Meredith Agrimedia’s Jessie Scott shares her unique perspective on ever-evolving content consumption trends of the farming community. Meredith’s Successful Farming is one of the longest-running publications in existence, and it has stayed true to its roots since its debut in 1902. Though the overwhelming majority of farmers still prefer the magazine medium, Meredith is faced with the challenge of preserving its traditional media output while investing in modern content platforms on social media, particularly YouTube.
Though the transition to digital has been slower for farmers than others, print has continued to thrive, assuming the role of the go-to medium for evergreen lifestyle stories that are not as popular on the web. Meredith sees a healthy market for content for farmers that will continue well into the future despite tentative digital adoption.
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Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!
[Voiceover] Welcome to The Future of Content, a podcast exploring how we create, manage and distribute content. Brought to you by Four Kitchens: We make BIG websites.
[Todd] Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. Every episode, we invite a guest to explore an aspect of content, and to make predictions about the future of that content. If you create, manage, or publish content, welcome. This podcast is for you. Today we’re talking about farming content. Not farming out your content. But content about agriculture and the rural lifestyle. Our guest is Jessie Scott, digital strategy director at Meredith Agrimedia. Welcome to The Future of Content, Jessie.
[Jessie] Thanks for having me, Todd.
[Todd] Thanks for being here. So let’s just set the stage a little bit. For people who aren’t really familiar with the publishing industry, what is Meredith?
[Jessie] So the short answer to that is, we’re the largest US publisher. So the company started in 1902 with Successful Farming. So that’s the magazine that I work for. Which is probably not the magazine that most of the consumers know Meredith for. So back in the early 1900s, Meredith decided to try a magazine to reach the wives of farmers. So they started Fruit, Garden, and Home. That evolved into what today is Better Homes & Gardens. So that was the flagstaff of Meredith for really most of the company’s history. Other big brands include Parents, AllRecipes. But really for the last two years our company’s gone through a really big transition. So we acquired Time Inc. about two years ago. So big titles there being Time, Sports Illustrated, People, Southern Living. A lot of those really more consumer-facing brands. So our company’s gone through quite a transition here over the last couple of years.
[Todd] Yeah. That’s really something. The acquisition of Time was a really, really big deal. And Meredith was a very large publisher before that. But did it have the accolade of being the largest publisher even prior to the Time Inc. acquisition? Or did that sort of happen after?
[Jessie] No. That definitely happened after. We were, I would say, probably top five or so. But it was the acquisition of those titles—in particular, the scale that People has—that put us there.
[Todd] Got it. And so you work specifically within Meredith Agrimedia. So what is Meredith Agrimedia as it relates to Meredith?
[Jessie] So Meredith Agrimedia’s sort of an overarching and umbrella brand that encompasses a few smaller brands within the group. So the biggest one being Successful Farming. We also have Living the Country Life. We have a very niche publication called the Ageless Iron Almanac that goes out to antique tractor collectors. So we have a few smaller brands that are all really focused either on farming or that rural lifestyle. But it just encompasses all of them.
[Todd] Got it. And so your audience is really focused on farmers and, as you put it, rural lifestyle?
[Jessie] Correct. Yep.
[Todd] Got it. Okay. And so at Meredith, and in your role, what does a typical day look like for you?
[Jessie] I always hate this question. Because I feel like there’s really no good answer to it.
[Todd] You’re welcome.
[Jessie] So I’ve been on staff for about seven years now in four different roles. So I would say with each of those roles the job has changed a little to a lot. In my most current role—so as digital strategy director—I started doing that back in about June or July. So it really feels like it’s only been a couple of weeks, when in reality it’s getting close to six months. So I would say I haven’t really found my new normal yet. We’re doing a lot of travel right now. So the weeks and the days are kind of all over the place. So I would say it’s a lot of travel. A lot of meetings. Right now in particular just trying to sort of get the new lay of the land for me in what is my new role, and understanding those capacities.
[Todd] And so in your role, when you travel, what is the goal of travel?
