Tag Archives: Alabama Cooperative Extension System

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.”

Presenting Our New Video Annual Report

We just finished posting Alabama Extension’s first-ever video annual report to our youtube site.  This year’s theme: “Sustainability-Plus: Living and Working Better – and Greener.”

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I passionately believe that sustainability efforts represent the future of Cooperative Extension for a variety of reasons. Yes, we have a critical role to serve in building a new scientific agricultural model that will incorporate elements of the old farming model as well as sustainability principles of the 21st century.

However, the sustainability concept encompasses so much more — the reason why we have coined the term sustainability-plus.

Seven Reasons Why We Need Cooperative Extension in the 21st Century

Excuse the hyperbole, but I originally titled this “Seven Reasons Why Extension Will Survive and Thrive (and Possibly Even Save the Planet) in the 21st century.

I admit that would have been a tad too rhetorically overblown, but there is a ring of truth to it. Despite these looming budget cuts, despite all this talk of Extension having passed its prime, I still believe that we not only will survive in the 21st century but also carve out a lasting presence that not only will enrich millions more lives but also help make the world a safer, greener, happier place.

Here are seven reasons why:

1. We are Sustainers

Sustainability is taking on new meaning.

Many of the nation’s governors are using it to underscore in these lean fiscal times why Americans must become good stewards in all facets of their lives.

One example: Tightening budgetary restraints on the U.S. healthcare system are prompting more Americans to adopt lifestyle practices that safeguard against chronic disease.

Meanwhile, farmers are gearing up to feed a projected 9 billion people by mid-century with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being called upon to develop safer, greener production systems that emphasize organic- and locally-grown foods.

Even with online sources literally available their fingertips, people can’t solve these problems entirely on their own.

Extension is uniquely equipped to help people adopt sustainable practices in all facets of their lives.

2. We are Catalysts

One Alabama cattle producer underscored recently the invaluable role Cooperative Extension educators serve as catalysts — in this case, helping him install a GPS device to reap substantial costs savings.

“It’s gotten me started a little sooner than I would have,” the farmer wryly observes, admitting that it likely would have been years before he had discovered and installed the device on his own.

Through the Internet, farmers are as readily exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking as the rest of us, but they still need catalysts — trained experts who can see the larger picture and who can point to cost-effective solutions they otherwise would not have considered because of times constraints, professional preoccupations or other factors.

What applies to farmers applies to all of us.

3. We are an Agency of Empowerment

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen soberly observed recently, the 2008 stock market downturn followed more recently by severe federal and state budgetary cutbacks have left all American in a “different mental place.”

Likewise, as British sociologist Anthony Giddens has stressed, policymakers in this age of austerity are placing an increasing emphasis on dialogue and empowerment, approaches that encourage individuals and groups to address change by making things happen rather than having things happen to them.

A preoccupation with personal empowerment will persist for a long time. The good news for us is that personal empowerment is our business. We are an agency of empowerment.

As government searches for cost-effective alternatives in the midst of these budgetary restraints, the role we serve enabling people to do more with less will garner a renewed appreciation — at least, so long as we are telling our story.

4. We are Human Infrastructure

We all know that in the 21st century, there is a strong emphasis on building technological infrastructure.  Small wonder why: It offers enhanced opportunities for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Let’s not forget that we are infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like high-speed rail or Internet connections — but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

Even in this wired age, there remains an enormous value in the dense network of face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

5. We are Contextualizers

The bad news: As flesh-and-bone knowledge providers, we cannot hold a candle to virtual knowledge sources, especially search engines — no doubt about that.

The good news is that we still possess something that search engines and other online applications lack: the ability to provide our audiences knowledge within deep, enriched learning contexts.  We help our diverse audiences not only understand knowledge within a wider learning context but, even more important, how to use it to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

6. We are Synergists

Our longstanding experience with forging and cultivating partnerships among diverse groups has often enabled us to succeed where others have failed.

As our work in community resource development has underscored time and again, Extension educators have provided the crucial impetus that moves ideas from the drawing board to the assembly floor and, ultimately, to the end user.

7. We are Collaborators

To an increasing degree, wikinomics, which emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning, is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Extension pioneers Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington anticipated this 21st century mindset more than a century ago: They didn’t view their clients as passive subjects; they considered them equals — more than that, they regarded them as active collaborators in their outreach efforts.

Wikinomics is written into our organizational DNA — a trait that gives us an enormous competitive advantage over other public and private entities that are just now coming to terms with new demands of the 21st century knowledge economy.

