Executive Vice President, Farm Journal Media
Steve Custer is Executive Vice President of Farm Journal Media and Publisher for all of the company’s magazines as well as online and event extensions of those brands. Steve has been intimately involved in building and leading agriculture’s first truly integrated media company.
Prior to joining Farm Journal in 1998, Steve owned and operated his own marketing consulting firm that specialized in market strategy and planning. Earlier in his career, Steve served in a variety of positions at prominent advertising agencies such as Young and Rubicam, Leo Burnett and Needham, Harper and Steers.
Steve has a B.A. in Marketing and Management at the University of Northern Iowa and an M.A. in Advertising from Michigan State University. In addition to his involvement in agriculture at Farm Journal, he owns and operates a Christmas tree farm in Berks County, PA that supplies, among other clients, Longwood Gardens and the Congressional Country Club.
Digital technology is changing the way publishers communicate with farmers. At Farm Journal Media, we now have television and radio programming, newsletter advisory services, an events business and a web portal called AgWeb in addition to our traditional stable of magazines. Farmers have been somewhat slower to migrate to the Internet for communication purposes than other business-to-business sectors but they are changing their habits, particularly younger farmers. Those with broadband Internet connections are increasingly watching our television programming on AgWeb rather than on television because they can do it at their own convenience. Farmers are using Internet sites to network with each other. The most heavily used portion of AgWeb is Crop Comments, a place they go to discuss the crop with their peers, monitor its progress, ask questions and get answers.
Communication among farmers is more mobile than ever. Our advisory services now issue mobile alerts such as critical information on markets to farmers through their cell phones and our events business uses the same approach when issuing reminders of upcoming conferences. The rapid pace of change in communications technology has forced publishers to change their business models. Twelve years ago Farm Journal was comprised of five magazines and a database containing the demographic profiles of each of its readers. The magazines made up 90 percent of our revenue. Today, the magazines make up less than 50 percent of our revenue and the rest comes from other media we have integrated into our publishing platform through start-ups and strategic acquisitions.
Our publishing philosophy begins with the idea that we don’t care how we deliver content. We’re in the information business, not the magazine business so we deliver in whatever manner users want to receive it. At the core of our philosophy is brand. With all the sources of information out there today, people gravitate to the most trusted sources. The National Association of Farm Broadcasters conducts media surveys using a sample of more than 2,000 farmers. They ask them which magazines they recall reading in the last 30 days. Farm Journal has a commanding lead over competing publishers in this survey. Having such a high level of unaided brand recognition has been helpful in making the conversion to digital publishing.
We have been able to extend our magazine brands into our other media, permitting us to build deeper, more targeted communications. We are able to provide choices of print, video, digital or audio. Farmers can watch coverage of a subject on television or the internet, hear it on the radio or read about it on Agweb or in the magazine. This enables a deeper level of communication. For instance, at the end of a magazine article, readers will see the phrase “Web Extra.” This indicates they can go to the web site and find more information on that subject than can be printed in a magazine article. Another example of deeper communication is Top Producer, our business magazine for larger farmers. The largest event our company holds is the Top Producer Seminar which takes place in January. The combination of the magazine and seminar has formed a community of farmers who network with each other at the seminar and afterwards over the Internet. Many of these folks have been in the Top Producer community for years. They value it in part because they are not likely to go to their local coffee shop and encounter others who farm on the same scale that they do. Other Top Producer brand extensions are Top Producer Online, a digital version of the magazine and Top Producer Radio.
We move content among our various media and brands. For instance, we have a series called Corn Navigator thattreats the production and technology issues in Farm Journal and then crosses over into Top Producer magazine to discuss the business aspects. We have learned that in multi-media publishing, our staff must be flexible and willing to cross media and brands. An editor who writes about a subject in a magazine may be called upon to discuss it on AgDay television and blog about it on AgWeb. Developing this new mindset has not been easy for editors who were used to working in their own “silos” back when there were walls between magazines and between magazines and other media. These days when we get a scoop on a story, we put it on the web first and then develop it in our other media. From a staffing standpoint it has meant moving away from the traditional editor mindset to contributing content on the website, in print and through radio and television.
An interesting aspect of the digital age is that we have lost a lot of person-to-person connectivity even as we’ve gained digital connectivity with each other. We think this is one reason why our events business has grown rapidly. Farmers who interact through digital media throughout the year look forward to attending conferences where they can meet their peers in person. One example is the National Farm Machinery Show where we do magazine promotion, conduct live events that farmers attend and broadcast our television show from there. Coverage of the event appears in our magazines. In addition, we recently launched a website called farmmachinery.com that is a place where farmers can go to buy and sell machinery. It’s modeled after carsdirect.com.
Another example of how we leverage events across media properties is the Midwest Crop Tour, an event conducted in 17 Midwest states by our farm advisory service Pro Farmer. It takes place in advance of the United States Department of Agriculture’s fall estimate of the crop. We sell sponsorships of the it to advertisers and during the tour we do between 50 and 60 television and radio interviews. In addition to our media, other agricultural and business media cover the event. After the results are in, we publish a special section on the tour in Top Producer.
Building and managing a multi-media organization is difficult because it requires new thinking and reaching across the barriers that have traditionally existed between media. We have found that once it is accomplished, however, there is a new kind of energy. New ideas for harnessing our capabilities come from throughout our organization. Advertisers are attracted to our ability to have a deeper and more ongoing relationship with their customers. As a result it has differentiated us from our competitors in the farm publishing field.
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