Richard Wathey

Mark Nissenfield

Sybil Jones

Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 21,

1999. All rights reserved.

Total Farmers: Marketing Savvy

Send a direct mail pitch and you get a one-to-one reaction.

Either the client likes the pitch or he doesn’t like it.

Send a salesperson and you get a little more leeway. The salesperson

can influence the client by adjusting her pitch.

But bring the client to a meeting with six of his peers and you multiply

your influence. Instead of giving a pitch, the moderator — an

expert on a variety of products — tries to uncover the problems,

find the commonalities, and find the solution, which may or may not

be the client’s product.

It’s called peer group marketing, and the pharmaceutical marketers

have been doing it for nearly 20 years. They convene groups of doctors

to share common concerns about difficult patients and what each has

been doing to solve those problems. Now the Independence Way-based

marketing research firm, Total Research Corporation, is taking this concept to

the agricultural industry.

"The days when farmers relied on intuition are over. Crop producers

and animal producers are a very sophisticated group of business people,

with good backgrounds in animal health, chemistry, and biology,"

says Mark Nissenfield, president and CEO of The Idea Farm, a new

wholly-owned subsidiary of Total Research (

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Richard Wathey

"The whole peer communication process is an outgrowth of focus

groups," says Richard Wathey, who is in charge of marketing

and program development for Idea Farm. "Some smart people noticed

that no matter how objective you were, a certain amount of selling

was taking place."

These two executives admit there could be a potential conflict between

doing marketing research and doing promotion. "We created a separate

subsidiary to draw a sharp non-ambiguous distinction between marketing

and promotional activities," says Nissenfield. "These peer

groups are information-driven, not slogan-driven."

Invitations to the farmers state that the focus is promotion. The

cost to the sponsoring company for a small series of meetings: well

under $100,000, and that would include designing the meetings, invitations,

logistics, and the moderator’s time to learn the product. Farmers

are paid $50 to $75 to attend — plus a nice meal. Is this cost

effective? Apparently so. Marketing agencies in the pharmaceutical

area, says Nissenfield, have been able to demonstrate positive results

using a strict return on investment (ROI) model.

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Mark Nissenfield

Nissenfield majored in broadcasting at Boston University, Class of

1979, and has a PhD in counseling from the University of Pennsylvania.

Wathey went to Long Island University, Class of 1969, and has his

PhD from New York University.

No one holds a patent on the idea of peer group marketing, and theoretically

it could be used in any field — to sell software, beauticians’

supplies, or household products. New England-style town meetings can

be termed peer influence groups. And when homemakers hold Tupperware

parties, for instance, they are sharing workplace problems and solutions.

Could this work for your product? Which decisions are well served

by peer influence groups?

When the product is more complicated than a brochure can

convey , an information-oriented approach to getting additional

information will work, says Wathey. He points again to the medical

model, for which doctors or dentists gather to discuss treatment problems.

When multiple units of the same product are sold. "To

sell somebody one item doesn’t really move a lot of market share,"

says Wathey. Trainers might effectively share tips on the new version

of Microsoft Office 2000.

When a key person is influential in the decision making process.

"If it has to be decided by committee, then peer groups are probably

not effective," says Nissenfield.

When success can be measured easily. If you do a series

of meeting in one area and have a control group in another area, you

can see what happens to the prescribing patterns for the physicians

involved. Or you can count the bags of feed sold.

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Sybil Jones

Sybil Jones of Trent-Jones Inc., a Nassau Street communications

company specializing in the agricultural industry, says that such

"over the fence post" peer group learning can be very effective.

"For years there have been teleconferences, with farmers getting

together on a conference calls, with a technical expert on the line,

to resolve issues among themselves." Chat rooms on the Internet

are another peer group learning opportunity. Bringing people face

to face is yet another step, and it is not one-sided like a sales

call. "You’re going to find out the negatives as well as the positives

when you get a bunch of professionals together."

— Barbara Fox

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