Cattlemen, from every generation, have been labeled as businessmen who lacked marketing skills. A quick look into the history of marketing beef cattle and it seems the seller was usually catering to the buyer. The trail drives consumed hundreds of miles through dangerous territory only to deliver the product to the buyer who took little risk when he made his purchase upon inspection at the rail head. Year's later cattlemen brought buyers to different line camps so they could bid on grass fattened beeves before they were transported to the Kansas City slaughterhouses.
Centralized auction markets still depend on the seller to deliver his goods to be sold on a specific day. As seedstock producers began to market their product, production sales, presented in the fashion that treated everyone like royalty, became the norm.
Today, as the tools for marketing livestock continue to expand, the World Wide Web has become the latest apparatus to bring buyers and sellers together. Electronic communication provides tremendous convenience for both parties involved. Buyers can either participate in live internet broadcasts of auctions or “surf” different web sites looking for available stock from the comfort of their own computer station. While sellers could be showing a group of livestock they have for sale many times without starting the pickup or having to gather cattle.
“As people have become more internet savvy, we have gotten more aggressive with our electronic marketing. We do a lot of business on our web site and it is a very cost-effective form of advertising based on the amount of dollars generated through internet sales,” says Tim Lockhart, DeShazer Cattle Co. The Hearne, Texas outfit promotes private treaty and auction sales on the web site.
“The web is a powerful tool to market livestock because it can offer the most up-to-date information to potential customers. The sale catalog and advertising are sometimes dated or lack pieces of information,” says Rachel Williams, Ranch House Designs, College Station, Texas. Williams designs web sites and coordinates advertising programs for a wide-range of clients.
“We're marketing cattle that are a specialized product to a defined audience. The web is a great way for both past and potential customers to preview our female offerings,” says Paul Dufrene, Triple Son Farms, Cut Off, Louisiana. Dufrene markets ABBA Golden Certified F1 females in special replacement sales in Texas and Louisiana.
“When we first started marketing the web in promotional packages to our customers, it was a hard sell. As the technology improved and people became more comfortable with the internet, people have taken advantage of this tool,” says Belinda Ary, Editor Cattle
Today, Fayette, Alabama. Cattle Today was one of the pioneers in designing and hosting web sites, offering this service for almost 10 years.
As producers try to see how they can communicate most effectively through the web site, many different strategies are taken. A sound print campaign, along with plastering the web site to every promotional item, could lead to success in this arena.
“Most potential buyers still want something in their hand. Print ads give a small sampling of what producers have to offer and the web site can provide a more detailed description,” Ary says. “People who take full advantage of the technology try to drive traffic to their site. Any form of advertising you do should have the web address to help get the word out there.”
“The web address and phone number are on everything we do. Our ranch sign, along the road, has the phone number and the web address,” Lockhart says. “You would be surprised the number of people that write down the web address and go to our site before they will call. They would rather look at the web site anonymously first, preview the offering, then call about specific animals that are for sale.”
“The web is an awesome tool, but the promotion has to be coordinated with print advertising,” Williams says. “Most people think all you have to do is set up a web site and you'll start getting hits. You have to drive them to the site for it to be affective.”
“We put our web address on every print ad and people will go to the site if they are interested in our product,” Dufrene says. “The web allows us to explore new horizons and reach people who never knew we existed.”
Search engines and directories are ways for potential customers to find the electronic version of most firms' advertising programs. However, for most cattle producers, this part of the equation is still a little jaded because most do not understand the intricacies of the World Wide Web. Connection speeds will also limit some of the things producers can do or expect through electronic marketing.
“I encourage my clients to make their site as user-friendly as possible. If the site isn't up (on the computer screen) in a reasonable time, most will just go on to the next one and pass you by,” Williams says. “Search engines are tricky. Pick a domain name that's short. Avoid using hyphens, dashes, etc. If you're going to use a number, register the domain spelled out and as a numeral. There are free listings on directories. For example, breed associations provide free links to members and we encourage clients to purchase a listing on a directory to help people find their site.”
“The majority of the farmers and ranchers have dial-up connections. There are very few high speed connections in rural America. Make sure the design allows people with dial-up connections to view your site,” Ary says. “We try to encourage smaller files to avoid load-time problems. Sometimes having all the bells and whistles is not good. Keep the domain name simple and short as possible. We encourage producers to choose a domain name that reflects the operation.”
“We have a dial up connection here at the ranch, so we are pretty sensitive to how long it takes for our site to load,” Lockhart says. “I am not a very patient person and I go on to the next thing if I have to wait too long for a page to load.”
