[imgcontainer] [img:10906478_863498080377381_2168553707631047680_n.jpg]Ron and Rylie Melancon do some administrative work on a rainy day for their family-owned livestock business, MG Farms. The farm used Facebook to market its livestock sale in the region. [/imgcontainer]

It’s good to have friends. It’s nice to be liked.

But for businesses, the name of the social-media game is to turn “likes” into clicks and clicks into customer sales. That’s especially true for rural businesses that are seeking to expand their customer base beyond a limited local market.

A Mississippi Extension Service program called “Mississippi Bricks to Clicks” is helping small businesses and community groups use applications like Facebook to raise brand awareness and create customers, both in the community and beyond.

Rural broadband access, though still lower than urban access, is improving. Another important challenge is for for local businesses and community groups to leverage their use of broadband to bring in new dollars.

The first step is creating an online brand through a website, blog or social media platform like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or some combination. The crucial second step is to connect with potential customers and engage with them to increase the likelihood of sales. On Facebook, when a potential customer wants to learn more about a business or community page, she simply clicks on a “like” button for that page. Now she becomes a fan of the page and will receive updated information when it is posted.

But often the gap between creating an online presence and creating sales can be significant, especially for a small business owner who has limited time to learn how to use online tools. Simply put, it takes more than “liking” a Facebook business page to create sales. It takes engagement with potential customers, too. Time to learn is costly for small business owners, but so is not using these online tools. If rural business owners and their communities cannot take advantage of using these types of online tools, then the economic value of having access to broadband in rural America may go largely unrealized..

Reaching Rural Places
In Mississippi, the Extension Service used some of its funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as the stimulus package) to establish the entrepreneurship program called Mississippi Bricks to Clicks (B2C).

The B2C program is for all types of businesses – agriculture, retail, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, universities and colleges and others. The program has been developed and implemented in Mississippi for the past two years. Through hands-on learning, we’ve been teaching entrepreneurs and communities how to use Facebook to market businesses and events with a goal of increasing revenues.

Marketing Rural with Facebook
How can the use of Facebook contribute to regional economic development? Here are two examples of how Facebook page likes can translate into tangible economic growth for farms and rural economies.

The MG Farms’ Facebook page  represents a family-owned livestock operation in Woodville, Mississippi. Owners of MG wanted to use advertisements within Facebook to market its livestock sale on February 21, 2015. We reviewed previous sales data with MG farm owners and then built an advertisement campaign that geographically targeted potential buyers in nearby states. We used a budget of $735 and conducted two campaigns. The first was a 12-day campaign conducted in November 2014 that cost $237.18. It gained the page an additional 960 likes and was seen by, or reached, 20,232 users. The average cost per page “like” equaled 25 cents.

[imgcontainer] [img:facebook_ads_dyptic.png] Examples of posts used in the Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival (left) and the MG Farms livestock sale (right). [/imgcontainer]

The second campaign built on the first and was conducted on February 16-20 just before the sale. It cost $491.19, gathered 1,015 page likes, reached 36,679 with an average cost per like of 48 cents. Through these two advertisements, the MG Facebook page grew by 1,975 likes at an average cost per like of only $0.37. For less than the price of a stamp, the MG Facebook page was now connected to targeted buyers for the February 21 sale and other future sales.

The Woodville/Wilkinson County Main Street Association’s Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival Facebook page (WDWF) was promoted using Facebook paid advertisements in 2013 and 2014. When we began with this page in 2013, it had 1,160 page likes. By October 12, 2014, we had grown the page to over 9,000 likes. The community invested $1,500 for its campaigns in 2013 and 2014.

[imgcontainer] [img:facebook_ad_performance.png] Analytical tools help users track the reach of their advertisements. This one shows the number of mobile users who saw an ad for the Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival. [/imgcontainer]

The 2014 main attraction was PigMan (www.PigManTV.com). Advertisements were developed to showcase PigMan and other attractions at the festival in Woodville, Mississippi, on October 12, 2014. Several campaigns targeted people living within 150 miles of Woodville who were interested in festivals and hunting. One of the most successful campaigns targeted mobile-device users with these same demographic factors. For this mobile campaign, we spent $315 from September 12-October 11, 2014, and gathered an additional 1,212 page likes, reached 29,503 people with an average cost per like of $0.26. Figure 3 shows an example performance report for this campaign found within Facebook’s advertisement manager, something we reviewed daily when conducting campaigns. Again, for less than the cost of a stamp, we were able to add a fan to the WDWF page who was likely to attend the 2014 and future festivals.

Rural Economic Value
So how did these campaigns contribute to the bottom line?

Facebook marketing has both short and long-term results. In the short run, brand awareness is the main goal of building up a Facebook page such as MG Farms. In a brief time, the MG Farms page grew by almost 2,000 likes, which provided a solid base of fans that the owners of MG Farms could then engage. But brand awareness doesn’t usually result in more sales immediately. As fans become more engaged with an enterprise through interactions that start with a Facebook page like, the next result can be increased sales, followed by repeat sales, or customer loyalty. In the long run, MG Farms can build on its brand awareness on Facebook to reach more potential buyers, which would bode well for increasing attendance at their next sales event, which in turn, bodes well for increasing sales.   

