The recent federal election. The NBA and China. Don Cherry. These three seemingly unrelated events bring focus to the power of social media, and make us ponder the impact it has on how we market cattle. They force us to recognize uncomfortable thoughts about values, what we stand for, and even our personal identity. How can three seemingly separate issues shape so many thoughts about who we are as people, who we are as a family, and how we choose to operate our business?
I don’t think it would be exaggeration to proclaim that social media has changed the world. How we interact with each other – who we interact with – how we consume ‘news’ and information – is all radically different now than it was a decade ago. In the purebred cattle business, there has been a steady shift from print material to browsing the web to social media during that time period. In our own case, we see substantially more traffic on our Facebook page than on our website (which is just one of the reasons why we link our blog posts to our Facebook page and profiles). While print materials (Sale Catalogs, Simmental Country) remain important marketing tools, the vast majority of our time, when both buying and selling genetics, is now focused on Social Media.
Social Media represents a specific challenge to farmers, particularly when trying to market a product. Farmers have always blurred the line between the ‘business of farming’ and the ‘life of farming’, so it is not unusual that posts and profiles can mix personal views and opinions with cattle pictures and more farm oriented information. This mix can be both good and bad! From a ‘good’ perspective, one of the tenets of marketing is in having a story to tell. Social media can be leveraged to tell that story and make a farm seem more ‘authentic’, compared to just a brand, name or prefix on an animal. It also allows farmers to help educate non-farming friends about the real life experiences and practices that shape agriculture today. Personal views that are shared can also align with those of your customers which again can drive interest. But the flip side is that those same views could totally repel buyers as well. The purebred cattle business is a people business. Giving prospective buyers a ‘closer look’ at the values of the individuals who typically both own and operate the farm can be a double edged sword.
This separation between farm life and personal life is a big part of the reason we operate an Applecross Cattle Facebook page instead of simply leveraging our own personal pages to share most of our ‘cow news’. Yes, we are both ‘Facebook friends’ with a number of fellow cattle breeders, but we tend to limit those ‘friendships’ to those we know personally and want knowing our ‘stuff’ (as we are also interested in the ‘stuff’ going on in their lives). Even Facebook has evolved. Back in the early days when the audience was much smaller (and it was typically only friends of a similar demographic that leveraged the site), I would regularly quote a random song lyric from the 80’s as my status update. I’d like to think they were mildly amusing, but the practice stopped once the audience started taking the updates literally as opposed to simply realizing they were lyrics which represented a cool hook/memory that resonated on that particular day. So in that way, even our personal profiles have adapted, as social media has become more and more a part of publicly created personas and misconstruing became a concern. It is always a good thing to remember who is ‘listening’!
And that is where the recent Canadian federal election comes in. Jeanne and I have lived in two different provinces, and we have family in three other provinces. One of us is a Business major who grew up on a farm while the other majored in both Environmental Biology and Education and has spent most of her time in the city. It isn’t surprising that we have a wide spectrum of friends and family that represent the full variety of political parties. And that is perfectly cool. Everyone is entitled to an educated opinion, even if it happens to be different than ours. Quite a number of them are very passionate about their political viewpoints and shared them on social media (and yet I have never heard one individual suggest ‘oh I read a really funny/fascinating/fake news/biased post on social media and it totally changed who I was going to vote for!). Unfortunately, social media sites such as Facebook can just provide an echo chamber to allow for the reinforcement and retrenchment of ideas within the same viewpoint. My teacher wife calls it “voluntary balkanization.” This is the fancy term to suggest that sometimes people voluntarily split into like-minded groups that then become hostile to those with different opinions. But posts that split people into a binary with-us-or-against-us approach also showcase the drawback of mixing personal with business. If you have been ‘snoozed’ by a fellow cattle person for the next 30 days – or blocked permanently because of constant ‘over-sharing’ – while at the same time relying on your personal FB page to market cattle – how are your ‘friends’ going know about it? And while the recent election makes a topical example, it isn’t the only one. Algebra problems that 97% of people fail, or any post that begins with ‘this may offend some’ or ends with ‘90% of people don’t have the guts to share this’ typically have me reaching for the block button. My time is too precious (and the FB algorithm is too complex for me to decipher) for my ‘news feed’ to be cluttered by noise. So snoozing and blocking become go-to options just to ensure that the time I spend on social media is both enjoyable and efficient. Which means I am probably just balkanizing myself. Voluntarily!
And then there is Don Cherry. The day after he made the statements he did on ‘Coaches Corner’, my news feed blew up with opinions. The ironic thing is that despite all the ‘uproar’ most people posting or sharing clearly weren’t listening live and didn’t take time to actually go back and listen to what he actually said. But regardless, it doesn’t matter if you agree or don’t agree with Mr. Cherry’s opinion / statement, the bottom line is this: Canada’s freedom of expression laws simply mean that you have the ability to express your opinion without the threat of government persecution. It doesn’t mean that an employer can’t fire someone if they (or their audience) find those personal opinions offensive, or against their own ‘corporate values’. And yes, listening to a ‘mix-tape’ of Cherry’s ‘greatest’ interviews over the past 30 years would make his recent statement seem pretty benign, but times (and what is considered socially acceptable) evolves. So the message, spokespeople, and opinions need to evolve to match the expectations of society, or market share and business will be lost. And big corporations tend to act accordingly. And sure, being ‘profit oriented’ seems to be an ‘evil thing’ that big corporations do, but at the end of the day every business or farm needs to make a buck. So, while I think that there is nothing wrong with sharing an opinion, if that opinion happens to be offensive or outdated or ‘misconstrued’ it certainly can impact a potential customers purchasing decision.
