Monday, December 2, 2013

Agritourism and social media

Morris, Minnesota (my hometown) is a small community, surrounded by farmland,
in West-Central Minnesota.   In March 2012 the weekly town newspaper announced that the county’s Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture wanted to use a portion of local business tax dollars to promote “agritourism”.   This initiative, and ones like it throughout the US, are driving communities to investigate new ways to communicate effective messages for both local and distant 21st century audiences.   Strategic social media use can provide some answers.

What is agritourism?
Rural tourism invites people to enjoy visiting and vacationing in less-populated areas such as small towns, villages, farms and nature-areas (Lane, 1994).  Rural tourism is often also promoted as a way to economically diversify a formerly-agricultural area (e.g., Kneafsey, 2001).  In several small, farming communities, agritourism has been a new/ old way to revitalize, to build enthusiasm for rural life, and to encourage young people and entrepreneurs to return to the area.

Farm visit. Image used with permission.
Various regional USDA Cooperative Extension Offices have been active in teaching about agritourism (check out this PDF on entertainment farming and this list of resources from the University of Minnesota ). 

For the purposes of my research (some of which was presented at the recent TSMRI annual conference) I apply a very-broad definition of agritourism, including (any or all of the following):
  • ·         farm/ ranch stays;
  • ·         tours & touring
         (e.g., wildflower or fall foliage);
  • ·         You-Pick local foods;
  • ·         farmers markets;
  • ·         vineyards & wineries;
  • ·         maple syrup-making;
  • ·         (school and town) fairs and agricultural/ harvest festivals;
  • ·         farm animal visits;
  • ·         local dining events and dinners;
  • ·         wildlife viewing, hunting and fishing;
  • ·         educational programs and experiences related to nature;
  • ·         agricultural heritage and local history events, pageants and tours; and
  • ·         regional arts and crafts programs and activities

(Gustafson, 2007, referring to SW Michigan Tourist Council, 1997).

This wide assortment of activities considers many types of content for messages that might be constructed by tourism promoters and/or communication specialists.

Social media uses in the tourism industry

In my analysis of regional agritourism organizations in real-life contexts (see forthcoming publication, Burke 2014), I found social media that work well have most of the following features in common: 

Pick your own.
Image used with permission.
1) “mindful adoption” (Culnan & Zubillaga, 2010).  This means the “ right’ innovation at the ‘right’ time and in the ‘right’ way” should be what gets adopted.  Despite the cry that “everyone else” is on Twitter, for instance, my research and the findings of others say that Twitter may not be the right communication tool for your organization or business to use to communicate with a targeted audience you know well.  Understanding on-going decisions about integrated management of image and brand identity may mean that the people you most want to reach are instead on different social media—such as Pinterest, or TripAdvisor. 

2)  “varied messages/ multiple elements”.  Within tourism promotions on the selected social media platform(s), more successful campaigns use multiple media types—text, designed graphics, photos and videos--submitted by the source, as well as comments and content generated by visitors.

3)  “strategic participation patterns”.  In forums like Facebook, Flickr and Groupon, posting activity should be sufficient to keep the organization’s name and identity “popular”.  Although the event schedule for tourism activities may greatly influence the amount of messages at a particular time, your organization or group should recognize that all messages function to maintain “connections” which need to be nurtured on a regular schedule.

4) “community building”.  This means, once you find and connect with “your people” offer them a sense that they have a stake in belonging to your fan group.  Provide “friends” and allies frequent content input options and incentives for continued activity or participation in the forum(s).  Understanding that others will generate interest in your social media sites by linking to their networks will mean that you will be able to reap the greatest benefits of the communicative activities of the happy tourists that have come to activities in your region, and they will be your promotion’s strongest advocates.

In agritourism, successful new social media users generate long(er)-term awareness of the activities and events in their communities. The relationship-building and maintaining messages they share aggregate to create a general impression about their region or community, for both internal and external audiences.  The more diverse and varied the messages and activities appear, the more exciting the region becomes for locals and visitors alike. 
Farm animals. Image used with permission.
The Internet is increasingly used as an information-source in vacation and travel-planning, and it would be wise for agritourism to strategically implement 21st-century media plans. Regional tourism promoters in rural areas are eager to be part of this new communication “revolution”, and it appears there are exciting opportunities for people who are educated in effective use of social media to make a difference in rural revitalization. 

Culnan, M. J., McHugh, P. J., & Zubillaga, J. I. (2010). How large US companies can use Twitter and other social media to gain business value. MIS Quarterly Executive, 9(4), 243-259.
Gustafson, K. 2007 (5 February). Building Bridges: Connecting Agriculture & Tourism (.pdf).  Available from
retrieved 2013, September 26.
Kneafsey, M. (2001).  Rural cultural economy: Tourism and social relations. Annals of Tourism Research, 28(3), 762-783.
Lane, B. (1994). What is rural tourism? Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2 (162), 7-21.

Barbara Burke is an Associate Professor of Communication, Media & Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She is also a Fellow of the TSMRI for 2013, and a Fulbright Scholar and Media Specialist.  In Spring, Barbara will be teaching courses in Social Media & Agritourism and Media Technologies & Society in Valmiera, Latvia at

Vidzemes Augstskola.

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