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We all know member retention is important: it signals happiness with the CSA program and makes your life easier each Spring with less marketing muscle needed to keep CSA revenue, but actual strategies to increase retention can be hard to figure out. Simon interviewed three farms with extremely high retention rates and tried to extract some of their 'secret sauce' for you to apply to your CSA!
To learn new strategies on how to increase the retention percentage of your farm. I have a lot of great tips in here talking to three different really high retention farmers, learning about what they think is part of their high retention rate.
Just a little introduction about me. My name is Simon Huntley. I'm the founder of Small Farm Central. We write technology tools to our 800 farms across the U.S. and Canada. I’ll talk a little bit more about our CSA member management farmers. I’ll talk about that at the end but if you want more information on any of our services go to SmallFarmCentral.com or call us or chat to us or email us and we’d be happy to talk to you about that.
Today I'm going to be talking about CSA member retention. First off, why is CSA member retention important? Of course there’s a cost acquire members and we think of this idea of cost of customer acquisition. This is something CSAs don’t have to think about too much because you're usually relying on a lot of word of mouth and not doing a whole lot of really aggressive advertising or marketing. But there’s always a cost to acquiring members, whether it’s to write an ad in the newspaper or whether it’s going out to speak at a local meeting or whatever. So there’s this cost of member acquisition and you can calculate it.
The main thing is it’s more expensive to get a new person to be a customer rather than keep existing customers happy and keep them in the system. And then educating new customers takes time. So there are special things about your CSA – how pickups work, what recipes people need to know to become good CSA members. There’s some education there and that takes time. Then buying another membership is a true test of their happiness. I think that’s one of the most important things to me is that if someone buys a share again, they're really happy with what happened the previous year and they want to do it again. So the more people we have signing up it shows that more people engage with what the CSA’s doing.
Then happy members bring their friends and happy members are easier to work with. They're more forgiving if there’s maybe a slight quality problem here or there. Then happy members tell their friends and family and get them to be members too. So retention is important if you haven’t thought about it already.
One thing I've seen in talking to CSA farmers is there can be this tendency to sort of give up on retention, to not think about why people leave or why people join the CSA. I think there’s the idea that maybe people move out of town, maybe people try something different. There’s just not a knowable thing. That’s one thing I’d like to dispel. We can learn about retention and really find out why people leave and learn about your customer base, learn who they are. I think that if I can give you one thing in this presentation it’s just learn what your retention is and learn why it is the way it is.
Here is a graph called ‘Why Do Businesses Lose Their Customers?’ It’s just a general thing that was done for businesses. You can find from the attribution there some more information. There is a small amount of natural attrition as in people moving away or passing on. One of the biggest things we see in business in general is they leave because they don’t feel valued. There’s this concept of perceived indifference. So that’s one thing. One thing I’ll suggest as we go on is make sure that members feel valued.
Okay, so member retention. So first off, it’s hard to improve your retention if you're not tracking your retention. If you're not tracking your retention in some way I really encourage you to do that. You can probably do it with some sort of Spreadsheet. If you use our Member Assembler retention tool you can do that in about five seconds and get your percentages.
So you're going to have an overall image of say 50, 60, 70, 80, 40, whatever percent it is but another thing that can be really interesting, especially if you create hypotheses of why retention might be that or how we might be able to improve retention. It will track retention by pickup location and type of share. For example, you may have a farm pickup location and you may have a city pickup location. If the retention rate is higher in the farm then we may have some hypotheses on why that is. Maybe people are happier at the farm because they're more connected to the farm and they’ve talked to the farmer. That may be one thing that we could do in the city a little bit more to try to improve our retention there.
What type of share? Is there a difference in retention between your small share and your large share? Why is that? So that’s one way to get some more information, really break it down into its component parts.
As I said in the introduction, I talked to three high retention farmers. The first is Paul from Fort Hill Farm. I talked to Paul and tried to extract some of why he thinks he has a successful retention rate for his CSA. He runs a 400 member CSA in New Milford, Connecticut. He’s close to town center with all 400 people picking up at the farm. By all accounts he has a very high retention rate. His CSA sells out in just a few weeks each year. There’s a really high retention rate and there’s even a 3-4 year wait list. So if we look at retention as a measure of successful farm, Paul definitely has a successful farm.
