When you consider that most Americans are generations removed from farming and food production, it’s a bit surprising that research from The Center for Food Integrity more than 60 percent believe they have some or a lot of knowledge about agriculture and food manufacturing. That number is even higher among younger consumers ages 18-37.
It begs the question: What do they really know? It’s concerning in an age where misinformation abounds – particularly online – where not all sources are scientifically sound.
The good news is a majority of Americans want to know more about farming and food production, which provides a golden opportunity to engage in and balance the conversation with information that is relevant and scientifically accurate. So, how do those in food and agriculture effectively connect online?
Our research shows that most consumers go online to seek out information when it comes to food-related issues. Search engines like Google and Bing rank number one as the go-to source.
The most important audiences to reach – the influencers who research and share information and drive the food culture – are significantly more likely to use search engines and websites as their main sources.
The food and ag industries can join the conversation with the right online game plan. The first step is finding the culture creators.
The Culture Creators
In the first-of-its-kind research, CFI used an innovative approach called digital ethnography that identified influencers by examining the online behaviors of more than 8,000 people – tracking their unspoken motivations, beliefs, values and fears. The research also identified how consumers define credible food information and how that information is shared across consumer segments.
We learned there are two groups in particular that are important – we call them the Philosophers and the Followers.
Philosophers take scientific evidence, simplify it and share it through an ethical, values-based lens. (Our CFI trust model shows values are three-to-five times more important to earning trust than simply sharing facts). Philosophers are important because they consider multiple sources of information and they look for scientific verification to come to conclusions about food system information. In turn, Philosophers share their ethics-based scientific information with Followers, who feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information and fear doing the wrong thing. They look to Philosophers and other Followers they can relate to for simple and clear guidance – guidance that feels like it’s the right thing to do.
Three Steps To Finding Key Influencers
There are three steps to developing a sound online strategy that meets key influencers with the right message and messenger.
- Audit Your Digital Channels
It’s difficult to set a clear path forward without knowing where you currently stand. Auditing your website and social media channels is a good place to start.
Assess your website on three fronts: ease of use, content and visual appeal.
Is the site simple to navigate? Is the most important information easy to find? Are you keeping content and images fresh? Does the look and feel of your site match the preference of your site visitors? Is it clear that you’re accessible and open to engaging? Our transparency research shows consumers want a way to engage to get their questions answered promptly.
A social media audit is particularly helpful if you are engaging without a defined social media strategy. It helps to answer important questions. How often do you post? Is your content relevant to the audiences you want to reach? Are you leveraging the most impactful channels? Are you using paid and earned media strategies to get the best reach?
- Create Content that Aligns Your Values with Consumers’ Values
We know both Philosophers and Followers crave values-based information to make decisions. They want assurances that the values of the food system align with theirs when it comes to topics like animal care, food safety, the impact of food on health, and environmental stewardship.
If it’s Philosophers you want to reach, provide succinct summaries of science-based information from scientifically credible sources. Skeptical of industry-driven research and information, they prefer well-established and respected publications and government sources (although not always U.S. government sources).
Followers, who represent nearly half of the population, want values-based information and very clear guidance from sources who are relatable and credentialed. Family, family doctors, farmers, dietitians and nutrition advocacy groups are all trusted sources, according to CFI’s research. In particular, Followers like visual messages and straightforward how-to guidance.
Do you have trusted messengers in your organization or are there highly trusted external experts who could speak on your behalf or provide validation of an issue you care about? Our transparency research shows third-party experts are valued.
- Focus on SEO Best Practices
You may have heard the SEO joke: if you want to hide a dead body, put it on the second page of Google because no one ever clicks on Page 2 results. In other words, what good is your information if people can’t find it?
It’s very difficult for search engines to determine if information is scientifically sound or fact-based. Anyone with the right strategy can get their information – accurate are not – to rank high on Page 1 if they’re willing to invest the time and resources.
Make it your goal to rank in the top spots on Page 1 of keyword searches that address your top issues. This requires effective:
- Technical strategy that considers dozens of factors including designing mobile-friendly sites, creating websites that search engines can easily find, tagging the site with meta descriptions and alternative tags that help search engine “crawlers” locate you
- Content strategy that focuses on frequent and fresh values-based content from trusted and relatable messengers
- Referral and linking strategy that includes incorporating links to other sites that link back to yours
- Digital targeting and paid promotion that expands reach on influencers’ channels of choice, creating awareness and engagement
- Partnering with online influencers to share your messages, amplifying and multiplying impact
It takes a strategic and long-term effort to find and engage influencers with credible content that earns trust.
With so much misinformation online, it may seem like an uphill battle. But take heart. Our research shows that most consumers are more than willing to listen. Take advantage of this curiosity with a new online approach.
The Center for Food Integrity