Back in summer of 2007, as a newbie Extension Educator, I got the idea to start a blog.   It wasn’t some ambitious plan to take over the blogosphere with my take on water in the PNW, but I did think at the time that it was strange that no one in Extension at OSU was really using this technology. I had used it in Arizona for a program.  So I created H2ONCoast (Water on Oregon’s North Coast).

This small experiment has since grown in importance and scope in ways I never would have predicted.

A blog for an extension educator may seem like a strange thing. After all, we’re modeled after the late 19th and early 20th century professionals who once stood in farm fields and kitchens, helping rural America get better at agriculture and home economics.  And we all know the story of Sea Grant rising out of the 1960s to occupy new shores.  But even with the new iterations of Land and Sea Grant Extension, our model was simple–put the University in the places where people live, work,  learn and play.   Our offices were well known institutions in small town America. And we haven’t really deviated from that model since.

Well, society is very different now–most Americans live in cities and since the rise of the Internet, successive generations gone to it for information. The newest and most pervasive are what the media have dubbed “digital natives.”  For them, if it isn’t available on-line, it may not exist!  Where does this leave an extension educator in an office in a small town like Tillamook? Frankly, if I’m not on the web, I might be missing this largest group of clients.  Quoting an email from OSU’s former Marketing Director Mark Crossler, here’s how we might miss the boat:

According to Pew Internet research: 90% in the U.S. use e-mail and/or search engines; 80% research products; 75% research health info; and 70% get their news and/or buy something online. They also report that, for these online activities, there is very little variation across generations (Generations Online in 2009 report: http://tinyurl.com/az8dyw).

Additionally, we hear from our faculty that handing out brochures and conducting seminars are the best way to connect with as many county residents as possible but the recent National Extension Brand market research report shows that 2 out of 3 (66%) of our clients would very likely attend a seminar/workshop but just 1 out of 5 (19%) of the population in general would do the same (Cooperative Extension Brand Value Research report: http://tinyurl.com/q9u5zx).

When personal interaction is required, the National Extension Brand report also displays disconnects between what our clients and the general public say (these are the statistics for those who are very likely to):

Clients Public
Attend a workshop/seminar 66% 19%
Ask for a Brochure 65% 43%
Call an 800# 47% 22%
Attend a multi-session workshop 37% 13%

However, once online, the differential between what our clients and the public say become small (again, those who are very likely to):

Clients Public
Search the internet 72% 79%
Take a class online 34% 31%
Download a video 29% 33%
Chat online with an Expert 20% 16%
Download a podcast 13% 12%

So the point is that we’re missing a geographically unbounded, digitally savvy, and VAST audience for information. We’re also missing out on the informational market that’s promoted by category-creating giants like Google or Yahoo.   As an experiement, I suggest playing with these search engines to see how easily your favorite OSU information pops up.  Then try to find it the old fashioned way by going through portal after portal on OSU’s websites.  Search engines are the libraries of this century and have far outpaced the information-aggregating institutions we are familiar with like museums, libraries, college campuses, or extension offices. 

Thus the gap between what we do and what the audience expects and does is so vast that it’s almost incomprehensible when viewed from the confines of a brick and mortar Extension office (like mine).

Luckily, it’s not too late to pick up the tools of social media and use them.  So with Pat Kight’s help, I stuck my toe in the water and started my own little, experimental blog–H2ONCoast. Yes, it’s a small dip in the ocean.  Yes, it takes time. Yes, it generates some headaches from time to time. But it has also paid off–I’ll detail that on this space too. In the meantime, check it out and see if you can’t build something useful in social media too.