Packard Motor Car Co.’s sales slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” has long been considered one of the smartest and most memorable advertising lines ever written. With it, the car manufacturer didn’t brag, but suggested enough confidence in its products that current owners of its cars were, naturally, its best salesmen.

First published in 1901, before radio advertising was common (and used for decades), this “word-of-mouth” method of marketing is today’s “viral advertising.” It has taken on a new life thanks to the Internet, with social media giving consumers an opportunity to share their opinions to thousands of potential buyers, for better or for worse.

Paulsen Marketing of Sioux Falls, S.D., a full-service marketing firm catering to rural lifestyle and agricultural businesses, recently completed a three-month study that investigated the different methods rural lifestyle consumers use when researching and buying products, and what impact social media has on forming their opinions.

Paulsen conducts two major research projects a year and compiles them into reports it calls “Agri-Thoughts.” It’s a way for the company to better serve its clients with a greater understanding of the rural consumer and production ag markets they operate in.

Results of the study, which were reported on in the white paper, “Rural Lifestylers are Changing the Way They Research and Buy Products,” reveal that rural consumers are not much different from the average consumer. But while they may not live within walking distance of a big electronics store chain, they are technologically savvy nevertheless.

They’re using the Internet, even smart phones. Rural consumers will likely check out various websites to glean product information from what Paulsen terms micro (often a current customer they don’t know) or macro influencers (a trusted thought leader, such as a dealer) to arrive at a purchase decision.

Customer Becomes an Expert

Paulsen Marketing’s definition of a rural lifestyle consumer is “someone who is living the country life but who is not necessarily making a living at it,” says account supervisor Alicia DeGeest, who along with Sara Steever co-wrote the research-based paper. “This definition doesn’t put rural consumers in a box, but instead distinguishes them from a farmer who is truly making a living from the land. Rural lifestylers are general consumers, but have specific needs because of where they live. They are defined by geography, not necessarily purchasing behavior. Because of the acreage they maintain, they may need a tractor or a tiller. Those aren’t purchases a general consumer who only has urban property would make.”

The study serves as a reminder about how blogs, social media, forums and online product reviews have changed the buying experience — both for the dealer and the consumer. For one, the purchase experience does not end with the sale. Consumers don’t have to wait for a neighbor to drop by and ask about that new zero-turn mower they just bought. Many general consumers, including rural lifestylers, will log onto the Internet and become micro influencers by posting their opinions, thereby staying engaged with a machinery brand or a dealership long after the sale, further influencing — or deterring — future sales. As DeGeest and Steever write, “The sales process has been altered to reflect a continuous feedback loop between current customers and prospective customers.”

Since consumers are going to do it anyway, DeGeest suggests that dealerships embrace the micro influencer and work the online reviewing process to their advantage. “Dealers should encourage their customers to give them reviews or ratings after the sale, and after every service experience. Great service differentiates dealers, and the consumers we interviewed said they will travel farther to a dealer who can provide exceptional service.”

By encouraging reviews on the dealer’s site, Facebook page or other web site, the dealer sends a message that the customer’s opinion matters, and that the dealer is interested in providing the best service possible. It also reflects confidence on the part of the dealer — that all a prospective customer has to do is talk to a current customer to know the quality of equipment and service the dealership provides.

Today’s rural lifestyle consumers generally do a lot of research before even stepping foot in the dealership. In the report, the authors write, “Rural lifestylers turn to others with whom they have varying degrees of trust. They are more likely to seize control of the process and actively pull information helpful to them,” says DeGeest. “Consumer-driven marketing activities, such as Internet reviews and word-of-mouth, in-store interactions and recollections of past experiences, make up two-thirds of the touch-points during the purchasing process. Those resources will be tapped to help provide focus to any number of brands during the steps leading up to a purchase. The impact of these interactions is so great that rural lifestylers may confirm or destroy their purchase decision.”

Knowing that most of this research is happening online, and may not even be on a manufacturer’s web site, dealers can get involved by providing relevant and searchable product information on their own web sites. If that does doesn’t happen, the business may not be looked at as a resource. Also, by including lots of information and encouraging reviews, the web site will rise to the forefront of search engine rankings [called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO].

Dealers can also be active in social media spaces and forums. They can offer advice and comment when asked, ensuring that they play a role in the research process. “Dealers could even offer specific hours of active time on these social media sites for Q&A about their products, services and other things,” says DeGeest. “Many customers will welcome that defined time of an expert’s availability, rather than having to wait to hear back on a post.”

Using Quick Response Codes

During the interviews with rural lifestylers, Paulsen Marketing also asked for feedback on Quick Response (QR) codes. QR codes are based on a freely licensed standard that was first used for tracking parts in warehousing and manufacturing. By downloading a scanner application such as ScanBuy’s ScanLife, and then capturing the unique code with a smart phone, consumers can quickly and easily be directed to a web site for more information about a particular product.

General consumers are adopting them, rural lifestylers included. ScanBuy recently published a report that found traffic on its system had increased 800% in the past year. As more companies incorporate them into everything from nutrition information at fast food restaurants to advertisements in travel guides, more will understand what the small gray box is, and how they use it.

“We see the adoption rate for QR codes rising amongst rural lifestylers,” says DeGeest. “To make it most effective, dealers could offer rewards through scanning QR codes that are valuable and relevant. At the very least, scanning a QR code should deliver something that is not available elsewhere.”

Placing a QR code on a price tag or window display can show comparisons, videos, product reviews, even give that customer an invitation to a ride and drive event the dealership is hosting.

“We see QR codes playing an increasing roll at dealerships,” says DeGeest, “especially as an opportunity to provide more information at the point of purchase. They can be used on equipment signage to provide more information during after-business hours. QR codes and readers can be great tools for salesmen to have while they’re out on the lot, too.”

Paulsen’s research has shown that while rural consumers do research before arriving at a dealership, the game is not lost. “They may be going to a certain place with a decision in mind, but we’ve found that 40% change their mind based on something they learn at the dealership. Those point-of-purchase interactions through mobile devices are becoming a more powerful touch point.”

As Paulsen works with its clients, it’s seeing more interest in adopting QR codes into marketing campaigns. “This is new technology for the consumer, and it is being adopted more,” says DeGeest. “As QR codes become more visible in any sort of buying experience, people will become accustomed using them.”