So why does Paul think he’s able to get such high retention? One thing is that he has multiple marketing outlets so they don’t dump their produce on shareholders and then give too much of one thing or overload. He does farmer’s markets. He has wholesale accounts and extras even go to the town food bank. So that’s one thing that he really thinks, especially for some of the seconds that might go to the town food bank. He’s not giving some of the seconds to the CSA and that’s one thing he keeps talking about, maintaining a high ethical standard. The CSA members invest in the farm and they get first priority, first selection, quantity and quality.
For the people who want to customize their share a little bit. Maybe they're canning or having a large dinner that week – extras are sold at attractive prices so in the height of the season you can buy boxes of tomatoes or whatever height of the season it is. That allows people to change up their share a little bit.
One thing that he says is he puts no more than one weird veggie per week. So he’s really concentrated on some of the more standard vegetables and then have the extra stranger vegetable – I think kohlrabi is usually mentioned in this – and so he only has one of those per week.
I think there’s a caveat here. You may have the kind of CSA where you learned about your members and your CSA members really value your CSA because you do have all the weird vegetables and you're sort of the ‘foodie’ type of CSA. That’s another thing to think about. Know your niche, know your members.
One thing that Paul says that I think is helpful for new and beginning CSA farms is don’t do anything for 20 members that you can't do to scale up to 200 members. Don’t make things too customized or bend over backwards in ways you can't do for 200 people.
So next up is Art from Harvest Valley Farm and he runs a 400 member CSA near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I actually know Art personally because Small Farm Central is based in Pittsburgh, PA and I see him around and talk to him and Art’s a really great guy, really boisterous. You can see why his CSA members really love him. Part of his high retention might be his really engaging personality for sure.
Anyway, he does box shares and they're delivered into the city and then markets sell shares market style. That’s where you leave a board up with the share on it and people go through and pick out their own individual vegetables. So they get three heads of lettuce, two bunches of carrots or whatever it is that week.
He really emphasizes the importance of quality within his share and the correct quantity, so not giving too much in the box – that’s something Paul mentioned – as well as a personal relationship. He wants people to say, “My farmer”, so he really engages directly with his members.
Art’s keys to retention. One thing that came up in the data is that on farm pickups nearer to market style pickups have a somewhat significantly higher retention than the box shares that get delivered into the city. We can have some hypotheses on why that is. Certainly that connection to the farm; it might be that it’s more market style.
One thing he said is he’s invested a lot on good storage and post-service handling. So that means really high quality produce. He sees high quality as really the basis of a great CSA, and then all these other things we add onto it are gravy on top of that.
He has a personal newsletter that connects members to him personally and the farm and again there’s this ethical standards that comes into play. CSA always gets first choice and they know that.
The third farmer, the third high retention farmer, is Dave from Gorman Farms. He’s in his 5th year farming at the current location in Laurel, Maryland. He serves 400 CSA members. All 400 members come to the farm. This seems to be something that comes through in all three of these farmers. The members come to the farm so we’ll talk a little bit about that as we go along.
He has a unique situation – 25 acres in production one mile off the I-95 corridor. One thing that he feels is really important about his farm is that 100% of the CSA produce is grown on the farm and 100% of it is organic. So he feels like a lot of people come to him for that.
Dave’s keys to retention. So there’s this feeling of ‘members only’ within his CSA. He wants them to feel part of an elite farm club, which they are because they’ve supported him and keep him running in the spring and they're really committed to him throughout the season.
Part of that member’s only feeling is to get on a first name basis with his members. He tries to show up at pickup locations or he tries to stand at the farm stand and say hi to people but also his staff that run the pickups, he really wants them to get to know the members and feel valued. This is part of really feeling valued.
