Send in the Drones: How Tillable Moved Prospects to Action through Direct Mail

Jessie Atchison is the VP of Marketing at Tillable, the first true online marketplace for the $32 billion US farmland rental market, optimizing returns for landowners and helping farmers access land.

Jessie presented on how her team used direct mail to move their audience to action at our October 30, 2019 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference.

In case you don’t have time to watch her full presentation now, here are a few takeaways that we love:

  1. Test, test, test. Use test runs to help you locate issues with your data before you scale.
  2. Know your audience. Direct mail is expensive, but if that’s how your audience prefers to respond, it may be worth the investment.
  3. Be bold. Don't be afraid to try something crazy at a small scale to find out what works.

Curious to hear more? Read on for a transcript of her presentation.

My name is Jessie. I'm the VP of Marketing at Tillable. I'm here to talk about something a little weird, which is direct mail and how we used it to move our audience to action. But before I do that, I'll tell you a little bit about Tillable and about myself.

Tillable is the first true online marketplace for U.S. farmland rental. I know what you're thinking: “Hallelujah, someone has come to talk about the first true online marketplace for US farmland!” This is your lucky day.

(You’re probably not thinking that unless you own farmland, in which case we should talk later.)

But for the rest of you, I'll tell you that the US farmland rental market is actually very big. It's a $32 billion market, and the crazy thing about that is it could be so much bigger. We estimate that landowners – people who own farmland and rent it to someone else to farm – have about $8 billion on the table every year in undervalued rent.

It's very easy to undervalue farmland because there haven't been tools, technology, and information available for landowners to really understand what their land is worth. 

There are a lot of people out there who are responsible for growing the food that you and I eat every day, that are maybe not earning what they what they should from their farmland. We're trying to solve that problem.

We do it in a couple of ways:

  1. We have a marketplace where farmers can find new land or rent from those landowners. That's a great problem solver for them, if they're looking to expand their operations.
  2. For landowners, we also have services: A digital platform and tools to allow them to take care of their lease through us very easily.

They can then be confident they're receiving a fair rent and they can collect data – which has really been a gap in the market – to allow them to see how their land is performing. Is it being well cared for? Is it going to be a profitable and sustainable asset for them for years to come?

That's what we're trying to do. We're a couple of years old. We were founded in 2017. We closed our Series A in February of this year, which was very exciting for us. Since that time, we've doubled our employee count and we've been growing like crazy.

We won a few awards, including the Chicago Innovation Award. We're very excited about that.

I joined Tillable in December of last year. I've been in marketing my entire career – a mix of client-side and agency-side experience.

And here's what's interesting about Tillable: We have this marketplace with farmers on one side; we have landowners on the other side. We have to be thinking all the time about the value that we provide to both sides that marketplace to make it work.

But in marketing, we spend most of our time focusing on the landowner because unless we have land on the platform, we don't have a lot to offer the farmers. So, we spend a lot of time thinking, how do we get to these landowners?

How do we help them know we exist?

How do we get them to engage with us?

They're a tricky audience in a lot of ways, but one of the things they have in common is that they all pay property taxes. For us, this is really cool because it means that from publicly available property tax information, we can find every land owner who owns farmland. We know who they are and where they live, or at least where they get their tax bills.

So for us, direct mail is a really interesting potential acquisition channel because we have that granular look at who our potential market can be.

The challenge, of course, is we can find them, but we have to get them to engage with us. Farmland rental is something that's been done the same way since the beginning of agriculture, which is basically the beginning of time. We're trying to disrupt that in a way that is very difficult to do, and a lot of us are in that situation where we're really trying to bring disruption to some stagnant industries.

I'm going to talk about a fun direct mail program that we did – a very small-scale test. I think it's entertaining, we learned a lot from it, and hopefully you'll get an idea or two from that.


We have a culture of experimentation at Tillable, and you've heard other speakers talk about that today. I think that all of us, as growth marketers in startups, we know we have to try a lot of stuff and see what happens.

We were in an exec team meeting one day, and we were talking about how we could find landowners and send them something. We were talking about how hard it was to get them to really engage with us.

And our CEO said, "We should have a competition. We should take every team in the company and let them try something to see if they can figure out how to get landowners to engage with us."

You can think of it as a hackathon but for marketing. As the leader of the marketing team, you can imagine how we felt about that:

  1. A little unease.
  2. A lot of competitiveness.

At our first meeting as a team after we were issued this challenge, what I said to my folks was, "This is great. I hope we get a lot of good ideas. I hope we learn a lot, but we have to win, you guys. We have to win." We went into it ready to roll.

There are five teams in our company with marketing, sales, product engineering, customer experience, and operations. Each team had two weeks to come up with a direct mail plan: We're going to send landowners something and see what we can get them to do.

Every team had a budget of $2500. The goal was to target about 50 landowners. That works out to about $50 per target. The rule to win was very simple: the highest response rate wins. Whoever gets the most people to engage with us somehow wins the competition. We didn't even know what the prize was at that point – we just had to win.

It was an unfair competition because the marketing team was involved. We had all the marketing resources that no one else did, so we got to do some really cool stuff. I'm going to talk to you about what we did.


1: The idea

We first had to come up with an idea – ideation is the first step in anything.

We felt strongly from the beginning that we had to send something dimensional. We wanted to send people a box. We wanted something that they couldn't ignore, that would get their attention that they would feel like they had to open.

