John Deere courts readers without pitching products

John Deere’s magazines cover stories as disparate as refugee agriculture in Rwanda and the birth of country music in Virginia. What you won’t find are stories about its products.

Pick up a magazine published by a heavy equipment manufacturer, and you’d probably expect to find coverage of combines and backhoes.

What might surprise you is an article about a corner of Virginia where country music was born, or a story on “homesteading the ultimate waterfront property“—a lighthouse.

The Illinois company John Deere, known for its farm and construction equipment, produces two publications that delve into topics that its readers care about—rather than pushing products or highlighting customers.

As organizations edge into brand journalism or non-promotional content marketing, they’re finding themselves on rich soil that long ago was pioneered by John Deere’s The Furrow magazine and its younger sibling Homestead.

“Part of what has made both magazines so successful is that we do not write stories about ourselves,” says David G. Jones, editor of The Furrow and Homestead.

Multiple generations of content

Started in 1895, The Furrow is the granddaddy of corporate publications. It is written for farmers involved full time in production agriculture. The journal is delivered eight times a year on paper (seven in Canada) and has an online presence as well.

Homestead, by contrast, primarily targets suburban and rural property owners and “rural lifestyle enthusiasts.” Founded in 2000, the five-issues-a-year publication is a newbie compared with its older sibling.

Several publications have credited John Deere with prefiguring current content trends. Forbes saluted The Furrow as “content marketing before content marketing,” and Marketing Land headlined a story, ” Is John Deere The Original Content Marketer?

“In marketing circles, The Furrow is a legendary entity, the Adam of brand publishing,” The Content Strategist stated, adding that its online version is “a gorgeous site with lots of white space and surprisingly few pictures of tractors.”

John Deere started The Furrow to provide reliable information that many farmers couldn’t get elsewhere. That has made it a trusted voice with a global audience, Jones says.

The Furrow’s circulation is greater than that of any other ag publication in the world, Jones says, though he won’t disclose the number. Because the average U.S. farmer’s age is about 58, The Furrow’s readers tend to prefer having a print edition to thumb through.

A conversation with your uncle

“There are a lot of farm magazines out there,” Jones says. “They’ll all tell you what you’re doing wrong. We just don’t go that route. We don’t take that tone. Our editorial tone has been described as ‘a conversation with your favorite uncle,’ and that’s just how we try to run our show.”

John Deere was plowing the ground of thought leadership long before the executive scramble to write op-eds for Forbes or book a speaking gig at TED. For example, The Furrow led the way in covering soil health and played a significant role in the attention that issue is getting nowadays, Jones says.

“It’s going back to the dirt,” Jones says.

The company itself has a long history. Founded in 1837, John Deere manufactures agricultural, construction and forestry machinery, along with diesel engines and lawn care equipment. It reported an annual revenue of $27 billion in 2016.

Jones says company leaders embrace the editorial policy, and he has never been seriously challenged regarding the approach. Only occasionally does someone buttonhole an editorial staffer to say, “Hey, there’s a great customer outside Sheboygan, Wisconsin, that runs a fleet of John Deere equipment, and boy, we should write a story about him.”

Farmer freelancers

Jones and two other full-time employees produce the magazines in conjunction with seven contract freelancers who supply the stories. Three of those writers are full-time farmers, and the rest have been around agricultural journalism for decades, Jones says.

Jones does not give them assignments. He considers his writers the experts, and he rarely rejects their ideas.

“These folks are acknowledged experts in the field of production ag,” Jones says. “We lean on them. They tell us what to put us in the magazine. We do not tell them.”

Refugee agriculture

Another story looks at agriculture in a refugee camp in Rwanda, where migrants from Burundi scratch out a living. The article is reported by an African agricultural journalist living in exile.

“One of the things we continually find is the similarity in the challenges farmers face around the world,” an editor’s note at the top of the story reads.

It’s easy to see farm applications in a story about field efficiency and the debate between a wider planter or faster planting speeds. If you’re wondering whether to let the kids toss firecrackers into the dry field behind your farmhouse, an article on the advantages of burning native northern prairies might be worth factoring in.

Even seemingly off-topic stories, however, have thematic relevance. Take the story on the lighthouses, which ran in Homestead. Turns out people who live in old farmhouses feel an affinity for those who occupy old lighthouses. For one thing, both groups tend to know how to rip out a room and restore it.

They also share “a strong connection to place,” Jones says. “It involves a lot of hard work—work by hand. We just feel these are themes that resonate with an agricultural audience. As you might imagine, these are rather do-it-yourself folks.”

As for return on investment, the only justification the editorial staff has ever had to provide is that readers trust the magazine (surveys prove this) and are John Deere customers.

“Our subscriber base,” Jones says, “is responsible for a significant percentage of ag and turf equipment sales.”

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