Once the site is established, another phenomenon producers have a hard time grasping is, change is good. Make sure the web page looks professional. Electronic marketing allows people to visit the site at any time, unlike scheduling a visit to the ranch and giving notice for producers to put the best foot forward.
“The whole point is to transfer hits on the site into sales. Wait until the web site is complete before you put the address out there. There is nothing more frustrating than an “under construction” sign on the web page,” Williams says. “Update the site as frequently as possible, even if they are small changes. People are looking for new information.”
“People like to see new things. I have customers tell me they check the website on a weekly basis. No one wants to see old news,” Lockhart says. “No picture is better than a bad one on the site. Even on the web, you only have one chance to make a good impression.”
“With our web site, people can preview our consignments and feel like they were here at the farm,” Dufrene says. “We're selling heifers in seven major sales in Texas and Louisiana. I have to keep updating my page to keep information current. A lot of people, especially past buyers, are looking at the offering we have in the different sales. A buyer, last week, told me he previewed our heifers on the web before he purchased them at the Beaumont sale.”
“When the site is established, we like our customers to update the site at least every couple months. Every couple years the site may need to be freshened up to keep a current look. Producers have to market their site. If they're not successful, usually it's because they didn't update or drive people to the site,” Ary says. “The web site is just like an ad, you have to have good pictures and make it attractive to make that good first impression.”
Providing up-to-date information and changing the web site is only half the battle when producers try to connect with the online audience. Making that good impression is always a key point to any promotional piece, but the target demographic is also on an adventure.
“Load-time and design are critical issues, but people also want something they can click on; however, more than three clicks on the site might be too many,” Williams says. “It gives them a feeling of exploring the web. Every time someone goes to your site, it gives them a chance to get to know you and your operation.”
“People are looking for immediate gratification. We sell 150 bulls per year private treaty and I bet at least half of those are sold because people view our bulls online either prior too or while we're having a conversation,” Lockhart says. “There are a lot of people who buy bulls who have a job in town and can take a few minutes to look at our offering while they're at work. You would be amazed that some of our older buyers had their kids or grandkids help them find us, so they could look at our bulls on the web page.”
Ease of communication is another feature the web allows. Timing issues may be a little less critical than other means of communication, but it still allows sellers to get on a personal level with potential customers. Most of the time, without the awkwardness of that first time meeting or a cold call situation. Relationships can be built without ever meeting customers face to face.
“The web puts no limits on the time of day potential customers can communicate. Most businesses are closed in the evening or late at night when it's convenient for that customer to send an e-mail,” Williams says. “Producers have to make a commitment to check e-mail and reply to potential customers. If someone sends an e-mail they expect to get a response. Contact information should also be clear and easy to find as possible. We put it at the bottom of every page. If you're a person who doesn't check e-mail, don't even put your e-mail address on the site.”
“I have sent a lot of cattle sight unseen to different customers who I still haven't met and who have never been to my house. We sell a lot of semen and embryos internationally. That market would be a fraction of what it is today without the web,” Lockhart says. “Communicating on the web is not as time sensitive as returning a phone call. People can use the site to get information any time of the day.”
Advertising can account for a large sum on the balance statement. This often leaves principals scratching their head to justify the cost. A raw number paints a different picture than a check in the bank. Setting goals for each segment of the promotional program will provide some piece of mind.
Performance defines successful marketing ventures. Trying to match “dollars spent to dollars earned” is the goal of any advertiser. To get the best results, it is still about presenting the product to the buyer in a favorable manner that gets results.
“For the money, smaller breeders usually get more out of using the web to promote their program. Because they can reach a large number of people at a relatively low cost,” Ary says. “It takes time for people to get to know your site. Be patient and give potential customers time to find you on the web. The goal is to make some sales. If producers keep their sites fresh and get the word out through links or directories, they will find some success.”
“We're trying to develop our own market. The last 10 years we have sold cattle only through the special F1 sales. Next year we will sell more cattle private treaty than we have in the past,” Dufrene says. “It is a good tool. There are a lot of progressive young cattlemen out there who use the web.”
“People should set goals for their web site promotion. There are a variety of ways to measure success,” Williams says. “We can count the number of unique visitors, new people you're reaching and what search-engine was used to find your site. Three hundred hits, in one month, do not sound like a lot, but equate that to phone calls and it's big.”
“You can look at all types of useful information to evaluate the web site. Things like how many hits did we have that week, month or day and what time of day people visited the site,” Lockhart says. “We can look by state or region and this helps us identify where our print ads are successful or if we need to do more in that area. It's a very cost-effective part of our marketing program.”