Ep. 35: Market Research in Agriculture with Colson Steber
Have you ever wondered what goes into bringing a product to market? In Episode 35 of Precision Points, Colson Steber pulls back the curtain on what research goes into this process. co-CEO of Ag Access, Colson has spent a decade zeroing in on market research in agriculture to help companies gain the insights they need to bring valuable products to growers across the country.
Why Do Market Research?
There are three main reasons why companies complete market research before launching a product or service. The first is context, understanding that everyone operates from their own base of experiences and point of view. This means a product manager of a company is going to have a different bias going into a launch than a farmer would. Bringing growers into the discussion to give real feedback allows for a more customer-centric decision.
Next is perspective. This involves understanding the end user’s perspective and interaction with the product or service, including the little details. Ag Access works to bring together those who are trying to make the solution work and those who will actually be using it to bridge that gap.
Third is confidence. Ultimately, the products, services and feedback given can be very complex. Bringing all of the data together and analyzing it can help determine the confidence you can have in the product and its viability and value in the ag market place.
“Business analysts take our custom primary research survey data, and then match it up to all of their point-of-sale data and try to write an algorithm to understand whether these correlate, and how can we make a decision accordingly for the company,” said Colson on the process they use to understand confidence in a product.
How to Get an Accurate Representation for Market Research
Ag Access recruits farmers and those in agriculture to serve as a sounding board for market research. Working with most large agricultural companies, it's important that Ag Access is supplying valuable information as it influences many ideas that growers across the country later have access to.
When it comes to recruiting growers, Colson shares that farmers are, in a way, like typical consumers used for market research.
“You just see [farmers] being that rare type of business that approaches every single interaction in terms of it being some form of long-lasting, long-term relationship. They're embedded in their community. They know the other farmers around them, and they know anyone that is going to sell them a piece of equipment or a product or service,” he shared.
Because of this, Ag Access has a process that helps them understand in-depth information of farms, including their acreage, rotation, fleet brands and more to ensure they are only sending relevant surveys their way.
“We take a very stakeholder-focused approach to trying to be the people worth working with by both being a good representative to the people who are our life blood, that are actually completing research with us, and representing them back to our customer, which is really what our customer wants,” said Colson.
Do you think that you would be a good fit for market research on up-and-coming ag products and services? Check out Ag Access to apply to be a member and tune into the full episode here to learn more about the process and how you can get paid for your opinion.
Mentions from the podcast:
Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio before studying agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent 10 years working with ag retail – specifically in ag tech – prior to hosting the Precision Points Podcast. She lives and farms in western Ohio with her husband Ben and their four children. Morgan has her own blog, Heart and Soil, where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Guest: Colson Steber, co-CEO, Ag Access
Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) Tampa Bay Board of Directors
Immediate Past President, Insights Association Great Lakes Chapter
Colson is a ridiculously self-reflective executive in hot pursuit of meaningful action and constant improvement. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Finance and Economics and MBA from Mizzou. He joined Communications for Research, Inc. (CFR) at the start of 2012, bought the company in 2016, and is the visionary and finance leader of the organization today. Colson led the launch of Ag Access in 2020 to leverage the deep expertise of the research logistics firm in working within the agriculture and animal health supply chains.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guests: Colson Steber
Welcome to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast where we plant seeds of innovation to inspire and inform decisions about precision technology and its impact for growers like you. We explore precision ag tools and technology, from the soil to the sky with your host, Morgan Seger.
Morgan Seger (00:22):
Welcome back to Precision Points, an ag tech podcast from PrecisionAgReviews.com. I'm your host, Morgan Seger, and in each episode we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas. Today on the show, I'm joined by Colson Steber, the co-CEO of Ag Access. This conversation is a little bit different than some of those we've had in the past. I know, on this podcast, we spend a lot of time talking about research and data-driven results. What Colson does and the team at Ag Access tries to do is complete market research so, that way, companies know what products and services are going to best fit the needs of growers like you.
Morgan Seger (01:01):
So it's an interesting conversation to take a different angle at the research and better understand how and why products and services are brought to customers. So I hope you enjoy this conversation with Colson. Welcome back to Precision Points today. I'm joined by Colson Steber, the co-CEO of Ag Access. Colson, welcome to the show.