A Charge to Keep

I’ll close this by admitting to something — bias.  I love Extension work.  I feel fortunate to have served a quarter century in an agency — an educational movement — that puts knowledge to practical use.

Even in this cash-strapped era, we have a charge to keep.  In the midst of this gloom, I believe that our longstanding appreciation for dialogue, forging partnerships and empowering people uniquely equips for the challenges of the 21st century.

[Note: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the extent to which I have merely followed the tracks of one of this century’s true visionaries: Thomas Friedman, whose observations about the flat world and all of its sundry implications provided much of the intellectual basis for this piece.]

More on Extension Educator’s Role as Catalyst (and Advocate)

From the mouths of farmers often comes wisdom.

I was reminded of this today writing a story for our Extension annual report.  One quote by a central Alabama cattle producer and poultry farmer underscores a point I was trying to drive home in an earlier piece: the invaluable role Extension educators serve as catalysts.

“The Alabama Cooperative Extension system introduced me to it and I wouldn’t have found out about it until several years down the road,” says central Alabama poultry and cattle producer Robby Nichols.  “It’s kind of gotten me started a little sooner than I would have.”

The “it” in this case was the GPS devise installed on his spreader truck by an Extension educator with money provided by the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and the 50-cent Checkoff program.

At first glance, this may seem insignificant, but in these unusually lean times, a few years may be a critical factor in determining a producer’s long-term viability.

Innovation frees up time and, in many cases, labor — time and labor that, in turn, can be invested in other profitable activities, whatever these happen to be.

Within the last quarter century, that’s one of the realities that have been driven home to me as I’ve reported on farming: how the future of the family farm is as much bound up in cost-savings as it is in turning a profit.

To put it bluntly, 21st century farming has become for most producers an unremitting cost-efficiency audit.  

As I mentioned last week, this accounts for why I remain optimistic about the relevance of the Cooperative Extension mission despite the enormous challenges we face.

Farmers are as plugged into the Internet as the rest of us.  They are as readily exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking as the rest of us. Through social networking tools, they, much like the rest of us, can swap ideas with other farmers not only in their region but also a world away.

But they still need catalysts.  They still need trained experts who see the larger picture and who can point them toward cost-effective solutions they previously haven not considered, whether because of time constraints or professional preoccupations.

Likewise, farmers, despite all this firsthand exposure to cutting-edge knowledge, remain at heart cautious business professionals, loathe to invest money in anything that could be needlessly time-consuming and cost-effective.

Like all of us from time to time, they have to be persuaded to take big leaps.   In Nichols’s case, for example, he initially expressed qualms about using GPS, fearing that implementing this technology would prove too costly an investment in terms of all the time required to learn and implement the technology.

His agent, Ken Kelley, helped allay those concerns, serving as both a catalyst and an advocate, showing Nichols how relatively painlessly GPS could be adapted to his operation.

Kelley’s persuasiveness helped seal the deal.

That’s why I’m convinced that Extension educators, despite our acute budgetary challenges, are not going away.

We have too indispensable a role to play in pointing the way.

The “Lean Years:” A New Mission for Cooperative Extension?

A lot of what I do as a member of Alabama Extension’s Marketing Team is to think out loud, usually after digesting an article or op-ed about a topic that raises major implications for the Cooperative Extension mission.

The New York Times’s David Brooks’s most recent op-ed is one example — a piece appropriately named “The Lean Years.”

Writing about this severe recession, he paints an especially gloomy picture of the years of hard slogging that lie ahead for millions of Americans, particularly men and young people, before some semblance of normality returns.

He cites an essay in The Atlantic, which reports that almost a fifth of all U.S. men between 25 and 54 are without jobs — the highest such figure since the labor bureau began collecting and reporting these numbers in 1948.

America’s young people are also being disproportionally affected by this downturn.  Brooks cites a gloomy statistic from a previous severe recession:  College grads who entered the job market in 1981 earned 25 percent less than those who entered in more prosperous periods.  And this earnings gap persists for decades.  Over their lifetimes, recession kids will earn approximately $100,000 less than those hired during more auspicious periods.

Brooks fears that these trends will exact a heavy social cost among men and young people alike.

Among chronically unemployed men, this effect is often reflected by enhanced levels of alcoholism and child abuse, with millions of unemployed men sustaining what Brooks describes as “debilitating blows to their identity.”

