Where do you get information these days…and more to the point, where do you think you’ll get it in the future?
Through the years, growers have acquired some of the knowledge they need to succeed at face-to-face gatherings such as conferences, producer days and farm shows. These have proven to be valuable and successful events, where new ideas, technology and trends are introduced.
Gaps get filled in later, by media such as The Grower, sales reps and more lately – if growers have half-decent access to the Internet, which unfortunately is rare – websites, blogs and other forms of social media.
Lately, the COVID-19 pandemic has sped up a fundamental change in information sharing, in knowledge mobilization and in what was once called extension – that is, extending information from a source to a user.
In May, in a move that was long overdue, Ontario committed to broadly improving rural broadband service in the province. The timing is significant. Growers were already moving towards acquiring more information online, and these improvements should make digital information access easier than ever.
Last month, I had a glimpse of where things are headed when I took part in the 36th annual ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference, this year held online as the ONE Virtual Experience conference.
The speaker line-up for this popular conference, held onsite each year in Lexington, Kentucky, home of the company’s world headquarters was stellar, as usual. In attendance were global thought leaders, motivators, inspirational personalities, and an array of technical experts drawn from the company’s 5,000-plus employees in more than 120 countries.
The ONE conference has repeatedly broken attendance records, last year drawing more than 3,500 participants over three days, from 68 countries. Organizers were ecstatic at those numbers and had every intention of keeping the momentum going this year with an in-person event.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, they either had to throw in the towel, or shift their way of thinking to a virtual platform.
They chose the latter.
“To us, cancelling was never an option,” says company CEO Mark Lyons. “People are hungry for information and we were determined to deliver.”
That hunger ended up being borne out by this year’s attendance figures. With only a couple of months to pivot to an online format, organizers managed to draw a jaw-dropping 23,000 participants from 118 countries.
And almost 600 agricultural journalists and social media influencers from 57 countries participated, nearly five times more than usual.
Lyons says going virtual opened doors. It gave access to people who would otherwise be unable to take part due to the cost of travel, or administrative hassles trying to get into the United States.
To keep up the momentum, Alltech plans to increase its virtual information presence, with monthly knowledge-sharing events that complement the annual ONE conference that will ultimately return to an onsite event.
Lyons predicts the pandemic – along with the various creative ways companies like his are taking to share information -- will result in a hard look at where and how marketing and communications resources are spent.
“It makes me wonder about the future of traditional gatherings, like general trade shows for example,” he says. “There are so many, with a lot of suppliers and companies, but with fewer end users. Will they make a comeback after the pandemic? Will companies be as willing to buy a booth? Will people feel safe going there?”
And in the same vein, will the pandemic further change how and where journalists get information to share with growers? The trade shows, annual meetings and conferences that Lyons speaks of have become a huge source of announcements. They’re vital destinations for journalists seeking news and contacts.
Maybe the future entails a combination of approaches, just more refined. The ONE experience shows that information sources such as Alltech need to find new and better ways to deliver information online. Meanwhile, agricultural journalists need to mine digital content more deeply and actively.
But there’s no question that a change is underway.