Agri-what? The Route to Your Roots 

Tourism is growing at an exponential rate in Wild & Wonderful West Virginia – from cave and river adventures, to resorts and spas, there is something for everyone to try and love. But what about the opportunities to connect with local communities and learn about the heritage of Appalachia? Businesses like farm-to-table restaurants, farm stays, u-pick farms and distilleries offer family-friendly adventures and hands-on experiences that are uniquely Appalachian. 

The challenge, however, is that people are largely unaware of the more than 200 agritourism and farm based experiences found only in the Mountain State. To overcome this, MHA and WVU Extension partnered to craft a campaign that takes visitors and residents alike on a route to the roots of Appalachia.

What we learned

To determine the best path, the account team looked to other states to learn how they were promoting the industry and conducted interviews with tourism authorities, agritourism business owners and experts. Recognizing we needed to pilot the ideas we generated, the group identified three main regions that were positioned for growth: the Eastern Panhandle, Potomac Highlands, and New River Valley/Greenbrier regions. 

We also learned a lot about what the businesses felt were the best first steps to achieve the campaign goals, as well as who would be most likely to enjoy the deeply rooted traditions of the Appalachian experience. To be successful, we also needed to recognize a few key insights: 

Who we connected with

While we knew that farm-based fun wasn’t the experience for everyone, we learned that there were some audience segments that were craving a unique experience and new family tradition. 

The first audience segment was the sustainably conscious young mom. The primary goal for this audience segment was to bring awareness to the many family-friendly agritourism experiences that the eastern part of the state has to offer. 

The second audience segment identified was the adventurous, retired couple. The primary goal of targeting this segment was to show those who have the time to travel and are seeking memorable experiences that there are many relaxing and novel agritourism opportunities throughout the eastern part of West Virginia. 

The last audience segment that the group identified were busy, enthusiastic business owners in eastern West Virginia. The main goal of pursuing this audience segment was to show that agritourism businesses in eastern WV cultivate environments to pursue passions. 

What we created

Based on our research, we knew the first step was to cultivate relationships with a variety of businesses ranging from lodging to farms and restaurants to breweries. For these businesses we wanted to provide them a way to connect with one another, while also elevating visibility of their own business.  To accomplish this we created a variety of digital and print assets.  

Meet Me in The Mountain State Guides

Digital and downloadable travel guides were published on the WVU Extension website.  This one stop destination for all things farm-based allows tourists and travelers an easy to find list of businesses in the region.  To drive traffic to the site, window decals including a QR code were provided to all partner businesses. 

To increase awareness of agritourism in general, attractive posters were also created as a fun and artistic way to demonstrate the Appalachian roots of farm-based businesses.   

Brochures were created for distribution at visitor centers throughout the state and through partnered businesses. The brochure included information about agritourism in general and a helpful map highlighting what was in each region. 

Enlisting the Support of Influencers and Travel Writers

To increase our reach and awareness, the team developed a list of micro influencers with a passion for travel and an engaged following.  Targeted influencers ranged from people who loved to share their passion for the Mountain State to those who were known for finding exciting outings in unique places. We also reached out to travel writers and bloggers at respected publications ranging from The Washington Post to WV Tourism and WV Living to Virginia Travel tips. These experts offered another way to connect audiences with the rich stories, deeply rooted traditions and tapestry of farm-based opportunities in the eastern portion of the state. 

Optimizing Businesses Digital Footprints

Our research also indicated that many of the farm-based and agritourism operators didn’t have extensive knowledge of how to promote their businesses online.  As a first step to improve their searchability, the team developed instructional SEO tutorials, keywords lists and optimized content. These resources were provided to businesses so that they can easily implement these strategies and improve their digital footprint.  

What we accomplished

While the work is never done, the team accomplished many things that lay the foundation for ongoing success. A few highlights include:

  • Partnering with nearly a dozen businesses in the Eastern Panhandle New River-Greenbrier Valley regions. 
  • Securing 133 page views on the Eastern Panhandle guide and 104 page views on the New River-Greenbrier Valley guide 
  • Confirming interest from two influencers, four publications and one podcast.
  • Presenting SEO strategies to 21 owners and operators with many committing to implementation 

In West Virginia, pride and heritage are the foundations of the culture. Agritourism offers a unique, uncharted experience for West Virginians in their home state. Yet, most residents are unaware of the presence of more than 220 agritourism businesses operating within the state. Just as concerningly, most are not familiar with the term “agritourism” and what it encompasses.

To combat this unawareness, we partnered with WVU Extension to increase West Virginians’ awareness of the state’s agritourism industry and equip agritourism businesses with resources to promote themselves and agritourism effectively.