Which leads to the first big question: If one of your ‘Facebook cattle friends’ posted something that you found inappropriate or offensive, would it impact your future buying decision? And for us, that answer is yes. Absolutely. This approach might make us ‘judgy’ and suggest we are not focused solely on cattle ‘quality’. But sometimes, how we do things are as important as what we do (and reinforces that purebred cattle are only as strong as the people that stand behind them). When we buy cattle – either at auction or private treaty – we have 100% of the control over what we buy and whom we buy it from – and let’s face it – cattle genetics are somewhat replaceable and interchangeable. There are a lot of different ways and places to acquire genetics! I have a whole list (the seven P’s) that helps in deciding which animal to chase – and people/prefix is one of those P’s. There has never been a sale season where we haven’t found an animal worth bidding on, from people worth buying from! Having budget to get them bought is a different topic!
Since we are all cattle people, there is a flip side to that 100% control. Our customers also have that same level of decision making authority when it comes to deciding whether to purchase from us. Which leads to a second question – are you willing to call out that ‘friend’ and speak up if you do find their post or ‘share’ inappropriate or offensive? It is one thing to vote with your wallet, but (since we are all both buying and selling), it is a significant step further to risk losing a customer by raising a voice. And that, in essence, is the root of the issue with the NBA and China. The government of China thought a short tweet from the General Manager of the Houston Rockets was offensive. And then, China also found the NBA’s response to the tweet ‘lacking’ which is now putting a business relationship worth an estimated $1.5 billion annually at risk. We are so crazy fortunate to live in a country where freedom of speech and expression is foundational in our every day lives. It is something we take for granted. But at the same token, that freedom can have consequences. Expressing an opinion can cost business, or a job (As both the NBA and Don Cherry are finding out). Everyone needs to make money to pay bills. But at what cost? At some point personal, farm or business values should matter. Which brings to mind the Jon Stewart quote: “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies”. What does it say about our integrity, if a fellow cattle breeder / prospective client says something that we find offensive and we just don’t respond?
It is this second question that Jeanne and I (and maybe a lot of other people) struggle with. We are both intensely private people, and have only a small circle of people that we think know the real ‘us’. We have strong opinions. I also enjoy sarcasm, and long moon-lit walks on the beach. But you’d never know that from our Facebook pages (well, maybe the beaches part). Part of this, I think, is due to question 1: maybe we don’t post many of our own opinions so that we won’t be judged. At the same time though: silence emboldens the vocal. And we are both becoming increasingly uncomfortable just keeping quiet. Maybe it’s the cattle equivalent to the: ‘just stick to sports’ ethos of athletes – but I don’t envision a future where we ‘just talk cows’. We may seemingly ‘talk cows’ for hours sometimes, but it is hardly what defines us. So maybe we will stop being quite so silent, and speak up (and post) a little more if only to say. ‘No. I just don’t agree’.
And that is one of the other challenges with social media. While people feel more connected, we are actually connected less. During this same past decade, the amount of time we spend actually face to face with our friends has decreased dramatically, as we simply communicate via text and social. Ask yourself: when was the last time you even talked to someone on the phone for an hour? And with those soundbites of a text or a tweet, it is virtually impossible to have an actual conversation – debate and discuss instead of simply counting likes. Which is one of my favourite things (conversation not counting likes). At the kitchen table, at the sales barn, on pasture tours, or on the deck with a beverage, it is conversation where you can truly dig deeper and find out the why behind how people think what they do. And yes, in our household a lot of those conversations surround cows, but we can, and do, drift into various topics including family, sports, travel, politics, farm finance (duh), Scottish Dance (should have put this first), motivational strategies and the earlier mentioned bad 80’s music lyrics. But the conversation allows for an understanding of perspective. Sometimes consensus. Sometimes an agreement to disagree. But virtually always very good conversation. And that is one of the ironic things about genetics and farm discussions. The genetic direction we take our program probably has a bigger direct impact on our bottom line vs. which politician is sitting in Ottawa. But yet, it is pretty easy to agree to disagree over whether you ‘like a bull’. Typically a friend would never share a post for everyone to “unfriend-me if you ever (up)voted this bull!’. And whether you like a bull or not – opinions can change if you see more progeny, or see the genetics selling for premiums at auction! This doesn’t tend to happen with politicians! But in both cases, pretty fun to joke about which ones should be ‘castrated’ though!
I do think that the ability to listen, and actually hear what the person is trying to articulate, is an incredibly underrated skill. This sounds stupid, but listening forms half of all conversations. But yet when we disagree, we all tend to have a desire to make our opinion ‘truth’ and the other person ‘wrong’. And then we stop having conversations, because the other person ‘doesn’t listen’. So we shift to social media and share stuff that reinforces our truth. To quote Don Cherry ‘Thumbs up! Let’s Go!’
In short. Be aware of the persona you are presenting to the public. Understand that there can be consequences. Make peace with it. Click on a like. Or say you just don’t agree. And then put down the phone and go for a visit. Have a coffee. A beverage. Brunch. A BBQ. (A Scotch?) Spend time together and enjoy meaningful conversation. Try to understand a different perspective. Or maybe just agree to disagree. Who knows? Maybe someone will ‘take a selfie’ and post about it.
Until next time,