Business New Year’s Resolutions: Get serious about social media

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat—they’re all new ways to reach out to new customers. But you’ll need to plan ahead

Woman feeding Twitter birds from her hand

(Illustration by Katie Carey)

This article is part of our series on New Year’s Resolutions for Small Business. Read them all here.

When Ian Baird started planting lavender on the former horse and hay farm he purchased in Milton, Ont., he had an agri-tourism business in mind. It takes several years for new lavender crops to be ready for harvesting, so Baird had plenty of time to establish demand. He created a Facebook page and used the platform’s paid promotion tools to “tease the market” and attract interested customers who would be ready to visit when the time came to open the doors. “Using Facebook, we could start talking about the farm and build a bit of a community around it before we opened,” he says.

After two summers in operation (plus seasonal pop-ups), Baird has a dedicated audience of more than 17,000 Facebook fans for his company, Terre Bleu, and year-over-year sales growth of close to 400%. “We’re just swamped with thousands of people each weekend,” he says. “We’ve been selling out of product, and we even got our first negative reviews—basically, that there were lineups. We did not expect this kind of demand.”

How did the IT consultant turned lavender farmer build a thriving business out of empty fields? Here are his tips for digital marketing success:

1. Build slowly

Baird didn’t go all out from day one with a flashy website and accounts on every social media platform. Instead, he gradually developed his promotional tools, starting with a Facebook business page along with co-ordinated advertising. He then launched a simple website that featured clear information and professional photography. (He’s since added an Instagram account, but it’s mostly for fun.)

Baird took the same incremental approach when developing his business too, letting demand govern his next moves. “Last year, we only opened as a test market with a tiny farm market store,” Baird says. “Based on the success of last year’s test, we built a 3,000-square-foot building this year, and it was off the charts.”

And while lavender products are Terre Bleu’s key merchandise, Baird has developed another revenue stream based on the crop’s gorgeous esthetics. “We have a whole business around photo shoots for engagements, weddings and family portraiture,” he says. “We even added the feature this year where you could rent one of our horses to be photographed.”

2. Know your market

Rather than sending out mass advertisements and hoping to reach potential customers, Baird is strategic about spending his advertising budget, using Facebook’s targeting features so that only the right people see his ads. “I use the tools to choose audience, interest, geography, sex and age,” he says.

Few people ever Google “lavender farm in Milton,” so in the early days, getting Facebook ads in front of the appropriate audience was crucial for Terre Bleu. Baird’s strategy, for example, focused on women who lived near his farm and who were interested in topics such as food and photography, a niche he anticipated would be likely to visit—and spend—when the time came to open.

He also made the conscious decision to aim for quality Facebook fans instead of quantity. “Not all likes are created equal,” he says. “It isn’t important to me to get 50,000 likes. It’s more important to get 5,000 people who are really interested in the products we make. Then I can focus my marketing and messaging around that.”

3. Take a soft-sell approach

“Don’t use Facebook as a selling medium,” Baird says. “I don’t mean you shouldn’t set up a Facebook store, but if every post is about selling a product or pitching a deal, I don’t think the medium works well. People get turned off.”

It might sound corny, but Baird really does think of his Facebook audience as a community based on a shared interest. He always keeps that in mind when interacting on the social platform, rather than using it as a tool to move inventory.

“We were trying to create a sense of place in our branding,” Baird says. “People like knowing where products are made. Just by showing photographs of the bees or how we harvest or that we had a devastating winter and it destroyed half our plants, that created an attachment to our farm, which allowed us to capture the price points we needed to create a premium experience.”