Colson Steber (01:23):
Thanks for having me Morgan.
Morgan Seger (01:25):
So, on the podcast, we've talked a lot about research and data and how data drives decisions for growers. And today I'm excited to pull back the curtain on some of this research information. Before we dive into your work at Ag Access, could you share your story with our audience?
Colson Steber (01:42):
Absolutely. I'm Colson Steber. I started a decade ago in market research, after finishing my finance degree and MBA at Mizzou and I had an entrepreneurial dream that I saw the quickest way to make it come true was to go to work for my father that owned a small market research business and through the accelerated life graph of then having a kid, getting married, buying a house and having another kid, and then buying the business. In four years, I became the co-CEO of the business that is now Ag Access – in 2016 at the ripe old age of 28 – and have worked to learn on the job, how to become a better leader.
Colson Steber (02:41):
And we've roughly doubled the size of the company over the first five years of operation, and much of that growth right now where we're growing about 30% year-over-year is in specifically taking our expertise in agriculture/supply chain market research and hyper-focusing on it by launching Ag Access.
Morgan Seger (03:09):
Got you. So is there anything that is drawing you to ag versus just general market research?
Colson Steber (03:16):
Most of it is experience. That, in over the last 20 years, our company has done at least 300 custom research projects annually within the ag or animal health supply chains. The second being that it's interesting that you find that it's a huge industry that does not get a lot of... It feels like an ultra-niche to be in a research, analytics, data analytics role in this space. And it's something that suddenly you realize, because of that experience, that you know an incredible amount more than other people about how to do it. And there is a whole lot of interest in having the skill set we have that is what's helping us to become who we are now.
Morgan Seger (04:17):
Yeah. And I think ag is fun too, because you get to start fresh every single year. If it's dish soap or whatever (I'm looking at my counter here), once you have that established, you have it established, but every single year with ag, you get to start fresh. It seems like there's a lot of stuff that we would want to be looking at. So can you start us from the very basics? What is Ag Access and maybe even describe what, in general terms, market research and the type of work that you guys do there.
Colson Steber (04:47):
Right. We are a research logistics business that does custom market research. And so for someone who has no idea what that name means, it means that we're the ones that ask you to participate in surveys. And I ask people to do in-depth interviews or focus groups within the ag industry, in terms of specific services. What makes us unique is that we do understand all of the different roles and technical specifics of the decision-making responsibilities and how the supply chain works in order, and we have worked to build relationships with tens of thousands of people across those different roles to actually participate in research directly with us.
Colson Steber (05:49):
And then we have our own research logistics proven process that is about bringing a real rigor of market research structure to collecting data and performing research. Because anybody with that can sign online and create a Google form or SurveyMonkey survey, can send out a survey. But that does not mean that they're necessarily going to learn something worthwhile for making an impact on decisions within their business.
Morgan Seger (06:28):
Yeah. I could see trying to figure out what questions are the best questions to ask could be really, really hard.
Colson Steber (06:35):
Right. And so most of our customers are actually professional analysts, intelligence professionals, product management people, researchers themselves, that are needing the context of understanding of the market. And we provide all of the managing of the tedious details to do that really, really well.
Morgan Seger (07:04):
Got you. So why should organizations consider doing market research before they launch a product or service?
Colson Steber (07:11):
I think of the value in terms of three pieces: context, perspective and confidence. The reason to do market research is to impact the key decisions that are being made for the company. So, on that context piece, as a leader you have to realize that we don't know what we don't know. And what we know is typically based off of that point of view of talking to our team, seeing our business metrics, talking to our customers. And yet we could be talking about making capital investment into manufacturing a new seed product that is going to cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. And we have no idea, and there's a multitude of decisions that need to be made that research can provide a lot of context for, because you can bring the customer into the room and truly make a customer-centric decision.
Colson Steber (08:20):
If you can directly ask the target audience and, in particular far and above maybe your follow-up survey from having bought an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen, in ag that can be done by an independent research company, talking to farmers and having them complete different exercises that multivariate analysis can be done to actually determine potential market share, and pricing considerations, and how... Trying to put the farmer in the context of making the decision based upon what they'll actually experience when they're deciding what seed to purchase, right. In terms of perspective, smaller scale decisions all the time. An example that just happened a few weeks ago is the software product team came to us in a unrelated industry where they're providing health services scheduling, and their clients are in love with them and think that everything that they're going to set up is going to solve everything.
