COWS have gone viral. Fluffy cows, that is.
Internet memes and YouTube videos have a way of spreading, well, like a virus. You can’t really tell what’s going to become a huge story until it does, but chances are pretty good that by now you’ve seen a Facebook status, Twitter post or morning-show segment about the latest internet sensation.
Fluffy cows are everywhere, it seems. Oh, OK, as it turns out the fluffy cows at the heart of the latest viral craze aren’t actually cows either… they’re bulls. Totally different, but “fluffy bulls” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. A little emasculating to the bull, too.
The story goes something like this: a picture of one of Lautner Farms’ many, many club calf A.I. sires found its way to popular social site Reddit, and the rest is history. Before you know it, the Today show had picked up the story, and the craze was trending on Twitter.
With every Internet sensation, however, there are two sides to every story. In the case of fluffy cows, not everyone associated with the beef industry was pleased to have the attention of the media and John Q. Public focused squarely on the beef biz – or more to the point, on the show cattle segment in particular.
Some popular columnists started asking questions about the wisdom of drawing attention to the show cattle set, reminding us that while many of us involved in the livestock industry grew up showing livestock at fairs and shows around the country, not everyone involved in commercial livestock production is a fan of show cattle in general, or even of show cattle people.
I wrote about my own questions concerning the phenomenon at my personal blog, and yesterday got a note from Matt Lautner, one of the marketing gurus behind the internet craze. We chatted about the possibilities and pitfalls of the situation, and I wanted to share his comments with you here, in their entirety.
Andy Vance: The fluffy cows situation has generated a lot of conversation about agriculture, and some folks in the beef industry have questioned if the media attention is necessarily a good thing. What do you say to folks who question the benefits of reaching consumers and the media through the fluffy cows sensation?
Matt Lautner: There’s a great quote that Celeste Settrini, an advocate from California, said the other day and it was, “When it comes time to AGvocate, you can’t pick and choose the topic -- just answer with your real life experiences.” The question the media is asking is, “Tell me more about these fluffy cows.”
I didn’t coin the term myself, but if the phrase “fluffy cows” opens up the door for interested parties to learn more about the show cattle industry, and ultimately, the beef industry, than I welcome them with open arms. There’s no sense in closing the door, and thus ending the conversation, when we do have some positive media attention. I think we need to make the most of it, and so that’s why we are emphasizing the great people, careers, places and products that are the result of “fluffy cows.”
Vance: Those of us who grew up showing cattle (or other species) know about the life lessons learned in the barns. You and others involved in the show cattle segment have started talking more about those lessons and the other intangible benefits to families' involvement in showing - talk a little about your experience, and what you've heard this week from other "show people" after the internet craze began.
Lautner: I grew up in the barns and around show cattle my entire life. It has always been a passion of mine, and today it is a career. Showing cattle instills many great lessons into agriculture’s youth -- responsibility, hard work, integrity, showmanship, networking skills and the ability to present yourself and your animal in a professional manner. Each year, we see new 8-year olds walk a steer into the ring for the first time, and each year, we see a 21-year old walking their steer out of the ring for the final time. This chapter in their lives will hold countless memories for that young person and helps shape that individual and lead them into future careers in agriculture.
The great part about the “fluffy cow” conversation is being able to read more testimonies from folks who live across the globe who have had these same shared experiences through showing cattle. It’s a great way to grow up -- spending time with livestock and family. My wife, Michelle and I hope our daughter Matilyn who is just 7 months old will someday experience the same joy in the show cattle industry as we have.
Vance: Should commercial beef producers be comfortable with the show segment being, as you described it, the marketing arm of the beef industry though shows like the National Western or the North American? How can beef producers leverage "show people" to help spread positive messages about the beef industry?
Lautner: I have a great infographic on my blog and social media channels of the many cuts of beef that come from a fluffy cow. So far, there have been over 1000 “Likes” and more than 300 “Shares” on Facebook. This is a tangible tool that beef producers can share with others to remind folks that while these show calves might have a lot of hair, they still end up as beef, as well.
Aside from making some of these positive online infographics go viral, beef producers can be pleased that we are preparing young showmen and their families to become better advocates for agriculture when they are at a show. These events are great platforms to have conversations with consumers, and I think we will now be more open than ever to answer questions and shake hands with the people who walk through the aisles to see the “fluffy cows.” This is a positive thing for the industry, if we keep focusing on the message we want to get across. It really is much more than “fluffy cows,” but the conversation had to start with a spark, and in this case, it was a fluffy bull that caught some media attention.
Vance: How can beef producers help kids showing cattle become the best possible ambassadors for the beef industry?
Lautner: Whether you’re showing cattle or raising cattle in a feedlot, we are all in this together. At the end of the day, we are all raising beef for consumers. I think that’s a good reminder for all of us to keep in mind as we go about our day-to-day business.
Of course, I also encourage kids showing cattle to become better ambassadors by taking advantage of leadership programs available to them -- junior breed association contests like public speaking or sales talk, the National Beef Ambassador Program, the Masters of Beef Advocacy Program or even 4-H and FFA leadership contests. This gives kids a chance to polish up on their communication skills, so they can better articulate how they care for their animals and why they are so passionate about showing cattle. It’s all about having conversations, so anything we can do to help kids become better conversationalists, will ultimately help the beef industry.
Vance: Are you afraid that the social media sensation might backfire? Will consumers get the "wrong idea" about beef production by looking at pictures of popular A.I. sires, or as one columnist suggested, are you concerned that consumers might not feel comfortable eating "fluffy cows?"
Lautner: Sure, we have seen a few comments here or there about how those “fluffy cows” are too cute to eat, and I’ll admit that it is on my radar. However, instead of just letting those images of fluffy cows go viral on the Internet without an explanation, we are now using these images of fluffy cows that viewers love as a conversation starter to discuss more about the industry. On my blog at mattlautnercattle.com, I have posted several spotlights on judges, fitters, showmen and the final beef product. This information is interspersed with the photos of the fluffy cows. I figure if folks are interested in looking at the fluffy cow photos, when they go through my website, beef producers can be confident that I’m showing more than just a cute calf; I’m telling the entire story.
We can be fearful that something wrong could happen to give us bad press, but I feel by being proactive and taking charge of the direction the conversation is going in, we can keep things positive and highlight the great things we love about the beef cattle business. We truly have a great story to tell, and for every negative, there’s going to be a thousand positives. So, I’m going to focus on that.