Agriculture and Social Media: Sunburst Trout

by | Feb 2, 2011

Sunburst Trout Co. is a third-generation family trout farm founded in 1948 by Western North Carolina Agriculture Hall of Fame member Dick Jennings. After 60 years in business, Sunburst cautiously started using Facebook and Twitter, and has since dived into the social network and the micro-blogging site, leading to connections with a larger audience and increased sales.

Behind the social media success is Anna Eason. Like employees at other family operations, Anna Eason wears several hats. As Sunburst’s human resources and Web director, she not only manages the company’s payroll and taxes, but also it’s entire online presence.

She was hesitant using social media at first, but now says she can’t live without Facebook or Twitter. “It’s offered us a chance to increase sales, especially with our larger vendors,” said Eason. Sunburst is also using social media to connect with Asheville’s vibrant food community and associations such as the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. “We talk about a vendor or organization on Twitter, and in turn they talk about us. It drives business for everyone,” she said.

Last year, Eason used Earth Day and Twitter to spread the word about Sunburst. In a tweet, she promoted Sunburst’s trout as a way to eat sustainably on Earth Day. One of the company’s largest vendors, Earth Fare, retweeted her post, and within an hour the tweet had been seen by more than 20,000 followers. According to Eason, “It let more people know who we were and where they could find our product, which led to more sales at Earth Fare.”

Since then, Sunburst has incorporated social media into all aspects of its marketing. Links to the company’s Facebook and Twitter pages appear on its website, as well as brochures and other printed material. It is also included in the company’s e-newsletter, the Weekly Rainbow Reader. The company plans to include the information on its business cards and incorporate it into its packaging later this year.

Another way Eason integrates social media for the company is through special promotions like its current one, which ties in February’s trout month and Valentine’s Day. Through social media and e-newsletter, the company is asking its followers to submit recipes that use Sunburst trout. Winning recipes will be posted on Facebook and the website, and all the winners will receive a jar of Sunburst Trout caviar. The promotion not only engages with customers, but it also gets them using Sunburst products.

In September, social media helped Sunburst Trout turn a negative into a positive when 600 pounds of trout were stolen from the farm. On Sept. 30, Eason sent out a tweet telling the company’s followers about the theft. Within a few hours, the message was retweeted by more than 40,000 people, picked up by local media and quickly became a national story. While the crime was tragic, it led to national exposure for the company and interest in its farm-raised products. And it all started from one tweet.

A positive from a negative. One tweet led to national exposure for Sunburst Trout.

For those thinking about using social media, Eason recommends paying attention to conversations and jumping in. “You may think you sound dumb, but everyone does at first,” she said. “It becomes second nature, and eventually you build a community around your business.”

Here are some other tips from Anna:

  • Limit the number of staff creating content on your social media sites. This way you can cultivate your brand and personality. Sunburst uses just two employees to update Facebook and one for Twitter.
  • Limit your post to two per day. You don’t want to muddle up someone’s news feed.
  • Timing your post is important. Pick times when people will be checking Facebook or Twitter. (Before work, during lunch, before the afternoon commute, after supper)
  • Plan ahead. Set up everything you want to happen a day in advance using social media management tools such as Hootsuite.
  • Use a smartphone. It allows you to promote your business while you’re out in the community and support others in building your personality and brand.

You can connect with Sunburst Trout online through its website, Facebook and Twitter. You also can read insights from CEO Sally Eason on her blog. The company is also branching into video-sharing site YouTube and location-based mobile platform Foursquare.

Do you know other North Carolina farms or agribusinesses using social media in exciting new ways? Which social media platforms do you use? Share your comments below.