College students from around the U.S. are gathering weekly to perfect their social media skills and online conversations set an example for the agriculture industry as a whole.
College Aggies Online (CAO), a program led by the Animal Agriculture Alliance (Alliance), pairs industry social media experts with college students eager to learn, says Alliance Communications Manager Casey Kinler.
“College is really the first place students are making their own decision about food, and we see a lot of animal rights activists are on college campuses,” Kinler says. “College Aggies Online is really about making sure students become competent and effective communicators on behalf of the agriculture industry.”
A social media expert and a farmer representing a sector of livestock each week provide weekly mentorship to the more-than 300 college students enrolled in the program. Students earn points towards a competition for more than $21,000 in scholarships.
Don Schindler, senior vice president of digital innovations for Dairy Management Inc., assisted with the dairy-focused week. He encouraged students to craft social media posts about dairy’s sustainable nutrition.
“There is a lot of talk lately about climate change,” Schindler says. “At the same time, we know dairy provides a great nutritional return for the resources it uses.”
He also encouraged students to break out of their online agriculture bubble.
“What moves the needle is not talking only to their agriculture friends or even only to activists,” Schindler says. “They need to reach what we at the dairy checkoff call the ‘movable middle.’”
To reach that middle, Sarah McNaughton, a CAO graduate student participant and 4-H Extension agent in North Dakota, says she follows backpacking and trail running groups.
“Then, I’ll share agriculture tweets,” McNaughton says. “It’s reaching a different audience that is receptive to agriculture but may have no interest unless I post something that comes across their dashboard.”
What you should post
Schindler says it is important to keep posts relevant to your audience. For example, one dairy farmer is famous for his Twitter videos of “office meetings” with his herd discussing “farm policies,” a very relatable topic since many of his urban social media followers work indoors and deal with office politics.
“Picture your farm through the eyes of people who have never been on a farm before,” Schindler says.
Brynnen Gardner, a CAO participant and animal science student at Iowa State University, grew up on a hobby farm and is strategic in capturing in-the-moment experiences from her unique perspective.
“You have to take what you want the consumer to know and make it relevant to them,” Gardner says. “When I think of a message point, I write it down in a little book I keep with me all the time.”
Twitter and Instagram hashtags can also highlight topics relevant to consumers, Schindler adds. Hashtags pool articles by topic that a social media user can access by clicking the hashtag’s link.
“Agriculture-related hashtags such as #UndeniablyDairy or #Farm365 are great,” he says. “But, it is also important to include non-farming topics like #food, #picoftheday, #Instagood and even #TongueOutTuesday. You can include a list of 15 to 30 hashtags.”