[Jessie] So it’s evolved a little bit over time. So I started more on the editorial side of the business, covering new products. So in the beginning I was going to a lot of events. So if John Deere has a new tractor, going to cover that. Also covering a lot of industry events. So major farm trade shows, National Farm Machinery Show, Commodity Classic are a couple of the big ones. So going to those, covering new products and trends in the industry. In my current role, it’s much more client-facing. So getting out and talking to our clients. Talking about trends in our business. In particular digital trends and digital advertising. And also hearing from them. What are their pain points, what are their challenges, and how could we help them find a solution for that.
[Todd] And when you say clients, I assume you’re talking about advertisers.
[Jessie] Correct. Yep. So we look at the business as having two major customers. One, first and foremost, is our farmer. The customers that read our products and watch our TV show. And then our clients that are supporting all of those products through their advertising.
[Todd] So earlier you said that you specifically work on Successful Farming, which was Meredith’s very first publication back in 1902. And is continuing strong today. So let’s talk a little bit about Successful Farming, the magazine. But to provide some context for people who aren’t familiar with farming—and I’m one of those people, frankly—what are some of the key statistics or facts that people should know about farming, in the United States or globally?
[Jessie] Yeah. And I pulled a few up, just because the former journalist in me wants to make sure that I’m not quoting anything inaccurately. So a couple of the big ones. There are about three million farmers in the U.S. So that’s less than 1% of the U.S. population. So I know we’re going to talk about this later. But in ag, we talk a lot about the disconnect happening between rural and urban, but also farmers and consumers. And not necessarily having a good understanding of where their food comes from. And part of that is because the number of farmers decreases every year. And as that decreases, people get further removed from that. And are less likely to have a farmer that’s a neighbor or that’s in the family. The other big point that I always like to make is just the large percentage of farms that are family-owned. So I think the last ag census had that at about 96%. So sometimes you hear in the media about really large farming operations, or corporate farms, factory farms. Those are some terms that get thrown around a lot. But most farms are family owned. They might incorporate as an LLC for tax purposes and business purposes. But most of them are still family-run businesses.
[Todd] As somebody outside of the farming industry, that really surprises me. You keep hearing all these stories about consolidation and industrial farming and all this. And you just assume that there’s one to three major conglomerates that are gobbling all of this up. But 96% still being family owned. That’s really surprising. You mentioned a moment ago that the number of farmers are decreasing every year. What are some of the contributors to that?
[Jessie] I think for the most part it’s scale and specialization. So really if you’re going to farm full-time, and that’s going to be your full-time job, you’re not going to have a job off the farm to bring in some additional income—to be able to do that, you’re going to have to increase acres and the amount of farming that you do. So that’s really led to consolidation in the business. It’s one of those things that also happens over time, though, is you look at developed nations. So when we started back in 1902—I’d have to go back and look. But our subscription is never going to grow at this point. Right? We hit that pinnacle. We used to be able to reach a million farmers, because there were that many corn, soybean, wheat – our target audience of farmers – in the US. And there just aren’t anymore. So it’s just one of those things that tends to go down with time. But recently I would say it’s consolidation to be able to make a profit. The farm economy has also been down for about the last five or so years. So that’s increasing that consolidation, and also unfortunately forcing some farmers to get out of the business as well.
[Todd] So your audience is steadily decreasing over time. The point about, you’ve already sort of reached your peak subscription potential—what are some of the things you then do as content producers, as publishers, to combat that? Are you trying to increase or reach more and more of a decreasing audience? Or are you trying to increase the quality of the content or the—well, of the content that you produce, in order to make Successful Farming and your content and your product that much more valuable? What do you do about that?
[Jessie] Yeah. It’s sort of an interesting thing. Especially when you look at the rest of the business of Meredith. They’re really focused on size and scale. And on the consumer side of the business, you can really do that. Because you can grow that. And you can grow that into new markets. And you can hit more millennials and the younger generations as they’re moving into some of those topic areas and interests. For us, the focus has really been on quality over quantity. So this comes into play I would say most when we look at what we try to do at agriculture.com. So we realize we’re not going to have the number of unique visitors that some of the other Meredith sites are. But we really focus on, when we get a farmer to the site, making sure they have relevant, engaging content, keeping them on that page, really looking at long articles that are relevant. So keeping them on that current page. But also serving them up new, relevant content that’s going to keep them on the site for another click. So really focusing on quality, I would say. And then looking at all of the ways that farmers consume media. So I would say the magazine is still a core of our brand. But we also have our website, agriculture.com. We’ve had a radio show for a really long time. We’re working on a 13th season of our TV show. So just looking at all of the different platforms where we know farmers are.
