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.”