[imgcontainer right] [img:kickingcajuns.PNG]  An ad for the Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival features musician Jamie Bergeron. Images make a big difference in how posts are received, say the authors. [/imgcontainer]

The economic value for the Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival event is similar to that of MG Farms. Like the MG Farms owners, the organizers of the festival wanted to increase attendance . Increased attendance would then translate into more dollars spent locally on food, entertainment and other products or services.

To assess some of these economic value possibilities, we surveyed attendees on the day of the WDWF event on October 12, 2014. We found that of the 218 attendees randomly surveyed, almost 53 percent said they observed the Facebook marketing efforts we provided on the WDWF Facebook page. In addition, anecdotal data collected by organizers of the event suggests that the Facebook marketing campaign contributed to an increase in attendance from the previous year of approximately 20 percent. Increased attendance bodes well for capturing economic value locally as new dollars brought into the town of Woodville can stimulate the local economy.

Lessons Learned
To those who want to use Facebook to market their farmers’ market, family farm or rural tourism event, we share several lessons learned that may help.

  1. Focus on brand awareness first and sales later. Do not get hung up on looking for sales every time a paid like campaign is implemented, because it takes time to build up likes. Expect to increase brand awareness through examining the reach of your campaign and the resulting likes. Both contribute to brand awareness. If the Facebook page is small in terms of the number of likes, do not expect sales to skyrocket when conducting a paid like campaign. Review the case found in Barnes and Coatney (2014) for a detailed example of this.
  2. Focus next on engagement, not just likes. That’s critically important for capturing the economic value of a Facebook page. Potential customers liking a Facebook business page is the start of a relationship between business and customer, not the end of the journey. That’s why a Facebook page with 10,000 likes and minimal engagement is not going to increase sales. Engagement through interactions (likes, shares, comments) are critical to success. To achieve this, be creative and share organic content on the page to get fans to engage through liking, sharing, and commenting about posts made. The WDWF Facebook page has a host of examples of giveaways we used to boost engagement. At one point, engagement on the festival page reached more than 10,000 people in one week. Most of that was driven by giveaway contests. Remember, the stronger the connection made between a Facebook page’s posts and its fans, the more likely fans will see future posts in their newsfeed. By stronger connection, we mean the type and frequency of engagement between a page and its fans measured by likes, shares, comments, and even private messages. Maximize engagement, and humanize the conversation with fans as much as possible when doing so.
  3. Do not be afraid of using the stock images Facebook provides within the paid advertisement manager tool when creating paid campaigns. No longer do we have to use only the images we take ourselves. For MG Farms, the stock images outperformed all other high-quality images we gathered. That was also the case more than 60 percent of the time with 28 other Facebook paid advertisement experiments that we have conducted to date. These experiments have largely been with rural businesses, too.
  4. Develop a Facebook page fully before launching a paid like campaign. Each Facebook page should have the proper dimensions for its profile and cover photographs and art used in posts.  Proper dimensions give the post and its image a greater chance of being seen by fans in their newsfeeds. Also, the “about” section should be completed correctly. Facebook’s search engine, as well as Google or Bing, can better help people find pages when accurate information is used. A page should also have fresh content posted regularly for at least two to three weeks before launching a paid campaign. With the Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival page, we began posting more than 30 days before the event. We used a “save the date”’ post early on, and then posted at least three to five times per day, especially the week leading up to the event. We wanted new fans to see fresh content and get engaged. And they did. Over the two years that we worked on the Woodville Deer and Wildlife Festival Facebook page, it grew from about 1,180 to almost 9,000 likes.
  5. Use any data possible to help define a target audience before creating a paid advertisement campaign. For the MG Farms campaigns, we gathered as much information as possible about previous livestock sales and the locations of buyers before creating the advertisements. For the Woodville festival page, we examined where the most engagement on the page came from in the previous year to learn more about which towns to target in 2014. We heavily tailored the target audience around the 150-mile radius as before, but also gave greater weight to the fans who were from specific towns and cities in both Louisiana and Mississippi. The point is: Know who the customer is and where he/she lives, if possible. Both buyer location and previous fan engagement data provided helpful information that we used to create effective advertisements. And if you have lots of customer emails from previous sales, Facebook provides a custom audience advertisement option as well. Lots of advertisement options exist to promote websites and online sales, too.
  6. Brevity pays. Be short and to the point when posting to a page, and always include a relevant image. More fans will see the message accompanied with an image compared to a message-only post, other things equal. This also applies when creating paid advertisements within Facebook. Facebook only provides 90 characters for a paid advertisement message, which oddly enough, is 50 characters less than a tweet on Twitter. Develop a brief message that is 90 characters or fewer before attempting to create a paid advertisement. This can be the most difficult part of the entire process, so tackle it at the beginning, especially if a team must be involved in the process.

Realizing the Value of Rural Broadband
Without broadband, we could not have worked with these clients to implement any Facebook advertisements to promote MG Farms or the Woodville festival. But broadband access alone is not enough. The next step – using broadband to capture economic value – is equally important.


For More Information

The Mississippi Bricks to Clicks Extension Entrepreneurship Program can be found at  http://www.msbrickstoclicks.com. Or Dr. James arnes (james.barnes@msstate.edu), assistant Extension professor at Mississippi State, for more information. 

Co-author Dr. Kalyn Coatney (kalyn.coatney@msstate.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Mississippi State University. 

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