[Todd] Definitely want to talk about the radio show and the TV show and all the different channels that you’re leaning into. Before we switch to that topic, I’m curious. Listening to you talk about a shrinking population of farmers, and thinking about quality over quantity of content—have you ever experimented with or discussed producing some content about some other trends in farming? Like organic farming, urban farming, cannabis farming? And have you been successful with that?
[Jessie] So I would say our core audience is corn, soybean, wheat farmers, and livestock. Really focused in the 12 North Central states in the Midwest. Our magazine goes nationwide. But that is really who we see who our target audience is. So we focus on that. And most of our content is directly related to what they need to know. So it’s agronomic practices for those crops, and commodity markets for those crops. But I would say I think we’ve done this over the years. But we’ve really looked at it over the last several years as giving farmers some tips to diversify their operation, since the price of corn and soybeans has been down for so long. Realizing that that might—by adding another crop, or maybe getting back into livestock, or doing a value-added crop, that could give farmers a chance to stay in the business where maybe they couldn’t have otherwise. So we’ve definitely done sort of, I would say, the fringe of those. So crops that work well into that rotation. So maybe farmers weren’t growing organic or non-GMO. But maybe they’re looking at that again because they’re close to a market for that, and they can get a good premium on that crop. So we do that type of coverage. This year we’ve done a lot of coverage on hemp. So that was introduced in the 2018 farm bill. The states are still sorting out where it’s legal to grow and where it isn’t. So the regulations are still a little behind on that. But we’ve seen a huge spike in interest for that content, particularly on our website. So we know that there’s interest there in growing other crops. So we sort of, I would say, experiment. Or give farmers—“Here’s our core coverage. But also here’s some information on other crops, or other types of businesses that would be complementary to farming.”
[Todd] So a moment ago you mentioned media use and consumption among farmers. So as I understand it, Meredith Agrimedia commissions a study every year about farmers’ use of media. What are some of the key findings of those studies year over year?
[Jessie] Yeah. So we do—and just for I guess a little bit of background, we have a in-staff person that oversees all of our research. So we do four to five research studies every year. Some of those are more crop protection and nutrition, farm machinery, really to give our editorial team some trends and insights to what’s top of mind for farmers. And then we also share those insights back with our clients as well to use. But one of the studies—
[Todd] Your clients being your advertisers?
[Jessie] Correct. Yep. With our advertisers. And then sometimes we’ll take some of those findings from the studies, and we might include those stats in an article. Or we have a gleanings page that runs in our magazine that’s a compilation of different facts. So we might pull some of those in there and share those with farmers as well. But for the farmers’ use of media, we do that study every other year. The most recent, the results were out in 2017. So we’re doing another one as we go into next year. So we’ll have some updated results then. But back to your question, I think the biggest thing—and maybe I guess the most exciting thing for us as a publisher—was just that media consumption was increasing overall. So we still showed that magazines are the number one source that farmers use for their information. And we didn’t see that percent decrease. We just saw all percents increase overall. So it’s not that younger farmers are saying, “No. I don’t want to read the magazine. I’m spending more time on digital media.” It’s just that they’re consuming more media across the board. Which for us as a publisher is a really great opportunity and a great thing to see.
[Todd] Now as I understand it, radio is also a very popular format for farmers. Why is that?
[Jessie] So and I looked at the numbers so I’d have it—in our study, it said 80% of our farmers use radio. And I think the reason that is is that, you think about a farmer’s day. Right? Especially this time of year when they’re in the combine. They’re spending a lot of time in cabs and trucks and on the road. So it just makes sense in those—if that’s how you spend your day, you’re going to spend a lot of time listening to the radio. I think another part of that is too that there are a lot of popular ag radio shows that farmers are used to listening to every day, to really hear what’s top of mind for farmers, what’s happening in ag, what the markets are doing. So I think that’s really gotten to be a regular routine and a regular part of farmers’ days.