Young people are also psychologically altered, less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even when greater opportunity beckons.

The burgeoning federal deficits will only contribute to further fraying. Deficits will command roughly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic input this year, leaving little room for expanded domestic initiatives. 

As Brooks observes, the social fabric, which has served throughout U.S. history to mitigate the effects of hard times, has begun to fray.   

These hard realties present Cooperative Extension educators with a challenge.

As one long-tenured Extension county coordinator related to me several months ago, Cooperative Extension has served a useful role within the last century providing people, often people on the margins of society, with basic skills to cope in difficult times.  The coming lean years, which will be characterized by both chronic unemployment and underemployment as well as fewer federal domestic initiatives, present Americans with a unique set of challenges  — challenges that Cooperative Extension System is especially well-equipped to meet.

Working through its 4-H youth empowerment, home gardening, nutrition and community develop programs, Cooperative Extension educators are poised to build and new and enduring legacy of self-empowerment.  How?  By providing the most hard-pressed among us with the vital coping skills they require to endure the next few years.  By empowering them, we also lend a hand in helping restore this nation’s vital, but frayed, social fabric.

Beyond Search Engines: The Cooperative Extension Educator as Catalyst

Behind every early adopter is a catalyst, quite often a Cooperate Extension educator.

This has been the case from the beginning of formal Cooperative Extension work.  Seaman Knapp’s work with demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s introduction of Jesup Wagons serve as two of the earliest and most enduring examples of our longstanding role as catalysts.

We should never lose sight of this role or the value of it, especially amidst all this talk of Internet search engines and the dire threat they pose to the Extension educator’s traditional role as knowledge provider.

Granted, there is cause for concern: If presented by her English instructor with an assignment to write about some horticulture topic, my 16-year-old daughter undoubtedly would refer to her laptop rather than to her local Extension agent or Master Gardening for background information.

Yes, Internet search engines are steadily eroding the image of the Extension educator as an immediate source of knowledge — that’s the bad news.  The good news is that our longstanding role as catalyst is far from dead.

It’s one thing to impart knowledge; it’s quite another to act on it.

Just ask Beau Brodbeck and Eve Brantley, two young but seasoned Extension educators.

While trained in different fields, the work they do on a day-to-day basis is remarkably similar.  In terms of their disciplines, they are walking encyclopedias — effective knowledge providers by every standard of measure.  But they are also catalysts.  Like any effective Extension professional, they perceive their most important role as sparking collective action.

What they’ve learned through their own experiences speaks volumes about how Extension educators are viewed and valued in the future.

Brodbeck, an Extension urban forestry educator based in southwest Alabama, says he’s had little difficulty garnering agreement from community leaders about the value of trees.  After all, who doesn’t like trees?   Based on his experience, though, liking trees and adopting practices that promote them are two entirely different things, especially, as in the case of cash-strapped communities, where cost is involved.

Despite his immense knowledge of urban forestry, Brodbeck has learned that he’s valued more for demonstrating time and again the practical effects of his knowledge, showing communities how trees  secure long-term cost savings by reducing storm run-off and water pollution.

He’s learned that facts alone aren’t enough: They must be marshaled in a way that compels community leaders to act.

Brantley, an Extension resources specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of agronomy and soils, has had similar experiences encouraging municipal leaders to introduce sustainable water management practices into their communities.

“When I started work, there already were bookcases full of water quality and storm water management-related texts,” she says.

“The science has been there and continues to develop.”

Like Brodbeck, she’s learned the value of “buy-in.” Success in her job rest every bit as much on how well she convinces one or more influential people in communities to buy into the desired change — early adopters by any other name.

Brantley readily concedes that her lesson are not new: They originated with the pioneering work of sociologist Everett Rogers, who not only popularized the concept of early adopters and but also demonstrated their role in transmitting new ideas.

These are old lessons, yes, but lessons that nonetheless underscore an essential but egregiously underappreciated fact:  The role we serve as catalysts remains one of our greatest assets but also one that is indispensible to quality of life, if not the long-term success, of every community in America.

A local mayor, council or city planner may be equipped with all the information available through search engines, but it often requires a catalyst to provide the incentive to act on this knowledge — someone equipped not only to put the issue into sharper perspective but also to make a compelling case for change.

For this reason, the enduring value of catalysts should never be discounted.

Reports of the Demise of Cooperative Extension Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

An op-ed posted this weekend in the New York Times’s online edition is making its rounds among Alabama Cooperative Extension System professionals.

