The power of social media in [re]building communities

Crippling drought and severe bushfires have been the focus across news and social media over recent months in Australia. We’ve seen lives lost, towns burnt to the ground, crops ravaged and livestock losses. Yet we’ve seen some incredible ‘good news’ stories arise through it all, thanks to the power of social media.

‘Buy from the Bush’ Campaign

Grace Brennan launched Buy from the Bush in October 2019 and gained 20,000 social media followers in the first week. Living on a sheep and wheat farm in Warren in northwest New South Wales (incidentally where one of our founders Bob McKay hails from), Grace understood the impact of drought on agriculture from personal experience, yet noted ‘we hear less about the impact on the broader [rural] community.’ as compared with the direct impact on farmers and their families. But drought impacts more than just farmers; small businesses in rural areas suffer as cash flow from the farming community dries up — ‘people stop going into town, shopping lists get shorter [and eventually] employees [are] laid off and profits turn to losses.’ This is not peculiar to Australia but is a global issue.

Grace Brennan’s ‘Buy from the Bush’ campaign harnesses the power of social media to connect ‘bush business’ with city customers and the results have been phenomenal. In its first six weeks, the campaign generated A$2.6million in revenue for the 240 rural businesses registered. Over 25 jobs in rural communities have been created so far and regional Australia Post outlets reported running out of boxes as business owners scrambled to fulfil orders. The power of social media meant city consumers can engage with country business owners; suddenly, distance is no longer an issue. It’s also a feeling of tangibility; something real. Instead of perhaps making a donation to a charity helping affected communities, ‘Buy from the Bush’ empowers consumers directly support rural businesses and to enjoy and feel connected to the purchases they make. A purchase becomes more than a piece of art, or some handmade jewellery; it is a very real representation of positive choice and purchasing power. Social media take a purchase beyond traditional marketing channels which are more about simple, convenient and cost-effective transactions and instead makes the purchase about engagement, connection and purpose.

Business owners in rural communities sense this: as sales grow, they not only feel valued and positive about their products and business, they feel less isolated and more inspired as they watch their virtual community grow daily. By simply adding the hashtag #buyfromthebush to social media posts, business owners can connect with hundreds of thousands of consumers. When the ‘Buy from the Bush’ campaign was launched it was the highest ranking search term in the state of New South Wales, Australia and to date, the hashtag has been used over 90,000 times.

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Empty Esky & Spend with Them

With news that recent rainfall has finally extinguished the fires burning along much of the east coast over December 2019 and January 2020, we’ve seen the growth of social media campaigns such as Empty Esky and Spend with Them encouraging city dwellers to show their support by visiting, staying and shopping in fire-affected communities, many of whom rely heavily on tourism for their livelihoods.

Launched in January this year, Empty Esky gained over 10,000 followers in its first 24 hours and now has over 40,000 followers and over 500 businesses registered across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, South Australia and the ACT. The power of social media in connecting communities is at work, making a considerable dent in the estimated A$4.5 billion loss to the local economy due to the fires.

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Turia Pitt’s ‘Spend with Them’ campaign has a similar goal, encouraging consumers to ‘put money directly in the pockets of the people and communities who need it the most.’ And yes, while the dollars and the income are important, the impact of the social media campaigns is twofold; it also builds connection. Connection with the community and breaking down the barriers of distance between the city and the country. These social media campaigns mean rural businesses feel heard and supported, and morale around town is lifted, while those in the city feel as though the purchase choices they are making have a real and direct impact on those who need it the most.

The Rural Sisterhood

The Rural Sisterhood is another fantastic example of the power of social media. Elizabeth Shipstead, who along with her husband, farms wheat, peas and canola in northeast Montana, US started a blog, The Rural Sisterhood in 2016. ‘Born out of my own need, [the blog helped when I felt] overwhelmed by this wonderful, all-encompassing lifestyle of farming and agriculture.’ The blog was also designed to build community so as to combat some of the stress, loneliness and responsibility that comes from living in isolated, rural areas.

As Elizabeth’s readership and engagement with the blog grew, ‘[she] realised she wasn’t alone; that other farm wives and ranch wives and folks in agriculture felt the same way.’ The blog has now grown to a Facebook page which has over 4,000 followers across the United States and Canada.

The Rural Sisterhood followers interact via public discussion forums, private chats and Facebook Live. One of AgriDigital’s first customers in the United States, we recently visited Elizabeth in Montana and witnessed this community engagement first hand as our North American Growth Lead, Henry McKay took part in a Facebook Live session with fellow farmer and rancher Abby Majerus.

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Harnessing the Power

We all know social media is a powerful tool and seeing it used in such a positive way to connect city and country is uplifting. We now need to double-down on this connection and ensure that these hugely successful campaigns are not just about surviving in adversity but are also about thriving together in the good times ahead. Community is no longer just a local concept, we can truly be part of multiple communities spanning across diverse geographic, demographic and social lines. Building community is a blend of the virtual and the real and whether it is a like, a follow, a post or a purchase; we all have a role to play.

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