Guest Columnist

Digital tools saved our Iowa family farm

Katie Colony front right
Katie Colony front right

Four generations of the Colony family have worked our North Liberty farm. We hung on through some really tough times — the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and seismic shift in the farm economy. Luckily for us, we’ve kept the farm in the family by transforming it into an entertainment destination. Now, we sell experiences and memories along with pumpkins and apple cider, and this transition was possible in large part to the many powerful and affordable digital tools and services available to small businesses.

Our transition from working farm to entertainment farm required many changes. Some are obvious as we now have children harvesting pumpkins, landscapers building a corn maze, and specialized teams creating farm-to-table dining experiences. One change that surprised us was just how important digital technology was to our transition. We are marketing and advertising online, selling tickets, and promoting our events 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

While our digital transition was successful, I am concerned that so many elected officials, like Sen. Chuck Grassley and Attorney General Tom Miller, are threatening to regulate digital technology and the internet, and I am worried that the results will make our business much more difficult due to rising costs and less effective tools and services like digital advertising or online reviews.

Since our shift to entertainment, we do virtually all of our marketing and advertising online. We started with a simple website and then expanded to Facebook, Google My Business, and have a growing Instagram following. We do a lot of advertising with Google Ads, which doesn’t just place our ads at the top of a search result page, it also places ads on many websites, including local newspapers.

Digital advertising tools allow us to target consumers by age, location, and interests, ensuring that our advertising gets in front of the right people — those who are interested in the experiences we offer. We do most of our ad targeting ourselves because the platforms make it easy to learn and to know which promotions or ads are working well, quickly. The system works because our digital partners have the data we need to target properly and inexpensively. Data is the backbone of the digital economy, and not only for advertising. Google Docs, Google Reviews, and Facebook are all free or very low cost because the companies that provide them use those services’ data to make money on other products and services.

Competition for people’s time, money, and attention is fierce. Our farm competes against blockbuster movies, college football, area concerts, and the ever-growing popularity of staying home with Netflix or Hulu. To break through and get people’s attention, we need sophisticated marketing tools, especially to compete against bigger competitors with bigger marketing budgets. Fortunately, our digital partners use their data and expertise to provide inexpensive small business tools, and they constantly seem to be competing against each other to offer lower costs and better service to us.

I am not a lawyer or a policy expert, but I know a little bit about running a successful small business. I know for certain that if Congress or Attorneys General try to change how our digital partners operate, try to break them up into many smaller companies, or force platforms to have a team of lawyers sort through online reviews before publishing, the likely results will be higher costs for me and less effective products. As a small-business owner, I cannot afford either. So I hope our policymakers will slow down and consider what their words and actions mean for the millions of America’s small businesses that rely on big digital partners.

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Katie Colony is the fourth-generation owner and operator of Colony Pumpkin Patch in North Liberty.

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