If you have spent any significant time online for work or for pleasure, you know it’s brutal out there. Today we are going to review a case study of the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” hellscape by dissecting Ballerina Farm for their latest kind-of, sort-of controversy.
If you’re raising an eyebrow, rest assured there’s a method behind this madness. Whether you are looking to use social media to raise funding for your up and coming food science initiative or trying to sell stickers on Etsy to 4-H kids, or maybe just running a farm page to help boost your visibility, there’s something to be learned here I promise.
Since Ballerina Farm is the epitome of both personal aesthetic content and a successful (farm) business front, it’s the perfect point of examination.
Ballerina Farm is a picturesque pasture-based farm in Coalville, Utah. They have a successful direct-to-consumer business selling a wide range of meat products, baked goods, seasonings and even cookware.
But more famous are their social media accounts, primarily Instagram and TikTok, which feature the family of 10’s matriarch, Hannah Neeleman. Their content can be described as very aesthetically pleasing giving off “cottagecore” vibes and rural feel goods.
These accounts are very well done and quickly gained massive followings in the millions. And while they are quite wholesome in appearance and unassuming, that has not stopped a series of internet catfights.
A Case of Over Authenticity?
Neeleman is an interesting figure. Besides being the primary face of her family’s farm and brand, she has an impressive resume ranging from a being a Juilliard School dancer to pageant queen (she’s the reigning Mrs. America, if you didn’t know), a magnificent home chef and, of course, a mother to 8. Needless to say, she’s far from an everywoman.
Despite her being no stranger to a sort of limelight, she remains a bit of an anomaly online as she doesn’t engage with her fans or critics in the comments. By and large, you can’t say she really promotes much or makes claims, she simply creates quite beautiful and shareable content.
Now here’s the kicker, despite the overall innocence, Neeleman and her family have received quite a bit of internet backlash. The first big fiasco was around early 2023 when news got churned up that the Neeleman family – while transparent about being first-generation farmers – didn’t exactly “work” for their business. Neeleman’s husband, Daniel comes from a family of air travel tycoons who have founded entire airlines including JetBlue.
The internet was in a whirlwind, feeling this was a stark contrast to the rustic facade of their accounts. You could say fans felt cheated or misled.
Then again in early 2024, we saw another uproar when Neeleman posted a montage of her first 12 days postpartum preparing to hit the runway with Mrs. America obligations. Followers again felt strongly, nothing how Neeleman was setting an unrealistic ideal for women.
There’s an ironic theme in both these cases – Neeleman and her family made an attempt to showcase their real selves, their real business – and saw nothing wrong with it. They weren’t intentionally out to “influence” beyond promoting their own business, yet their authenticity was deemed to be inauthentic in the court of internet opinion.
It begs an interesting question – can we ever be too authentic online? Or can our authenticity not be real enough for our audience?
Is Your Audience Always Right?
This could very well be a case of the impossibility to make everyone happy. No matter what image we put forward, it may not be enough for a sizable percentage of our audience and customer base.
The interesting thing about the case of Ballerina Farm is that it does show an honest attempt at making authentic content that is beautiful, has a soft selling point and resonates positively with a large audience.
On the flip side, it also shows the dangers of how, even when cut from the same cloth more or less, your interpretation and the interpretation of your followers can be leagues apart.
Rolling With the Punches
Social media managers will tell you half a million different ways to handle controversy.
But here I will offer a bit of somewhat unpopular advice. I think we as individuals and businesses are sometimes too quick to assume that we are at fault amid criticism (especially when the comments bombard us and major news outlets pick up the tea).
Before racing to do damage control, take a moment and ask if it’s really warranted. Sometimes simply rolling along is the best way to go.
I think Ballerina Farms is a great example. In my professional opinion, I don’t think they did anything wrong. In fact, I think they did everything right, especially\\ under Neeleman’s management.
Simply because I don’t believe they ever claimed to be anything they are not. It is a real farm, be it a multigenerational inheritance or purchased with old money. Neeleman is a real woman, her lifestyle and feats are attainable to her. The Neeleman family hasn’t told their audience they are realistic or relatable, they merely exist in their own world.
And I think that is beautiful.