Colson Steber (09:32):
But yet the patients aren't engaging and then you set up some in-depth interviews with the direct product people and realize that their actual audience of the 70 plus year old man, that needs to set up his appointment, can't read the button to select what he needs to select because the user experience just doesn't exist. Because of the just insane push of, technology can only be adopted if you have the perspective of the person that is going to have to use it as a tool. And that coordinating the conversations between the person who is trying to make the solution work and the farmer who is going to actually have to do something with it is where we come in to help the two sides come together.
Colson Steber (10:27):
Now, if you go out and you get all that context, you've learned the perspective of your direct target audience, right? Now, all of a sudden you can have some validation and some confidence that you're making decisions that are actually predictive. Is it a hundred percent? Absolutely not. Do we apply statistical models to work, to make it as reliable as possible? Yes, but in the real world, everything is extremely complex. That's why it often is a matter of then business analysts taking our custom primary research survey data, and then matching it up to all of their point-of-sale data and trying to write an algorithm to understand whether these correlate and how can we make a decision accordingly for the company?
Morgan Seger (11:21):
Got you. So a follow up question to that: you talked about bringing growers or consumers in to give you this type of information. How do you vet out who's going to properly represent and be able to answer the questions that the company's trying to solve?
Colson Steber (11:38):
So customer recruiting is the business that we've come from and have always done. And so, with Ag Access, because we do understand who the right person is, when the brand manager for a seed product calls, they can say, "I need to talk to the right person." And we know how to determine who they believe the right person is to be. And we've already invested in understanding the entire population. So between USDA data, UCC1 filing data and industry periodical data, all these sources essentially are aggregated together to say, this is the size of the universe. Now how much of that universe of farmers can we have represented well, in terms of being willing to talk with us.
Colson Steber (12:44):
And we actually have an Ag Access community that is dedicated to those people that we know who they are so that we can bring them only the relevant research for them to participate in.
Morgan Seger (12:59):
Okay. And do you have companies that come to you with a list already, or if they ever want to use a customer list or do you recommend that they go with your database of members?
Colson Steber (13:09):
Companies definitely used their own lists; usually databases are not as strong as they think. And, in reality, a big reason why you go to an outside research company is for making sure that you're getting representation of the market, right. And so you don't only want your customers. So yes, we do a ton of customer survey work, do a ton of what is satisfaction or loyalty or customer experience work among either someone who's already buying a product or using a certain software. It's just not the only thing by any means.
Morgan Seger (13:54):
Okay. And do you see a difference with the ag segment versus just general market research? What are some of those differences when you're trying to find that audience?
Colson Steber (14:03):
Yeah. I mean about half of our business overall is within the ag supply chain. Outside of that, we do other B2B audiences and consumer audiences. And my feeling is that that typical farmer sees the world slightly differently than the stereotypical consumer, and that we may consider to be available for a survey. Their work is demanding; they're decision-makers that have physical work to get done. And clicking through your little survey on their phone or tablet to get a free ice cream cone on their next visit is typically not within something they would ever spend their mental energy on doing. And so I am a live with purpose, take intentional action person.
Colson Steber (15:00):
And I feel like that is so in line with... Farmers take extreme ownership and are not victims in our society. And they take a lot of personal responsibility, which means they do not welcome distractions into their lives. So a lot of times that could look like how people would think of what doing B2B research audiences are, where you're talking to a purchase decision maker of any type within a company. But yet a farmer is not exactly like them either because they're not that profit maximizing manager looking to drive efficiency and optimizing the bottom line that they always look at themselves as their lives are their work and that their business is a reflection of who they are and is in line with who they are, right.
Colson Steber (16:06):
So you just see them being that rare type of business that approaches every single interaction in terms of it being some form of long-lasting, long-term relationship; they're embedded in their community. They know the other farmers around them and they know anyone that is going to sell them a piece of equipment or a product or service. That is not how... Most business decision makers stay in a job two to five years; farmers are farmers for life, but you know that.