[Todd] And is this usually broadcast terrestrial radio? Or is there satellite, podcasting, other things involved in what you’re calling the “radio” format?
[Jessie] So the radio format, as we asked it, is sort of how you think of traditional radio. But we also asked for the first time in the last farmers’ use of media study about audio and podcasts in general. So about 30% of farmers use streaming audio. So that would be Spotify, podcasts, everything that falls into that realm. But that was two years ago. So if I had to guess, I would say we’ll probably see a big spike in that number moving forward.
[Todd] Where have you found in these surveys, just given your knowledge of media and the farming lifestyle and business—where is farmers’ use of media lagging behind the general population? And where is it leading the general population?
[Jessie] Lagging definitely social media. So in our last study—and again we’ll probably see another jump, but—that was about 40%. I haven’t looked at a study for the general public or consumer. But I’m going to assume it’s a lot higher than 40%. So I would say they definitely lag there. And about, I think, 40% use social media. I think we look at YouTube as a social media platform. So about 50% use YouTube. Forty percent are on Facebook. And then when you look at all the other social media platforms, it trends down from there. So I think they’re behind there somewhat. But if you also look at the demographics, farmers tend to skew a lot older. The average farmer is in their late 50s. So I think that makes sense for that trend. In terms of where they might be leading, I don’t know if most people would look at this as leading, but I would say magazines are still really important to farmers. And our studies show that 99% of them are still using magazines, which I’m assuming is much higher than we would see in the consumer side of the business. So I think again part of that is the older demographic. But I think it’s also a really great opportunity that we have to still reach farmers, and still show how relevant magazines are in providing really quality information.
[Todd] I’d like to take a quick break. And when we get back, I want to talk about the difference between the magazine that you produce—Successful Farming, the magazine—and the website that accompanies that, which is also called Successful Farming. And it’s located at agriculture.com. I’d also like to talk about the rise of advocacy in farming content, and how that’s being portrayed to the general public. So let’s take a quick break. And we’ll be right back.
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[Todd] All right. Welcome back. So we are speaking with Jessie Scott, digital strategy director at Meredith Agrimedia. Just before the break, we were talking about farmers’ use of magazines. Ninety-nine percent of farmers use magazines to consume media, get their information. So Successful Farming is Meredith Corporation’s first, oldest publication. Maybe I shouldn’t say oldest anymore with the Time Inc. acquisition. I don’t know. Let’s not make that claim. But definitely the first. And you also have a website that accompanies this magazine. It’s at agriculture.com. What is the difference between the magazine and the website?
[Jessie] Well, I’m going to throw another fun fact out there before I answer your question. So I don’t know if we were the oldest publication in the new Meredith. But I will maintain we were the first magazine at Meredith. But we were also the first website. So agriculture.com launched back in 1995. So we’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary next year. Which we think is pretty dang cool. That’s pretty old for a website, so.
[Todd] A 25-year-old website. You don’t see a lot of those.
[Jessie] No. No you don’t. But we survived where others have failed. But so that’s a fun fact there. But I would say we really look at the audience as the same in both of those places. That core group of farmers that we’re trying to reach. But agriculture.com really serves as the pulse of, “Here’s what’s happening today. And here’s what you need to know.” So a much larger emphasis on the news and the weather and the markets. And that’s really what we lead with. Now all of the agronomy and business and machinery and technology and all of those other topics that we cover in print, we also cover online. But it’s really the pulse of what’s happening today.
[Todd] Got it. So the magazine is more long-form trends, deeper dives. And the website is, check it every day. You’re going to get your commodity prices, your weather reports, your crop reports. Things like that.
[Jessie] Exactly. And I would say really focus on the magazine is more evergreen, too. Just because we realized you’re getting the news in real time. So these are really the stories that, if you get the magazine in your mail tomorrow and you don’t get to it until next week, that information is still very valuable and very relevant. And the other thing I think that’s important to point out on the website too is just, I think, how important the news is there, too. Particularly all of the news that’s happening out of DC. We’ve always covered that. But really for the last couple of years, with everything that’s going on with trade negotiations. That’s really made—I would say maybe not a bigger focus. But maybe a renewed focus on what’s happening out of DC, and how that impacts farmers.
[Todd] Is there a difference between the audiences that read the magazine versus go to the website? Are they one in the same? Or are they distinctly different?
[Jessie] I’d say they’re somewhere in between there. So they tend to skew a little bit younger online than they do in print. That’s probably the biggest demographic difference. The crops and most of that stay pretty much the same as we go from one to the other.
[Todd] And what are your strategies for monetizing each of these channels, the magazine versus the website? Obviously advertising plays a role. But what do you have to uniquely do in each of those cases for those different forms of media?
[Jessie] So advertising really is our primary source of revenue for both of those. We do have some subscriptions on the print side. But we also have qualified subscriptions too. So if you’re a farmer in a certain area with a certain number of acres, we want to send you the magazine to give you that information. So there’s that part of the business.
[Todd] Meaning you sign them up for free, essentially, because they’re a big enough farmer, or have enough buying potential, that your clients, your advertisers, would want to get in front of them?
[Jessie] Exactly. Yep. Yep. So advertising is our primary source of revenue, both in print, in digital, on the radio show, and for the TV show as well.
[Todd] Are there any trends that you’re seeing in advertising within farming? Is it pretty consistent? Has anything changed recently?
[Jessie] Across the company as a whole, it’s been pretty standard to what you’re seeing across the rest of the publishing industry. So print continues to trend down while digital trends up. True to Meredith, I think, as it is across the rest of the industry as well. Digital isn’t increasing as quickly as we would like to compensate for that loss in print. I would say it’s similar here at Successful Farming. We have a lot more interest in digital. But because we know that farmers still rely on magazines so heavily, our advertisers still recognize that as well.
[Todd] Well, let’s shift a little bit to another form of farming-related content that perhaps consumers outside of the agricultural industry are a little more familiar with. And maybe they don’t know it. And that is the advocacy of farming and agriculture. When you and I spoke earlier, you mentioned influencers in agricultural social media. My picture of an influencer is, frankly, pretty shallow and silly, and somebody just kind of showing off conspicuous consumption, and all of that kind of stuff. What is an influencer in agricultural media?
[Jessie] Yeah. Definitely not the type of influencer you’re picturing. And probably, maybe don’t have the scale of some of the typical influencers that you might be thinking of as well. But I would say an influencer in ag is somebody who has a significant following on one of our social media platforms. And for the most part I think they’ve ended up there because they really want to shed a light on what farming actually looks like, who farmers are. That they’re just people who wake up every day, also trying to make a living and make a business off farming, who really care for their land and for their animals. And found that through social media—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, whatever platform they chose—that that’s a really great way for them just to share that story.
[Todd] So what does a typical farmer influencer social media post look like?
[Jessie] Well, a couple examples I thought of, because I knew we were going to talk about this—one we worked with quite a bit here at Successful Farming is Rob Sharkey. So you can look him up. He’s the Shark Farmer. He’s on Twitter and Facebook. He has a Shark Farmer podcast as well. And he also does another podcast that’s a little bit more geared toward the consumer audience. So I would hate to describe his brand for him. But I would say he’s very real about what’s happening. Can maybe be a little bit snarky and a little bit fun. One of his points was, at some point he was supposed to go through a media training, and just decided he did not want to do that. Because he felt that we should talk about farming in a way that’s real. Not in a way that’s overly polished. And I would say that that definitely comes through in his messages. It’s real talk with Rob Sharkey. And he’s gotten a great following from that. Another good example on YouTube is the Millennial Farmer. So that’s Zach Johnson. He has about 300,000 subscribers. So maybe not huge in terms of YouTube influencers. But pretty good scale there. And he does simple things like, “Let’s walk through my shop and look at all of the different farm equipment I have.” Or, “Let’s take you out in a field during harvest and show you what this really looks like.” So I think he’s gotten really good scale just by being himself, being very authentic, and just sort of opening that door to, “Here’s what every day looks like for a farmer.”
