Is it time for Canadian agriculture to rethink how we approach public engagement?

Once upon a time, the standard advice was that if farmers want to connect with consumers, they should share the fascinating science and facts that make up the world of agriculture. Wouldn’t consumers be enthralled by the behind-the-scenes mechanics and science of how their food is made?

Actually, most people don’t care about the mechanics of anything. They just care if it works. If your car gets you from A to B on a daily basis, all is right with the world. And scientific concepts couched in industry jargon can be so heavy and oh, so unsexy.

Then we were told to change from science to stories. Everyone loves a good story, right? Only, if bits and pieces of the story are missing — beginnings, endings, or contextual elements critical to understanding — as happens with rapid-fire, always-on social media platforms, it won’t really make sense. And if something doesn’t make sense, chances are pretty slim that our efficient human brains are going to register, save, or act on it.

We’ve also been encouraged to get out into the community and find opportunities to spark conversations around agriculture and to highlight our contributions to local and national economies. Only, everyone is so busy running about from work to kids’ soccer practices to yoga classes that the opportunities for initiating a friendly, proactive conversation about agriculture can be few and far between. Instead, such conversations often end up being reactive, in defensive response to a misinformed comment made in a grocery store aisle or across the table at a holiday family meal.

Then social media platforms exploded. Farmers anticipated a panacea for farm-to-consumer communications. And it’s efficient! We can simultaneously tweet and post while driving up and down the fields or in between milkers coming off. Ever eager and proud to share our insights, stories, facts and photos of the hard work required to provide food to fellow Canadians, we clamoured to sign up.

Despite all of the above being based on reasonable advice and admirable intentions, and despite limitless opportunities to share, farmers are still fumbling, trying to understand WHY consumers don’t get what we do and why they sometimes vilify agriculture.

An article in the Western Producer earlier this year titled “Why won’t consumers listen?” by Robert Arnason, pointed out that “Farmers have been trying to engage consumers for years — yet the work has had little impact.” The same article included research conducted by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity which shows that public perceptions about agriculture haven’t really changed much in the last 10 years. And Mike Von Massow, a University of Guelph economist who was interviewed for the article, said, “Might [online advocacy] be influencing some people? Perhaps. But it’s not influencing the great masses of consumers.”

In terms of communication efforts with consumers, farmers are using online platforms to do what we do best: i.e. capitalize on the latest tools and technologies to promote and sell Canadian agriculture. Social media is now de rigeur in the arsenal of management tools of a 21st century farm. It’s useful for staying on top of industry news and for connecting with other farmers across the country whether to share best practices, crowdsource ideas and solutions, or for moral support.

But when it comes to engaging consumers, maybe we need to take a step back. Accessing the tools for connecting is easy: we have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. But to intrigue and resonate with a consumer audience, several generations removed from farming, are we doing it right?

Is social media the answer to creating valuable, trusting and lasting relationships? If so, are we using the tools correctly? Do we understand why they work — or not? Or have we overlooked a key factor in the consumer engagement equation?

Some online “agvocacy” efforts are viewed by consumers as next level “thank a farmer” bunk: it’s self-important, one-sided; it’s not necessarily engaging or relevant; and it doesn’t provide enough context or tell enough of a story to connect on the right level. It’s like coming in halfway through a movie: who’s who, what’s going on, and why should I care?

Which brings us back to the main question: Why don’t consumers seem to connect and care?

Yes, social media has linked the world, but it’s ultimately just a surface connection. It’s not personal in the sense of how you can connect with someone when they’re in front of you. There’s a veil that blurs the humanness of the interaction, which ultimately creates a disconnect. You can’t read body language online. You can’t mirror someone’s actions to develop a connection. You can’t convey tone of voice, or display empathy, or other bonding emotions.

We think that communicating via social media is personal because it’s a popular way of communicating with each other in today’s world. But it’s inconsistent, a broken stream of thoughts where parts of the narrative are lost in a choppy Twitter feed (unless you have the patience or time to read back through long threads). It’s inconsistent in the way that connective ideas and stories are randomly adrift in newsfeeds where an important message is a momentary blip in a bombardment of 24-7 information. In the end, it’s just one machine talking to another, not a person to a person.

You just can’t talk brain to brain as effectively if the brain you want to influence isn’t in front of you.

By learning how to relate brain to brain, we can understand the mechanics behind how people receive, store, process, and retrieve information. This insight provides us with the knowledge and tools to create messages that intrigue and resonate with our audience. It helps us to find common ground upon which to develop and nurture shared experiences.

Tali Sharot, author of The Influential Mind, writes, “Many of our instincts about influence — from insisting the other is wrong to attempting to exert control — are ineffective because they are incompatible with how the mind and brain operate. An attempt to change will be successful if it is well matched with the core elements that govern the working of our brains.”

It’s difficult to influence people’s minds about critical topics like politics, religion, vaccines and food, each of which touches on issues that affect us in a very primal and profoundly personal way, affecting how we stay in-group, and, consequently, if we survive. Issues like these trigger our fight-or-flight response and stem from deeply rooted world views. To further complicate matters, online algorithms, which make information that individuals are more likely to agree with prominent in their newsfeeds and searches, and our own confirmation bias, stack the deck against effective online engagement and education.

Communications designed with a brain-to-brain component can help combat those obstacles and help with engagement and retention.

Lessons from the non-profit world show us that it will take more than just crafting narratives asking for consumer support. To spark the critical dialogue we need to have with consumers, to rebuild the trust that stems from disconnection, we need to go back to the beginning. We need to understand what makes people tick, drawing on findings from behavioural and brain (neuro) science, and we need to meet people where they’re at in terms of knowledge.

Because social media is so fast-paced, we expect the results to be fast-paced as well. But it’s far better to be effective (focused on producing a specific outcome rather than just getting there as quickly as possible) than efficient — a hard lesson for many of us to learn in an on-demand world.

Employing methods to connect brain to brain might be the longer route, but this scenic meandering adds rich context and value. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg based her successful career on the belief that lasting change is incremental, believing that her “go-slow” policy was the only way to change minds. “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,” she said.

Or as marketing guru Seth Godin put it, “If you want to change people’s minds, you need more than evidence. You need persistence. And empathy. And mostly, you need the resources to keep showing up, peeling off one person after another, surrounding a cultural problem with a cultural solution.”

It comes down to one farmer in one instance sparking a dialogue, answering questions one person at a time. We must smash assumptions, cultivate empathy, and listen actively to create the common ground and shared experiences where we’ll find mutually beneficial solutions — all of which can be amplified using social media.

You don’t feed your cows a TMR mix just because your consultant told you to; you need to understand why your animals require those specific nutrients, how they work in her body to help her grow, maintain health, and generate profit. Similarly, to leverage the impact of communication inputs, we need to understand how the human brain works and what diet of information you’ll feed it via the TMR tool of social media.

Social media is not a complete loss. We must continue to add our voices to critical online conversations around food, so we don’t leave a vacuum to be filled by the Food Babes and Gwyneth Paltrows of the world. We should keep sharing our humourous photos, insightful quips, and heartstring-tugging personal stories to generate feel-good moments of the day. These moments make you laugh, maybe cry, but above all, they make you pause. And that pause — a very human moment in which to experience human emotions — not only provides an occasion for critical knowledge to seep into the gaps but also helps us connect brain to brain.

This article originally appeared in The Country Guide November 2019 print issue and online on November 22, 2019. 

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