Morgan Seger (16:46):
Yeah. Yeah. Well, I was just thinking, coming from ag retail, a lot of what you're saying just sounds really familiar. So how does that shape your approach to them? So that way you can get the information that you and the companies that you're representing are hoping to get.
Colson Steber (17:04):
My emphasis in terms of, because we do need them to engage, is to always be able to meet them where they are. So we want to learn the high-level specs of the size of their farm, and the crop rotations they do, what brands they have in their fleet? And then we are working to send them only what's relevant to them, either by email or calling them and directly reaching out to them. But there's a couple of thousand farmers that, between about five people in my organization at any given time, will just get texted by somebody on my team and they'll immediately know who it is and that it's not going to be just another survey, right. It's going to be something that they're going to... It can be interesting to the farmer, to then know... It's like reverse competitive intelligence back on who it is that's trying to sell them things.
Colson Steber (18:19):
And then at the same time, that information is valuable. And so we end up paying farmers a lot of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. That can immediately turn back into, either another round on Friday night or a nice dinner out or something that's just fun money for every time that they participate in some research.
Morgan Seger (18:47):
Yeah. Well, and I think it comes down to like you were saying, the information is going to help the people who are trying to work with them, that have the relationship on the farm. The seed companies, the equipment companies – it's hopefully going to give them better information to bring out better products that are going to serve the growers at the end too. So I like that a lot. So talking about compensation, you might have some people who are listening, who want to figure out how they can share their opinions. If someone's interested in joining the community, where do you recommend they go?
Colson Steber (19:18):
On our website, Ag-Access.com, there is a members page. If you just submit the little form that is on there, I believe it's Trista on my team who is going to reach out to you directly and ask you to fill out a survey to tell us who you are. And that'll take about 10 minutes. Before we would actually enroll you in research, generally, someone's going to call you to verify. And then because we're that independent research company that is doing work for every single seed and equipment company and ag tech company, you do end up having to ask a lot of repeat questions to start every study so that everybody understands that you are the right person.
Morgan Seger (20:18):
I used to work with an ag tech company... We talked about this a little bit before we got started. And working across the country with a wide team, we always had a lot of ideas on what would best serve our customers. But that was usually for a very small region of growers that were doing things a specific way. So I think that what you're doing is really beneficial. Do you have any favorite use cases or stories that you guys have been able to work through that maybe changed something a company would have done?
Colson Steber (20:48):
We've worked so often on research and development of precision ag equipment for the engineers to understand what actually matters to the farmer and how to translate engineer speak into something that can be talked about between a retailer and an actual farmer. The companies in ag tech that are getting adoption have realized that a software developer in San Francisco, rightfully, does not know what they need to know about what it actually means to use a software for scouting and getting weather information, and doing prescriptions, and coming up with prescriptions for how you're going to apply fertilizers or spraying something and have... They're stepping up and doing interviews on every piece of every iteration of the... In that development process, a lot of times those interviews are set up between us and whoever that product team is.
Morgan Seger (22:19):
Well, I can see, I know working in ag tech, we often said that, "We just make up our own language." So what you were saying, just being able to help bridge those gaps between developers and engineers and the people who are using the product could make a big difference.
Colson Steber (22:32):
Slowly. I do think it's interesting research to participate in for a farmer when we're necessarily doing an ad or message test or trying to do pricing research, as if they're trustworthy and really informing, and really filling it out. It is enormously helpful back to them for the product to reflect what they actually expect. I guess ultimately the hundred thousand dollars of research affects how hundreds of millions of dollars of prices get set.
Morgan Seger (23:14):
Well, is there anything else that you think our listeners would like to know about Ag Access?
Colson Steber (23:20):
So Ag Access's purpose is to develop leaders that find the why. And we look at, we take a very stakeholder approach to trying to be the people worth working with by both being a good representative to the people who are our life blood, that are actually completing research with us and representing them back to our customer, which is really what our customer wants. It just doesn't necessarily look like that when there's 15 different people involved, because there's the key internal person that has budget, the product manager, the brand manager, or the analytics group, and there's... By the time something has ever made it to a farmer there's about 20 different people that have worked on it from some corporate office.
