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Growing social media use at Delaware Cooperative Extension

If your organization is considering a sustained social media presence, it is very likely you have a short list of early adopters – eager employees who are enthusiastic about the many social media platforms and intuitively ‘get’ how implementing social media can build a brand, grow a goal, achieve a new audience and mass-communicate a message.

Initially, it takes that team. They are the spark. But beyond that, how do you keep it going? Keep it fresh? How do you take an idea and make it a workable plan?

To sustain the social media presence – for the social message to resonate – you need good content. You need the ideas, imagination and participation of everyone at the organization. It is called employee buy-in and earning it is often a rather large stumbling block.

At Delaware Cooperative Extension, we decided to invest in a social media strategic plan to push our organization into its second century. Not enough people know what Cooperative Extension is or what its employees, known as agents or specialists, do. Social media is one way to reach and teach new audiences.

Ah, but most of my colleagues were ho-hum about branching out into social media. I understood why.

They are busy people. I say that with the authority of experience. My first seven years at UD Extension, before becoming a communications specialist, were spent as the main receptionist at the busy Sussex County, Delaware office, a location that also served as the agriculture research center. In a typical day, I processed questions about insect ID, plant and crop problems, financial management classes, child care classes, and questions about 4-H programs. I met the public everyday and they often wanted to visit or talk with an agent in person.

Most of the time, the agents were not in the office. They were out explaining best practices to farmers, teaching a class or workshop, counting insect populations, visiting with commercial landscapers, and working with volunteers. For Extension agents, a 40-hour workweek is not typical. Try 50-60-70 hours per week over evenings and weekends.  If I rode by our building now, during the holidays when our university is closed for a 10 day holiday break, I am certain I would find cars parked in the lot – lights on in the office at night. ‘Dedicated’ doesn’t seem to be a strong enough word to describe my colleagues.

And so, how could I get annoyed with them when they responded to me in various ways why social media wasn’t a good fit for them? The most common retorts:

1. Time. “I can’t fit another thing into my schedule.”

2. “My constituents/clients/contacts/growers/farmers/families/people don’t use social media!”

3. “I prefer direct mailing of events/workshops/short courses to my contacts/mailing list.”

4. “I don’t want to join social media. I don’t trust it.”

5. A general concern of over-exposure and fielding national/international questions when priority is local/regional clientele. They were wondering if their workload would go viral!

Those concerns are legitimate. I was one of our college’s team of four (web and communication specialists) who wrestled with this collective attitude, listened, faced it head on, and found a solution.

We developed a social media portal for staff to use. We could have used a web-based form, but thought a single easy-to-remember email would serve our smart phone-enabled agents best. We struck a very simple bargain! No social media accounts to create!* No hashtags and handles to learn! We asked our Extension staff to simply capture interesting content from their smart phones (photo or video) add a caption and send/text it to the email address we created.  Our team would do the rest!

It was as simple as creating a free Gmail account and copying our 4-member team on the inbox.

It was as simple as creating a free Gmail account and copying our 4-member team on the inbox.

We created a free Gmail account. We asked our Extension staff to copy the address in their contact list. “We know you have smart phones,” we explained. “Just share a photo of an insect, weed, plant or 4-H activity with us and we’ll take it from there.”

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief! And the content began to roll in.

All kinds of images began to ping our inboxes. Our team gleefully posted or scheduled out the content, taking into consideration the best time and platform to deliver the information. They know insects, fungi, weeds, and pests. We know Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Vine.  A marriage of mission that works!

We share metrics with the staff. “Hey Tracy, did you know that 575 people saw and engaged with your picture of a praying mantis eating a live cicada?” Even our most skeptical specialists thought it was cool when shown that their picture was retweeted to a possible audience of 4,000.

Analytics tell us that pictures of insects receive high engagement, news that we share with our Extension staff

Analytics tell us that pictures of insects receive high engagement, news that we share with our Extension staff

Short videos have become Vines. Pictures of insects in particular, carry their own social media “buzz.” Extension folks encounter very cool stuff throughout their site and field work! The charts and graphs we share from Facebook, Twitter and Google Analytics help to anchor the science behind the social. These statistics are useful in Extension staff’s annual reporting.

It has also helped to reinforce the demographic rewards of investing in social media. Data from the Pew Research Internet Project provides fascinating and important statistics that minority populations are high users of mobile devices and all age demographics, particularly farmers, are turning to smart phones as their main Internet device. Even if one’s particular clientele is slagging behind on the social media trend, our financial supporters, legislators, print and broadcast media, and partner organizations have clearly committed to social media. We need to be a part of these conversations. We need this visibility. We must participate, if not lead, the dialogue and messaging within social media.

Social media communications is but one layer needed to fulfill the federal mandate of using “All Reasonable Effort” to reach existing and new members of the public. It is an important layer, however. Where are the people who haven’t heard of us, but might need us? Increasingly, the answer is social media. For Cooperative Extension, it is most reasonable to be where the conversations are occurring. Thanks to our social media portal, employee buy-in has been a successful experiment – a cooperative effort and a valuable addition to ways we extend our trusted brand and practical knowledge base to everyone.


*Of course, many Extension staff do have their own social media accounts! We think that is great! In order to track specific work-related Extension content, we implemented an internal hashtag #UDExt which we can search for and then retweet and share accordingly! Developing an internal hashtag for this purpose is a best practice!