Marketing 101: Tell your story

By Geoffrey Miller

As an agriculture educator, you know the value of your work. You understand that your students, from any background, can gain tangible skills that set them up for careers and higher education. You know that FFA is a terrific component of the agricultural education model, providing leadership training, skills education and competitive events.

Most importantly, you know that every student who makes an effort in your classroom and in your FFA chapter leaves better than when they arrived. You might, however, not know how to best tell that story.

For many agriculture educators, this isn't a problem. They enjoy broad support from every level, whether that is school administration or community involvement. Financial resources are made available to make a program go and the manpower—either paid staff or top-notch volunteers—is enough to keep students and members on track.

But many more agricultural education programs and FFA chapters don't enjoy that luxury. Many chapters are even blindsided by a sudden drop in financial support or teacher resources thanks to cuts or other actions beyond their control. It's a typical story that often includes last-ditch efforts by members, parents, the agriculture educators and others to save the necessary tools for an FFA chapter and agricultural education program.

Often, it can be too late.

One way to potentially avoid such a possibility in your chapter or program is to get better immediately at telling your story. It's equally important for chapters on solid footing and not-so-solid footing to never relent in telling the good news of FFA and agricultural education. All it takes is a little bit of Marketing 101 -- something that, we promise, isn't as hard as you think.

Think of your FFA chapter and agricultural education program like a small business. Of course, instead of using the program to sell units of product and to buy that bigger house, your goal is produce students with an obviously enhanced skills set for their future. What you’re selling is how well your agricultural education program can effectively use limited resources—including direct school-funded financial support, alumni or booster resources and community volunteers—to build students better prepared for a future in hundreds of careers.

These students, in simple terms obviously, are your "product" that you must then "sell" to your consumers. In this instance, those consumers are your stakeholders that provide the resources that make your education of students—and therefore "product"—possible. Selling to those consumers is all about marketing your product.

Just like any product that you would purchase, your consumers want to know what competitive advantages you provide. Get specific in telling that story by telling how many of your students competed or won awards with proficiencies or career development events, calculating graduation rates, explaining the economic and community impact of supervised agricultural experiences, discussing grants and scholarships your students earned and explaining what specific types of skills they learned from being in the classroom.

Where you tell that story (and how you tell it!) is equally important. Make quarterly visits to a school board meeting with a few handpicked students and tell a brief and detail-filled account of your recent successes. Send an email to school administrators when a student particularly impresses you. Host community leaders for a breakfast with a short presentation from both you and your FFA members about why FFA and agricultural education is making a difference. Put together a one-page newsletter every month (and have it edited by a friend in the Language Arts department) that is readily available and send to your supporters. Keep your classroom and other facilities orderly and with modern items on the wall. Carry business cards to hand to new contacts you meet while away from your school. Call and email your local reporter about noteworthy events and accomplishments in your chapter. Share with stakeholders the latest in agricultural technology and innovation to make sure they understand how important education in the field continues to be.

Each of those activities, plus any more you can brainstorm, are all a part of your marketing mix that is designed to get your program's message to the people who are your "target markets." Not all of them will work every time, however. For that reason, review every activity you conduct fairly and honestly. Was it worth the time or cost? Is the message consistent, relevant and repetitive? Are you connecting with your current consumers and searching for new ones? Do people believe in the benefits and solutions—not just the product—that your program is providing?

By starting now with a plan to market the importance and relevance your FFA chapter and agricultural education program provide, you'll have a jumpstart the next time resources get tight or questions arise. You will have already built bridges with your stakeholders and already know how to "sell" how well the agricultural education model is improving your students.

Overall, advocacy for FFA and agricultural education boils down to simple marketing. You don't have to spend loads of money, but you do have to spend time telling your story. Fortunately, when working with students to develop their potential for leadership, growth and success, that narrative is not one you have to create.

The good you are doing is already there. Now tell its story.