channels. However, with so many programs and activities – and so many audiences – ISA needed help sorting out and refining their messages.

So, one of our steps was to help them with message mapping: laying out, organizing, and consolidating the different messages that were being communicated to these varied audiences. We outlined nearly 20 different topics and programs they were discussing, ranging from biodiesel to consumer education to exports. For each, we drafted a primary farmer-centric message and call-to-action, including specific ways ISA was working on behalf of farmers in these areas. The intent was not only to help prioritize the messages that should be repeated more frequently, but to ensure that everyone communicating to audiences was doing so in an orderly and consistent manner.

Make social media channels work harder. Like many companies, ISA had dedicated social channels but no internal social team to plan, monitor, and build the blueprints needed to get the most from these channels. So, while their efforts were solid, there was still more they could be doing, especially at the strategic level.

We started with a deep dive into their current plans using a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). We interviewed stakeholders, reviewed metrics, and conducted a detailed social listening campaign to hear what farmers were saying about ISA and key agricultural topics. With this data in hand, we used the messaging map we created (above) to write objectives and develop an overall strategy that ISA, now with a social team in place, will implement.

Leveraging assets. Once the messages are finely tuned, then it’s time to look at the media. In a nod to its 50-year-plus history of helping farmers, one of the most important vehicles for ISA is a print magazine, Illinois Field & Bean, which is mailed to growers bi-monthly and posted to their website. The magazine is excellent, and there’s no shortage of advertisers who rely on it to reach soybean growers. We worked with ISA to develop other avenues for advertisers to reach Illinois soybean growers beyond just their magazine. ISA now offers opportunities for companies to tag along with ISA content on their website and through social media channels.

We also wanted to incorporate new digital tools, including programmatic ad buys, sponsored content, custom webinars, and sponsorship opportunities. By including the print/digital publication into more comprehensive media packages with advanced digital offerings, potential advertisers will have more options to reach an engaged audience of Illinois soybean growers who are tuning in to how their checkoff dollars are being used. And ISA can develop and appreciate new revenue streams.

Turning over digital stones. Speaking of the web, soybeanpremiums.org is an important vehicle for ISA. The site lists premium/incentive offers to growers from a host of different companies. Because many of these offers have short windows for participation, growers appreciate being able to see them all in one place. Unfortunately, not all growers are aware of the site, and traditional advertising didn’t provide the lift that ISA wanted.

This is an example where McLuhan’s philosophy is spot on – and where tweaking the medium is critical. We’re helping them focus on the key growers and groups they need to reach with geo-targeted e-blasts, programmatic digital ads, and paid social, among other directed efforts. And the best part? Because the messaging map work is done, these media can be used effectively for efforts beyond promoting this specific website.

A megaphone for farmers. “Voice for Soy” is a lobbying effort that equips growers and ag supporters to raise their voices on important issues, such as the recent lawsuit against the EPA’s registration of the herbicide dicamba. It’s a phenomenal effort that can be improved only by increasing its audience, using all the digital and social opportunities mentioned previously, in conjunction with a robust mobile platform.

Virtual farm visits. Illinois is a popular state for foreign nationals to visit when they want to see agriculture in action, and coordinating these farm visits is a key initiative for ISA. Or, at least, it was a key initiative before the pandemic made farm visits impossible to coordinate. That’s why we were excited to recommend a new series of videos featuring Maple Park grower Steve Pitstick. In multiple videos, shot over the course of an entire growing season, Pitstick will explain how soybeans are grown, why they’re such an important part of our national economic program, and how U.S. growers and partners can work favorably with foreign customers and industry experts. Because the videos will be created in conjunction with related trade organizations, such as the U.S.A. Poultry and Egg Export Council, ISA will reach even more potential audiences with the videos than with the traditional farm visits.

Sometimes having an outside consultancy like Rooster take a look at your overall communications plan will lead to strategies that you might not have even realized you needed.  If you’re not fully satisfied with your current media strategy – or if you are but think you might need help in staying ahead of your competitors in the rapidly evolving world of digital execution – I’d love to start a conversation.