One thing he does from a field level is he plants something everything week so the CSA box is always fresh and interesting. There’s something new to add in there and talk about. There’s a total shopping experience at the CSA because it’s part CSA and part farm stand. The CSA and farm stand are separated from each other so they can buy extras like honey or even just extra produce that they didn’t get enough of. Paul said having extras for sale allows people to customize their share a little bit more. He also gives a discount to CSA members who share at the farm stand. I believe it’s a 10% discount so that makes them again feel part of the member’s only club.
There’s some detailed information about his CSA on his website and that keeps misunderstanding to a minimum. He really wants to get those right members and make sure the expectations are set out at the beginning. So we really encourage you to have a member agreement for your CSA that people sign off on as they go through the signup process each year.
So what do these CSAs have in common and how can you think about improving your retention rate? I think all these CSAs have a high commitment to customer service. Paul put it as high ethical standards. High retention CSAs keep members in first priority. They discuss how they do that.
How do you make that decision between what products go to the farmer’s market and what products go to the CSA, what products go to wholesale? I think that’s really important for members to know because they have invested in your farm. How do you make the decision of what goes in each box? Make sure it’s really clear with your members so there’s not some kind of misunderstanding later that can sort of fester in someone and throughout the season make them not want to join again.
Just because you can grow kohlrabi each week doesn’t mean you should. This is one thing that came out of my conversation with Paul that I really liked. He looks at what sells really well at the farmer’s markets and those are the things he starts to grow more and more for his CSA because those are the things that are the most popular. That’s why he started to focus over the years on some of the more basic vegetables. I really like that idea.
Don’t overload people with things they can't use and certainly recipes is part of this mix, giving people recipes and letting people try new things is certainly part of the mix. Again, this is all about knowing your members. What kind of members do you have and what do they want?
Try to connect members to the farm. Of course this could be a whole presentation itself, how we connect CSA members into the farm. One thing we saw with these high retention CSAs is they all had some aspect of farm pickups and those have high member retention definitely in the data that I've seen. Of course for many you're so far out in the country that it’s just not feasible to have a large portion of your membership at the farm.
What are those other ways you can use to make connections? Obvious ones are newsletters, which you can read a lot about farm visits, certainly getting people out to the farm a couple times a year. I’ll talk a little bit more about that as we go on.
You can have farmers go to drop off points. If there’s enough people there you can have the farmer stop by for an hour and say hi and look people in the face and know their names. I think that can do a lot to increasing the way that people feel about the CSA.
One farm that I saw that I really like this idea is doing happy hours in town. They did this once or twice during the season and it was a restaurant that they serve produce to, that they deliver to. This restaurant also had a bar so the farmer said, “I'm going to be at this restaurant from 5:00-7:00. Stop on by. Meet other members, meet me.” I just love this idea because it’s just so easy for the farm. It’s good for the restaurant, good for the members. They get to socialize with other members, socialize with the farmer. It just took a couple hours of the farmer’s time and it was fun for him too. It’s a win/win/win there.
Videos of course of what’s going on on the farm, especially with the iPhones and different SmartPhones you have now that take really good videos. Take some videos and say what’s going on on the farm. That can really connect people in.
Be flexible. What are the ways you can be flexible? It doesn’t mean you necessarily need to customize each box. Some people love rhubarb and some loathe it. You could I guess stop growing rhubarb; that would be one way to do it. Or you could find a way to serve both contingents where possible. Maybe having certain things that are just optional items. I think it’s better to have an optional item rather than put something in the box and then have them throw it away.
We never want people to throw produce away. That’s the worst thing I think. There’s a lot of guilt there for the member’s perspective. It sits in their refrigerator for two or three weeks. They keep thinking they should cook it but they maybe don’t have the right recipe or don’t have the time to do it and they end up throwing it away. That’s something we really don’t want CSA members to do.
That of course speaks to the importance of member education but also finding a way to not give certain products to certain people. Things like trade-ins have certainly been done, optional items, extras for sale, opt out of say rhubarb for certain boxes.
So farm events, and there could be a whole presentation on just successful farm events of course but successful CSAs invite members out to the farm for fun and work days, and do little potlucks. It’s really great for people with kids. It connects people to the farm.
