For a farming business that depends on customer contact, social media has become an indispensable tool for Susie MacMillan, who runs the Mac’s Farm organic egg enterprise in Sussex.
Winner of last year’s Farmers Weekly Awards Poultry Farmer of the Year, Ms MacMillan has learned through experience how to get the most from social media – and how to make it pay for her business.
- 18,000 organic layers in three flocks
- 36ha of grassland and trees
- 250 direct customers
- All “spent” hens rehomed
- Part of the family-owned Grassington Rangers group
- Diversified into camping and events
This was made apparent last summer when, attracted by the prospect of cheaper imports, one of her key wholesalers took his custom elsewhere at very short notice.
“We were staring down the end of a barrel, with literally thousands of eggs needing to find a market,” Ms MacMillan recalls.
“So we decided the only thing we could do was to hold a ‘pick your own’ day – inviting people to the farm to buy their eggs direct – and join us for tea and cake.”
A video was quickly prepared, explaining what had happened and how the business was in peril, and this was circulated far and wide by the thousands of Mac’s Farm social media followers.
“On the day we were astounded when more than 1,000 people turned up – they literally blocked the road to the village – and since then our direct sales have continued to flourish.”
As well as generating support for the egg business, social media has proved a powerful tool in building up the family’s diversifications – initially into on-farm camping, and more recently into events.
“Our social media presence has helped massively as we have diversified,” says Ms MacMillan.
“It has saved us a fortune in advertising. Around 80% of our visitors say they have found us on social media, with most of the rest by word of mouth.”
The camping enterprise now brings in a significant customer base for the egg business.
The events (which include an annual barn dance, a “sausage and cider” night and the Wild Meadows mini-festival), build brand awareness. Both earn money in their own right, too.
Engaging with consumers
But it’s not all about business, and Ms MacMillan is a passionate believer in getting the right messages to consumers about the role and value of the small family farm.
“I try to explain that we are a small business, working all hours to stay afloat, while doing our best for our animals and our natural environment,” she says.
“We need the support of our local community, so engaging with them – and even encouraging them to come and see us – pays dividends, for us and our industry.”
Ms MacMillan also sees it as a “golden opportunity” to promote locally produced, high-welfare and seasonal produce.
“There has been so much negativity directed at farming by the national media recently,” she says. “We can use social media to set the record straight.”
Q&A about social media
What social media platforms do you use?
Primarily its Instagram, which then automatically feeds into Facebook.
They are linked together. We find we have a younger audience on Instagram, where it is all about the pictures and less about the story, whereas Facebook followers take more time to read what we are saying.
We do have a Twitter account, too, but are less active on it due to time constraints.
How many followers do you have and is the number growing?
We currently have about 10,000 followers on Facebook and 4,500 on Instagram, both of which have more than doubled in the past year.
This growth has happened organically, with people sharing our content and engaging with us through “likes” and “comments”.
But it can take a long time to get to this point. We’ve been doing social media for 12 years, and at times it felt like we were just talking to ourselves.
What works well on social media?
Pictures is the obvious one. Pictures of sad things, funny things, serious things – the good, the bad and the ugly of farming.
Videos are also powerful, but keep them short. I did a “wet and windy” one recently, showing what our ranges are like in winter. People were amazed that we didn’t have any grass.
Using hashtags is also essential, as this massively widens the number of people you reach. Just adding #farming or #sussex or #chicken ensures people find you, even if they were looking for something else.
We’ve also started doing more Facebook Live posts – video clips that go out live, but then stay on the page for others to view. These get three times the traffic of normal embedded videos.
Do you ever get abuse on social media?
Yes, but not very often. The trick is to be completely honest.
We’ve had more interest from vegans recently due to Veganuary, but I’m very happy to engage them in a conversation and explain patiently why we do things the way we do.
If that fails and they continue to be abusive, we simply block them. That’s very rare.
Who manages your social media?
I do about 80% of it, but other members of the family get involved too, especially my eldest son Dean and his partner Kelly Stoner.
They have their own animal rescue centre and run the camping side of our business.
Susie MacMillan’s top tips for social media
- Use great images – your own and other peoples’. Keep it varied
- Keep your messages positive – don’t moan unless you have to
- Use hashtags to widen your appeal
- Respond to every comment with a “like” to show people you have read it
- Ask your friends to like and share your posts to build a following
- Post material regularly – at least two or three times a week
- Don’t overdo it and annoy people
About Farmers Weekly Awards 2020
The Farmers Weekly 2020 Poultry Farmer of the Year Award is sponsored by NSF International.
Join Farmers Weekly in celebrating the farming industry and recognising the hard work of UK farmers and enter the awards today.
Alternatively, nominate a deserving individual for an award.
For more information about the Farmers Weekly Awards 2020, pay a visit to the official website.
This is part of our Where Are They Now (WATN) series, catching up with former FW awards winners.