Research suggests value of framing social media messages for conservation-related outreach to diverse farm audiences

January 18, 2024

Composite of FB ad graphics promoting cover crops re Business, Hero, Science, Steward message frames
Figure 1. Graphics used for Facebook ad campaigns promoting cover crops using different message frames, in research by Witzling, Shaw, Comito, et al. 

AMES, Iowa– Can Facebook effectively promote conservation messages?

A group of researchers in Iowa and Wisconsin wanted to find out. They conducted an experiment to test the type of messages that appeal to different farmer “identities” among Facebook users.  

“Many groups conducting ag-related outreach and education use social media popular with farm audiences, yet research about farmer outreach has largely focused on print, radio or face-to-face approaches to engagement. We wanted to better understand how agricultural audiences respond to online messages and message framing about conservation practices,” said a lead author of the study, Laura Witzling, a research consultant in Wisconsin, formerly with Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication.

Findings from the project, supported by the Iowa Nutrient Research Center at Iowa State, were reported in the journal Sustainability Science in October.

The researchers focused on four farmer identity frames – based on how farmers identify themselves individually or within their social groups – with three identity frames previously explored in research by Iowa Learning Farms and others: Business, Heroism and Stewardship. The fourth frame was added for messaging around Science.

“How would farmers respond to scientific messaging?” said Jacqueline Comito, director of Iowa Learning Farms at Iowa State and a research team member. “We knew farmers identify as business people, stewards and heroes (i.e., we are feeding the world) but we wanted to know if science-based messaging also appeals to them on social media. And if there were specific groups it appealed to, who found it more compelling?”

To answer their questions, the researchers created Facebook ads promoting real conservation events or resources to adult Facebook users who were identified as having agricultural interests. (Facebook did not provide ad purchasing options that would allow the researchers to further segment the users as farmer or non-farmer). Ads in November and December 2021 and March 2022 promoted an in-person cover crop field day, a virtual cover crop field day, a virtual wetland field day and a report about wetlands.

Each ad campaign ran for eight days and featured four competing ads with messaging targeted toward the four identity frames. Each included an attention-getting graphic with a short message and a call to action to click on a link to either “Learn more” or “Sign up.” The cover crop campaigns were targeted to audiences only in Iowa (Figure 1). The other campaigns also reached users in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota (Figure 2). Facebook estimated that around 2 million people had a chance to view the ads.

The team measured the ads’ effectiveness based on metrics that represented:

  • Reach – how many users saw the ad;
  • Clicks – how many times a user clicked on the link in the ad;
  • Post engagements – how many times the ads resulted in any kind of engagement, including clicks, but also including a like or share.

Ads displaying the Business frame reached the most users and performed most effectively based on cost-per-click. Even so, the Business-framed ad did not gain as much engagement with particular audiences. For example, women engaged more with the Science and Steward ads than those based on Business. When looking at just clicking, however, women clicked on the three frames about equally.

Users 35-54 clicked most often on the Business or Science frames, and users 55 and over were most likely to engage with the Steward and Science frames. Overall, the ads attracted few users in the youngest (18-34) age category.

Composite of FB ad graphics promoting wetland conservation re Business, Hero, Science, Steward message frames
Figure 2. Graphics used for Facebook ad campaigns promoting wetland conservation using different message frames, in research by Witzling, Shaw, Comito, et al.

“Our results suggest that the identity frames presented in the Facebook ads were useful to help reach farmers with conservation-related events and information, but to be most effective at reaching audiences across age and gender, we also suggest tailoring message frames,” Witzling said.

The team calls the research a “quasi-experiment,” as there were many things they could not control when placing Facebook ads, such as algorithms on the platform that are not completely transparent. With this in mind, the researchers urge caution when interpreting the metrics.

“Our findings lead us to conclude that identity frames can be a useful outreach tool, at least in the case of social media where users may be giving relatively casual attention to messages,” Comito said.

“At the Iowa Learning Farms, we have documented how peer-to-peer communication is more impactful for influencing change,” she continued. “We don't necessarily think someone would see a Facebook ad and adopt a new behavior. This research was important because it helped us learn how to use social media more effectively to bring farmers/landowners to events such as field days where they will hear from peers (and scientists) and grow their circle of support, which is a key to adopting a new conservation practice.”

Other members of the research team included:

  • Bret Shaw, professor in Department of Life Sciences Communication and environmental communication specialist for the Division of Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Dara Wald, former faculty at Iowa State in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, now an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications at Texas A&M University
  • Elizabeth Ripley and Nathan Stevenson, outreach specialists with Iowa Learning Farms.
News Type: