Adventures in Social Media

By Karen Simon

I’ve Twittered, YouTubed, Flickr’ed, Facebooked and LinkedIn for about eight months as an observer and reluctant participant.

Even though I understood the basic mechanics of how these social media work, I struggled to see the practical application for my work. However, I had the opportunity to put my new-found skills to use on a recent Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) trade mission to China and Taiwan. 

The proverbial light bulb clicked as my team and I put together a social media plan for the trip. This stuff is not just for fun, it can help us communicate our message! I am no expert, but I thought I’d share my story of how a social media plan worked for our association for a specific project.

There were three questions we needed to address:
1.       Audience: Who will be interested in this story?
2.       Message: What is it we want to say to the world about this project?
3.       Mechanics: What technology would we use to communicate our message?

Audience

The idea of daily reporting from the road sounds kind of cool, but who might be interested in such a thing? First, because we are a farmer-led organization that receives checkoff funding, it was vital to communicate the trip to Iowa soybean growers to let them know how this trade mission was benefiting them, from the knowledge gained from our team to the relationships forged along the way. Second, the site was meant as a resource for the media, who picked up the stories, audio and photos to use in publications and on Web sites during the trip. Third, there are people in the larger agricultural community and beyond who are interested in international trade, particularly China.

Message

Since I had never been on a trade mission and had never traveled to Asia, it was difficult to know exactly what I’d be writing about. I’d done my homework. I knew that China is the #1 customer for U.S. soybeans, and that this market has huge growth potential. But the stories came from talking to the people we met in China and Taiwan, reading the newspapers and the experiences and observations from the group. I didn’t want the blog to be a boring travelogue of the day’s activities. Sometimes, in my sleep-deprived, jetlagged state I wasn’t sure if I was even making sense, but I wanted the stories to provide a unique perspective of our experiences.

Mechanics

The mechanics of the project were the most challenging for me. We decided to use a WordPress blog format as the basis for our site. A link on our homepage invited people to check it out. The initial content included a map, an itinerary, photos and brief quotes from the trade mission participants, and a bit of background information about why the Iowa Soybean Association might be interested in fostering relationships in China. Our Webmaster, Jay Magnani, was able to set up the blog so it included a Twitter feed, photos posted via Flickr and videos posted through YouTube. Audio files and photos were posted directly into the blog content. 

Software we used included Adobe Audition for editing audio files and Windows Movie Maker for editing videos. I used Audition because it was compatible with what the people at WHO Radio were using, but there is free audio editing software called Audacity. Some of my colleagues say it works great, but experimenting with that software is still on my “to do” list. My equipment included my laptop, my Nikon D80 camera, a Marantz PMD620 audio recorder and a Flip video camera. I learned how to use the audio recorder and video camera and the software to edit audio and video files in less than one month. I had about two weeks to learn how to post information to the blog, Flickr and YouTube.

I used Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to drive traffic to the site, in addition to our own internal communications, and e-mails and phone calls to Iowa and agricultural media.

Lessons Learned

Expect the unexpected. Since this was our first comprehensive social media venture, we had no idea how it would work. There were glitches, but for the most part, it accomplished what it was supposed to and worked as we expected. 

From the inception of the project, I was aware of the irony of reporting from China using social media. I had concerns about access, but was assured it wouldn’t be a problem. We did not expect that we would not be able to use YouTube, which the Chinese government blocks as part of its Golden Shield (or the Great Firewall of China), the country’s effort to “purify” the Internet.  Google was similarly blocked. As a result, we were limited in our capability to post videos. I managed to post two videos on Flickr, but the size of the files when I tried to post them to Flickr or other sites or even to e-mail them to the team back home was an issue. But that challenge seemed minor once I realized someone or something was monitoring my Internet use and preventing me from full access to the sites I use with no problem at home. Fortunately nothing I wrote was subversive, but I certainly gained a new appreciation for freedom of speech and unrestricted access to information. Oddly enough, Chinese citizens have access to some social media sites. For example, one Chinese businessman has joined the Friends of the Iowa Soybean Association group on LinkedIn.

As a result of our reports, we received five minutes of air time each day during the Big Show on WHO Radio. We also received coverage on AgriTalk, WNAX Radio and the Brownfield Network. Stories about the trip appeared in several Iowa newspapers, and the major weekly Iowa ag papers, which include Iowa Farmer TodayIowa Farm Bureau SpokesmanWallace’s Farmer and Farm News. Information was also posted on several major ag Web sites and a story will appear in an upcoming issue of The Corn And Soybean Digest. Internally, stories were included in ISA’s weekly e-newsletter and will appear in the spring issue of the Iowa Soybean Review. Specific metrics for earned media weren’t available as of this publication, but the blog was the most requested page on our Web site, with nearly 5,000 hits during the trip and in the weeks following.

If you missed it, the blog can still be found at www.iasoybeans.com/chinablog/

Editor’s note: Karen Simon is director of communications for the Iowa Soybean Association in Urbandale, Iowa, and President of the American Agricultural Editors Association (AAEA). Her communications activities associated with this China project won her first place in this year’s AAEA marketing/communications web content award. This story first appeared in the AAEA newsletter, The Byline.

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