Category Archives: Cooperative Extension Future

Marketing Critical to Extension’s Future in the Digital Age, Says Marketing Director

Emery Tschetter

Emery Tschetter, who heads Alabama Extension’s Marketing and Communications effort, says effective marketing will be a critical ingredient of success in the digital age.

Emery Tschetter is one of a growing number of Cooperative Extension administrators who not only perceive the digital revolution taking place around us but also how it will transform Extension work.

Tschetter, who leads the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Communication and Marketing effort, not only acknowledges this challenge but also stresses that it could be the most daunting one Extension has faced in its 100-year history.

And, yes, he is the first to concede that it’s a thoroughgoing revolution that will affect Extension educators and professionals at all levels.

He’s especially struck by how quickly this revolution is unfolding among younger generations, having observed his own teenage daughter, who exhibits a level of digital literacy that eludes many older people.

“It’s so pervasive, and if we don’t come to terms with it, if we ignore it, we’ll no longer remain relevant,” says Tschetter, whose manner is as direct and straightforward as the prairies of South Dakota, where he grew up.

New Technologies No Panacea

But he’s not one of those change advocates who points to a comprehensive list of new technologies as the solution.

Tschetter, who initially cut his professional teeth as a broadcasting professional with South Dakota State University Extension, is old enough remember how the initial enthusiasm for Betamax videotape eventually soured — one reason why he’s unwilling to hitch Extension’s fortune to any emerging technology, no matter how promising.

Coming to terms with these new digital demands will not involve embracing a clutch of emerging new technologies.  No, as Tschetter sees it, the solution lies in cultivating a new understanding of an old practice — marketing, something that only a few decades ago distinguished Cooperative Extension as the gold standard of educational outreach.

A New Approach to Marketing

It’s about a acquiring a new approach to marketing, one that should start with a thoroughgoing and effective analysis not only of who is served by Extension products but also how they expect to be served.

As Tschetter likes to say, “Going digital has to be a process grounded in data.”

“Good data drives good analytics.  We’ve got to understand our users in the same way companies like Apple strive to do — for instance, to understand how long people stay on our pages and which products they find most useful and enduring — and we’ve got to learn how to use that data to make adjustments along the way.”

Tschetter is an optimist.  He is confident Extension will rise to this challenge, though he acknowledges that it will present Extension professionals with some acute challenges along the way.

“We’ve done some aspects of marketing exceptionally well in the past,” he observes.  At one time, we cornered the quality end of the market and we told our story extremely well.”

Conceiving and Designing within a Crowded Marketplace

But all of this has gotten harder within the last few decades, partly because Extension is having to conceive and design products within an increasingly crowded marketplace. Everyone is dealing with products that must be distinguished from many others — all the more reason why effective market analysis will be a paramount concern for Extension in the future, Tschetter stresses.

“We find it difficult to talk about competition, but the truth is, we’ve competed with other players from the very beginning.”

In spite of all these challenges, Extension still has several critical factors working decidedly in its favor, Tschetter says.

One of them is the close collaboration of its specialists and its grassroots educators — one of Extension’s greatest assets and one that Tschetter perceives will acquire even greater significance in the future.

Ignoring Reality at Our Peril

Despite these advantages, he says Extension professionals ignore the realities of the 21st century at their own peril: Products must be sold within an unusually dense landscape, and only those carefully conceived and developed based on an effective data collection and marketing strategy will succeed.

“We got to borrow a page from Hollywood, which has a history as almost as old as Cooperative Extension,” Tschetter says. “We’ve not only got to make good things, but we’ve got to keep making them.”

“And we’ve got to design and develop the products that people expect.”

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Cultivating the Introverts in Our Ranks

Le Penseur

Extension must employ more introverts – moreover, it should cultivate the skills of introverts already employed in its ranks.

Extension administrators: Listen to your introverts. They may save you in the future.

In fact, Cooperative Extension’s unwillingness to listen to the introverts in its ranks may come at a very heavy cost in the future.  It may even prove to be a factor that drives Extension to extinction.

To be sure, Extension is and ever shall be an extroverted organization. Extroversion is its lifeblood. Up to now, our primary support has come from sources that require a helluva lot of, well, schmoozing. We owe a significant debt to generations of super-changed, highly extroverted directors, county directors and rank-and-file agents who have forged lasting, highly lucrative relationships with legislators, commodity group leaders, county commissioners and sundry other supporters — stakeholders in Cooperative Extension parlance.

And, yes, the efforts of these extroverted schmoozers are the reason why Extension is distinguished throughout our nation and even the world as a high touch organization.

The Price of Extroversion

But this this almost obsessive organizational focus on extroversion has come at a price.

Too many times throughout our history, this emphasis on extroversion has come at the expense of the introverts in our ranks — the thoughtful people who not only stay abreast of current trends, but also think about them, discuss them with other Extension professionals, typically like-minded introverts, and, in the course of which, gain a deeper, more refined understanding of the long-term trends that will shape Extension’s future.

Years ago, an Extension colleague of mine who had recently announced her retirement asked me a point-blank question: “Why do I feel that I’m being pushed out the door?”

I knew her well enough to know that she expected a straight answer.  So, with as much tactfulness as I could muster, I replied, “Because you are an introvert within an extroverted organization.”

She had poured her life into Extension work.   And she was an asset to the organization, albeit a woefully under-appreciated one.  If she had managed to win over a sufficient number of decision-makers in the course of her career, Cooperative Extension would be far better prepared to meet the challenges of the digital age.

A Luxury We No Longer Can Afford

And that brings me back to my original point. A couple of decades ago, Extension administrators could afford the luxury of ignoring the introverts in their midst.  There were ways that big strategic problems could be glossed over by schmoozing the right funding sources.  But this was before the advent of digital technology and federal, state and local revenue shortfalls.

Extroversion will only take Extension so far in the 21st century.  In fact, I think that our extroversion works against us in several notable ways.

Extroverts, for example, do workshops, field days and other other traditional face-to-face outreach well, exceedingly well — and, so easily.  Sometimes it also seems that Extension professionals cover up their anxieties about the future with more frenetic activity — more workshops and field days. Reporting tools, still deeply immersed in the plan-and-push methods of the last century, only reinforce these behaviors.  These traditional outreach methods are like the Sirens in Greek mythology.  They are distracting us from cultivating a new mindset, one that takes full account of the digital imperatives of the flat world.

Yes, we always will be a high-touch organization.  And, yes, extroverts will always occupy the highest and most visible rungs in our ranks. But the kind of high-touch outreach organization that we must become in the 21st century will require the sort of deep, refined thinking that the introverts within our ranks are the best equipped to provide.

The Debt We Owe Introverts

As counterintuitive as it seems to many extroverts, the introverts of the world conceived and developed the technology that made the highly networked and interconnected world of the 21st century possible, and the only way Extension will survive in the future is by bringing more of these introverts into its ranks, even as it cultivates the ones it already has.

These under-appreciated introverts are not only the best equipped to build these technologies but also to show how these disparate digital trends will intersect within an outreach context in the years to come.

Without more of these analytical minds in our ranks, I don’t think that Cooperative Extension will be fully prepared to compete in this new digital environment  — I really mean that.