[Todd] So farmer influencers seem to focus much more on being real, unpolished, authentic. Right? They’re not trying to promote a certain kind of lifestyle. They’re rather just trying to educate the public about what farming really is. And perhaps dispel some misconceptions about that.
[Jessie] Exactly. And I think that’s true to other influencers has opened up some doors for them in terms of speaking opportunities or sponsorship of some of their platforms. So I think it’s opened up some of those similar doors. But, yes. It’s definitely not polished, and is just meant to be very authentic.
[Todd] You also noted when you and I spoke earlier that there’s a bit of a trend in content being produced not necessarily for farmers, but about farmers. And that a lot of it’s being produced by companies, manufacturers, seed companies, organizations related to the agriculture business. What’s going on there? Why is there a push in the direction to create content about farmers and farming for the general public?
[Jessie] Well, I think I touched on this earlier. But there continues to be that disconnect. Whether you look at rural to urban, or just farming to non-farmers. So that a general consumer doesn’t have a lot of understanding or knowledge about how their food is grown, or what happens on farms. And maybe most importantly, may not know a farmer or have met a farmer. So when they hear messages about—particular types of food aren’t good for you, they aren’t safe, they’re not good for your kids. That sort of fear makes them believe those messages. And if they don’t have a connection to a farm to see that’s not necessarily true, or if they don’t have a farmer they can trust to ask those questions, that disconnect keeps growing. So I think companies that have traditionally—farmers are their consumers and their customers, they’ve only marketed to farmers. So I think the case that really speaks to this most accurately is when GMO crops were introduced. And the companies that introduced those marketed those to farmers, because that was who was going to be using that product. And never really talked to the general public about it to explain what that process looked like, how it’s a safe way to grow food, how it lets you use less chemicals. So they didn’t really talk about that process. And then 15, 20 years later, all this fear hits around GMOs. And then we have some non-GMO movements cropping up. Right? So I think they look at that as an example of, “We should have been better in the beginning about communicating about what those technologies are, how they were created, how they’re beneficial to farming and the environment in general.” And are now saying, “We need to do a better job of this moving forward.” So letting the general public know what these products are. And also just telling a story about farmers. So farmers are people that care about the land. They care about the quality of the water just like you and your family do.
[Todd] As the population of farmers in the U.S. continues to decrease, but their output continues to increase, we’re losing connection with farmers as more people move to urban areas. We’re losing connection with the countryside and small towns and groups like that. So this is all an effort to try to inject some awareness into the general public about farming and the farming lifestyle.
[Jessie] I would say inject awareness. And I would also say in particular when we look at some of the products on the crop and chemical side of the business—so products like glyphosate or dicamba. Those are really important—
[Todd] And what are those known as more popularly?
[Jessie] Glyphosate would be known as Roundup. I guess I don’t know what the consumer name for dicamba would be. Or if they have access to use that. That’s, well, a newer version that’s being used in ag. But those are products that are really important to farmers to help control weeds. So if they don’t have those products, that’s going to make their job a lot more difficult. They might have to use more chemicals. Yields would go down. There’s a lot of negative consequences of that. But there’s also—if consumers don’t understand how those products are used, or that those products are safe, then they might start to question that use. And then those tools are no longer available for farmers.
[Todd] Got it. Well, thank you so much for shedding a spotlight on farmers and agriculture and farming-related content. What I’d like to close with is a question to you. Where do you see the future of agricultural content heading?
[Jessie] I think there’s a really big opportunity around audio and smart speakers. The reason why I explained why farmers use radio so much is just, they’re held captive for so long in cabs and in trucks, that I think there’s a really big opportunity there to do more around flash briefings and skills and content to audio. So I think there’s a really big opportunity in that area.
[Todd] Very interesting. Well, thank you so much for all of your time today. Very enlightening. Until next time, everybody. Thank you for listening to The Future of Content. Enjoy your content.
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