You heard earlier about sending envelopes and direct mail. We all know that can be very difficult. The response rates are naturally lower on things like that. So we need a response rate. We want to get people's attention.

What are we going to put in the box? We decided to send a drone – one of those little like, quad-copters that flies around.

But what we didn't send was the controller. People had to contact us to get their controller, which we felt really good about. I would love to take total credit for this idea, but I will transparently tell you that before I came to Tillable, I worked at a marketing agency for eight years. This was an idea that we actually developed for a client in a completely different industry – a completely different space – as a meeting generator, and we never got to deploy it.

I always wondered, would it have worked? This was our opportunity to test this and see what would happen.

We had our drone, we're going to keep the controller, and we'll see what happens.

2: Identify audience

We identified our audience: We picked landowners who live in the suburbs. We needed people who had space to fly a drone, so that seemed pretty logical.

Then, we picked landowners who lived at least 50 miles from their land. Our thought was that if you live a little farther away, you might not be as emotionally involved or as involved on a daily basis with your farmland. You might be a little more willing to change how you manage it.

3: Identify a call to action

We had to identify our call to action – that was actually the easiest part. At Tillable we do something called a farmland checkup. It's a free report for landowners that helps them get a handle on the situation with their land, how their rent compares to the county average – things like that. We already had the system in place to do that. Very simple.

But we also gave them the option – because response rate is the name of the game – to respond, to get their controller, and to turn down the farmland checkup.

4: Produce the piece

Then, we had to produce the piece. That gets one bullet point on the list, but of course, it's the hardest part.

You guys know how this is: We had to order 50 drones, figure out the logistics of separating the drones from their controllers, and make sure we knew which one went with which drone. Someone talked earlier about doing things that aren't scalable: This is a great example.

We had to design the package and we crammed as many puns as possible into our package.

The drone idea is really clever, right? But we needed it to make sense. We didn't want it to feel like we were some random people sending you a drone. We had to tie that into the value proposition of Tillable.

What are we trying to do? So, we used language like, “Get a bird's-eye view of your farmland!" and "Help your farmland investment soar!" and "Fly high with Tillable,” so that it felt like a well-thought-out, well-crafted package.

We provided multiple response methods. Remember: We're trying to win on response rate. We gave people the option to call us. We gave people the option to fill out a landing page online. We gave them a self-addressed, stamped postcard. You could just mail it back and tell us if you want your drone and / or your farmland checkup.

5: Let it fly!

The last step was to let it fly out into the world and see what happened.


First, this is our reply card that we included. There's our little drone in the middle. We included a letter with every package, a picture of our team, and a picture of our CEO’s dog in a Tillable t-shirt.

I think we all know that in marketing babies and puppies print money, so that was the idea there. We wanted to feel really fun and personal and engaging. This is the box that it went out in — a nice, branded container. You can see how it all came together there.

This is our landing page: When people did request the controller from us, the call to action there was, “Take control of your farmland and this drone.”

We also sent a letter that said, “Hey, thanks for getting back to us! If you know another landowner tell them about Tillable."

Now we've had at least some interaction with you, even if maybe we weren't the right fit for you at this time, we're hoping you spread the word. Tell them about this crazy company that sent you this drone that you didn't expect to get. That was our mailer, which our team did an awesome job putting together.

We had 48 drones that flew out and landed at their intended destination. We had two bad addresses.

We got 17 responses: That's a 35 percent response rate. I've been doing this for a really long time. I'm a big believer in dimensional direct mail. I've done a lot of campaigns. My personal best until this one was a 20 percent response rate, so 35 was unbelievable. It far exceeded our expectations.

Fifteen of the 17 responses were by prepaid postcard. People preferred to mail that back to us, which was a really interesting thing to learn.

One of the things that makes that interesting is that we're actually in the middle of a very large direct mail campaign now. We went from this little campaign of groups of 50 people to a campaign we have in the market right now to 106,000 people. Because why stop in the middle?

The learning from this one inspired us to make sure that that big one had a business reply card in it because we could see on this very small scale that that's something that people like to use. About half of the responses so far on that big campaign have been business reply cards. Who knew?

What did we learn? Clever ideas and great creative work. If you can make this make sense for your business, go for it. Do some crazy stuff and see what happens. It gets people to pay attention. They can't ignore it.

I think people recognize the thought and the creativity that go into it, so they're more likely to respond. I think they're also more likely to respond favorably.

Maybe they're not interested, but because you were nice about how you contacted them in the first place, they're nice about how they tell you they're not interested, which is kind of cool.

Test early, test often. We test all the time. We do all kinds of crazy experiments. This whole thing was a test. We tested response methods, and one interesting thing that happened is that by doing the small-scale test, we were actually able to isolate an issue with our data and how we had processed it.

We were able to see a complication with our address list that we could fix before we moved to that really large campaign that we have in the market right now. I don't think we would have spotted what the source of it was at a large scale, but we could see it on a small scale and make sure we took care of it.

It's a great argument for trying something crazy and little to see what you learn. Then, make sure you apply that to the bigger tactic.

I talked about this a little bit, but we can also use direct mail to disqualify people. To me, it's also very valuable to know you're not interested because then I know that I don't need to spend time, money, or energy on you right now.

Maybe someday, but I know you're not a target today, which is actually a great thing to know. That's important feedback from the market, and most importantly of all, the marketing sequence.