I think one way to make this a little bit easier for you is think of this as part of the value of being in a CSA. There’s a ton of work involved with having people out to the farm. Publicizing and getting ready for the event, getting food for the event, doing the event itself, cleaning up. There’s so much work that’s involved. Make sure that you factor this into the value of being a CSA member and make sure people know that you consider this as part of the value of being a member and that might get people out to the farm more to take advantage of it was well.
Another thing you can do is sign members up early. So at the end of the summer season it’s great to start your sign up while people still have the taste of the past season still in their mouths. So even if it’s just taking a deposit on next season, get people to put something down on next season and that will keep them in rather than waiting four or five months and sort of forgetting about why the CSA’s so great.
Another thing you can do that I think is important in my conversation with CSA members is being really upfront about the box value and how you determine what’s going to be in the box. CSA members want to know they're getting a fair value for their money. There are certainly the CSA members that are creating a Spreadsheet of everything they get in each box, how much they think it’s worth and then they maybe take a running total of the CSA throughout the season. You know there are people in your CSA that are doing that. Everyone’s sort of thinking about it to some extent.
So you can prevent any misunderstanding by telling your members how you calculate what’s in each box. Maybe send them a review at the end of the year of what they got in their box and sort of what that value was throughout the year so they know they're getting a great value in your CSA. That’s something I've definitely seen fester over a season and then end up in the member not rejoining a CSA.
Gratitude is free. Your members are really important to your farm so remind them how much they mean to you. They’ve invested in your farm every spring. How can you do this beyond just saying “thank you” whenever you can of course? In newsletters feature a long time member. Say how thankful you are for them to be a member for a long time. A thank you card at Christmas or at the end of the seasons just telling them thank you. Also being available at pickups is something that all of our retention farmers said. Be available in person. Know peoples’ names. Say hi. These are the easy things, the free things you can do to increase member retention.
Also controlling quality. Too much product in a box is just as bad as too little product. This is something that Art said, from Harvest Valley Farm. We never want people to throw away so you never want to overload people, even during the abundance times. Find ways to get produce to members who will use it. We never want to overload that core box.
So you really want to learn more about your members, survey your customers each year. It’s really easy to do on SurveyMonkey.com and send your members out a survey, even if you think you know all you need to know about your members. Just keep learning about them. I just guarantee you’ll learn something every year.
One thing I saw a farm locally here do is after the survey they sent it back to their members with results. I love this idea because it gives people sort of social proof that makes people feel like, “Oh, other people are enjoying the CSA so I should be enjoying the CSA too.” I love that idea of getting that information back to members.
More interesting is learn about your non-returning members, people who didn’t join again. Why didn’t they join? This is something maybe don’t do every year but take some time and talk to people who didn’t rejoin. Why didn’t they rejoin? Learn about that. That’s definitely going to tell you something.
There’s been some scholarly work done on retention. This is a 2013 study in cooperation between LocalHarvest and the University of Maryland. You can click on the link to get more information about it. I talked to the people doing the study and things didn’t seem to be as clear. They're still doing some further research into the questions asked there. There will be much more information gleaned from 700 farms and he’s also doing a survey of CSA members in the 2013 winter season. Check back on his work. I think there’s going to be some interesting things there around how technology affects retention and things like that.
The key takeaways for retention – measure and investigate your retention. Know what your rate is. Know why people cancel. Keep CSA members first. Have high ethical standards. Have really high quality standards, post-harvest handling. Make sure those products are really great. If the quality’s not there then all the other things you do on top of the CSA like farm events and knowing your members and all of that, that’s not going to matter if the quality’s not really there. Always keep learning about your members. You can learn something every year. Learn what to grow and you’ll keep doing better every year.
Member Assembler, this is our CSA member management software and the tools start at $30 a month. We have retention tools, signup tools, box building tools, everything in between that’s needed to manage your CSA. So we’d love to talk to you about that. There’s more information at MemberAssembler.com, where we do a demonstration service that you can sign up for on our website.
If you have any questions about CSA member retention please don’t hesitate to email me. My name again is Simon Huntley from Small Farm Central and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We can talk more.
Thanks for joining me on my webinar on CSA retention strategy. Employ some of these in your CSA and I hope we’ll talk soon.
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