And well it should.  It speaks volumes about the cultural and economic eddies occurring around us and how Cooperative Extension should navigate within this turbid sea.

Op-ed writer Dan Barber rightly observes that Americans are demonstrating a growing fascination with raising their own food, particularly produce. 

Even so, this year’s mad dash to the garden has produced a few unintended and unfortunate consequences.   For example, in their zeal to begin raising homegrown produce, many gardening novices have turned to retail outlets for their starter plants — places such as Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

Even as they struggle to opt out of the globalized economic system for which they increasingly express mistrust, they continue to look toward many of the icons of this system to buy their starter tomato plants. But as they are finding, a substantial number of these plants, which were bred by large-scale operations, were infected with late blight. 

 Sobering Irony

All of this makes for sobering irony, writes Barber:

…the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

Barber believes government has a role to play in helping these aspiring gardeners find their way through this confusion:

For all the new growers out there, what’s missing is not the inspiration, it’s the expertise, the agricultural wisdom and technical knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Congress recognized the need for this kind of support almost 100 years ago when it passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating a network of cooperative extension services in partnership with land-grant universities. Agricultural extension agents were sent to farms to share the latest technological advances, introducing new varieties of vegetables and, yes, checking the fields for disease.

Barber is hitting on something highly significant.  Indeed, his views comport closely with an argument I’ve been making among fellow Extension professionals:  The growing fascination with gardening and the cultural, social and economic factors that have prompted it present Cooperative Extension with an opportunity for organizational resurgence.

 Are the Wheels Coming Off?

And this involves more than just a fascination with gardening.  Among other factors, the gardening revival also reflects an increasingly pervasive view among many in society —not only among so-called kooky people — that things are not quite right in our world.   

Some have even begun to wonder if the wheels are coming off the highly sophisticated, increasingly globalized technological civilization that has emerged within the past few decades.

Yes, I’ll concede that even making such a statement may render me suspect in some quarters.  But I’m not the only one.  None other the best-selling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed recently that 2008 may be remembered as the year humanity hit an impenetrable wall, when it reached the painful but unavoidable realization that the planet’s resources are unable to sustain the economic growth model that has been constructed over the last half century.

Some have already begun describing this event as “the great disruption.” Whatever the case, Friedman believes humanity may have reached a crossroad, one that will be remembered for decades, if not centuries, to come:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese.

We can’t do this anymore.

Closely associated with this stark realization is a mounting disdain for another facet of the current economic model: so-called discount culture, of which retail outlets such as Wal-Mart are cited as iconic examples.  A Publisher’s Weekly review of Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell underscores this growing disdain:

That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been pumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

But it’s expressed in other ways too: Peak oil theory — the fear that oil reserves will effectively become depleted within the next few years — and mounting concerns about deforestation, chronic water shortages and overfishing.

I’m not interested in debating the relative merits of these views. In another forum, I would call most or even all of them into question. 

Nevertheless, all of these factors hold major implications, mostly positive, for the Cooperative Extension mission.

Yes, we and our audiences sometimes talk about Cooperative Extension being a little old-fashioned and behind the times — a little stodgy.  Now more than ever, many people, fed up with what they perceive to be the shallow glitz, if not shaky foundations, of the current global economic model, will be become more favorably disposed toward Cooperative Extension and other entities perceived as offering lifestyle alternatives such as home gardening and canning. 

I believe that — passionately.

Other Factors

Other factors playing out on a global scale also hold fascinating implications for Extension.

An Aug. 10 article in the New York Times reported how Web 2.0 already is altering the ways schools deliver educational products to their students:

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions – or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.

Hundreds of universities around the world already use share and open-source courses.  Connexions, a non-profit open-source organization associated with Rice University, is providing open-source learning to schools.

What is stopping Extension, a movement that has both specialized and excelled in this type of informal, open-source learning, from doing likewise?

We talk a lot about Extension following the fast track to extinction.  But borrowing from Twain, reports of our impending demise have been greatly exaggerated.

I contend that a number of factors are currently in play that could figure prominently in a revivified  21st century Extension mission.  These include: a mounting concern among people regarding the implications of the current economic system; a growing desire among people to take control over basic necessities such as food; and an increasing inclination to experiment with nontraditional, albeit highly accessible, forms of Web 2.0-related learning. 

 By now, I hope you see the bigger picture: We’re potentially onto something — something big.  Our challenge will be determining how to allocate resources to meet these challenges.