Colson Steber (24:25):
And then there's us sitting there going, "But this is what will make sense when we ask this question to the farmer, guys." So it's a challenge to be the middleman. And yet it's obviously something we've worked to build a process out of to make it work better for everyone, right?
Morgan Seger (24:47):
Yeah. Yeah. For sure. So one question we like to ask our guests as they're on the show is if there's one technology that you're most excited about? And it can be in or outside of ag, no limits. Any one technology you're most excited about.
Colson Steber (25:02):
I'm going to go with, I recently got asked what my favorite tech was in our new remote work world environment. And I'm going to go with stable internet and having the ability to meet over video with absolutely anyone. Which is what offered me the freedom to be 100% remote to my own company and move to Florida a couple months ago.
Morgan Seger (25:31):
Yeah. I'm totally there with you. So where we lived, we couldn't get internet; we just recently moved in March and so we've had internet for a couple of months now, and I'm like, I can't believe how much it's impacted our lives. And it's kind of table stakes for most people, but it is a big deal. And it's also allowed us the opportunity to chat today.
Colson Steber (25:52):
Yeah. And people who don't realize that much of rural America is still very much in the level of comfort that you and I can have sitting here on stable wifi to talk on a camera.
Morgan Seger (26:08):
Yep. Yep. For sure. Well, I do feel like there's a lot of teams working on that to help improve that, and that's good work.
Colson Steber (26:17):
In terms of on the sexier side of things, of cool tech, I am a big fan of autonomous machinery and just where things are headed for understanding what's happening in a field and literally that land getting worked by the machine. I don't think it will replace the farmer or change anything of today. It'll only evolve us into something that we just don't understand quite yet. I'm reading a really cool book with my seven year old right now about a future where there's autonomous vehicles doing all the farming work.
Morgan Seger (27:09):
Oh, yeah. What's the book?
Colson Steber (27:11):
Morgan Seger (27:13):
I'll link out to it in our show notes, because I think we have some other listeners that might want to... I know I'm thinking I should read that to my kids.
Colson Steber (27:25):
The Wild Robot Escapes, and it's by Peter Brown.
Morgan Seger (27:26):
That's cool. Yeah. I don't think that we do know, like you were saying, what this is all going to look like. But I know just like on our farm, we always have things that we want to try, but we are limited by time, right? So time spent in the tractor, in the field right now means we don't get to try as many things as we want. Or we don't always have things exactly how we want them. So I definitely can see in the short term and upswing of just being able to execute the way we want to by having basically help. So I think it'll be a big deal.
Colson Steber (27:56):
I think there's going to be actual jobs getting done by machines, which we've only proven over the course of history that, that only means that we will come up with new higher-level jobs to be done.
Morgan Seger (28:11):
Yep. Yep. For sure. Well, Colson, I'm so grateful that you took the time to be with us today on the podcast. I'll link out to Ag-Access.com. Anywhere else you want people to go to follow along? are you on social media or anything like that?
Colson Steber (28:24):
I'm very active on LinkedIn. So in terms of how to connect with me, I would suggest providing LinkedIn.
Morgan Seger (28:32):
Sounds good. Well, thank you so much. I hope you have a great day.
Colson Steber (28:35):
Yeah. Thank you.
Morgan Seger (29:00):
Thank you so much for tuning into another episode of Precision Points. As always we'll have show notes for you at PrecisionAgReviews.com, where we'll link out to his contact information, the book he recommends, and the other information about our podcast today. At the end of the day, we're all working to bring better products that help us achieve higher yields out to the farm. So I love that this was kind of a different way of thinking about things, the way that they find and source the growers and other consumers to provide feedback. To help companies know which products, messaging and things like that are going to be most effective for growers.
Morgan Seger (29:36):
If you're interested in applying to join their community, you can go to Ag-Access.com and submit the form and see if you would qualify to get paid to share your opinions with companies that are looking for market research and feedback. Until next time, this has been the Precision Points podcast. Let's grow together.
Thanks for tuning into today's episode. To hear more podcasts like this, please rate, review and subscribe to Precision Points. Visit PrecisionAgReviews.com for show notes from this episode, and read expert advice on the blog. Share your experience with the precision ag products you use, and check out our network of farmer reviews. Let's grow together.