Research Insights

In August 2022, we began to conduct primary and secondary research to learn more about the interests of travelers and the needs of agritourism business operators. We studied campaigns that benefited the agritourism industry in other states, and analyzed their approaches. Then, we conducted two focus groups with WVU Extension agents deeply familiar with West Virginia’s agritourism.  Then we analyzed the feedback provided by visitors on popular travel websites and business pages.  Finally, we conducted five-in depth interviews with agritourism business owners and operators.

From this research, we learned:

Notably, most agritourism owners and operators expressed that they strive to create an educational, down-to-earth experience for travelers. Based on that finding, we decided that the campaign should be simultaneously educational and evocative.

Target Audience

From our research, we identified two target audience segments to engage throughout the campaign. The primary audience comprises West Virginia travelers, ages 55 and older, who live in the Potomac Highlands and are unaware of nearby agritourism businesses. The second target audience includes agritourism business owners and operators whose businesses are operating within West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands.

Based on these demographics, we created the following target audience personas to help guide the campaign’s tone and outreach strategies:

For our primary target audience, our goal is to familiarize them with agritourism and connect it with the concept of what it means to be truly local. Most importantly, we want West Virginians to be aware of local agritourism businesses and the special family-oriented experiences they have to offer. 

For our secondary target audience, agritourism business owners and operators, our goal is to help them build connections with one another. Secondly, we wish to provide them with marketing resources to promote agritourism throughout West Virginia.

The Message

The agency developed a governing brand idea, an overarching concept based on research insights, to serve as the foundation of the semester’s campaigns.

“Roots of the Appalachian Experience”

Further, the campaign seeks to answer this seemingly fundamental yet complex question: “What does local mean to you?” To help answer this question, the campaign messaging aims to draw a connection with these adjectives:

  • Unique
  • Educational
  • Traditional
  • Valuable
  • Close-by

“Meet Me in the Mountain State” Agritourism Trail

To ease the planning of weekend getaways and afternoon adventures, the account team designed a portion of the “Meet Me in the Mountain State” agritourism trail, accessible from WVU Extension’s website. The trail provides a list of farm-to-table restaurants, farm markets, u-pick farms, breweries and other agritourism businesses and experiences throughout the state.

The trail includes helpful guides for West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands, Eastern Panhandle and New River-Greenbrier Valley. 

This all-encompassing online trail is promoted with decals featuring QR codes distributed to agritourism businesses throughout the region. The trail enables travelers to search for prospective destinations with ease.

Promote Local WV Communications Toolkit

Supporting the promotional efforts of agritourism owners and operators, the account team created the Promote Local WV Communications Toolkit, which includes social media templates, radio scripts and posters, among other valuable tools.

This user-friendly, free resource will provide a competitive advantage for business owners and operators with limited time, funds and marketing expertise. Furthermore, the toolkit helps the agency and WVU Extension to enable agritourism businesses to promote agritourism and educate West Virginians about opportunities “right down the road.”

An example of a Facebook post template available to agritourism business owners and operators within the Promote Local WV Communications Toolkit.

Home Grown Networking Event

On Thursday, Dec. 1, the account team and WVU Extension hosted a networking event for agritourism business owners and operators at Swilled Dog, a cider distillery in Pendleton County, West Virginia. At the event, the account team presented the Truly Local WV Communications Toolkit to attendees and demonstrated how to use it.

The event also featured catering and beverages from the local market and two giveaways. Additionally, attendees were asked to share what local means to them, giving the account team and WVU Extension further insight into how to continue the campaign.

Paid Advertisements 

As an additional tactic to raise West Virginians’ awareness of agritourism and generate interest, the account team created Facebook advertisements promoted throughout the Potomac Highlands.

To provide a resource for WVU Extension to continue the campaign, the team also developed traditional paid advertisements, including newspaper and radio advertisements with scripts included. 

An example of a potential newspaper advertisement designed by our team

Success and Results

The concepts and strategies piloted in this campaign provide a foundation for future work. For instance, the Home Grown networking event achieved positive results from participants. Seventeen agritourism businesses were connected at the event, and 90% of attendees indicated they would utilize the Promote Local WV Communications Toolkit to support their companies’ promotional efforts. Moreover, 28 Meet Me in the Mountain State decals were distributed.

Additionally, the digital advertisements reached over 30,000 people and received a total of 735 engagements, including nearly 650 link clicks and six shares.

“We are so lucky to have an opportunity to bring students into our communities where they can showcase their skills and provide tangible tools for West Virginians.”

– Tara Curtis, Director of Communications and Marketing at WVU Extension

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