Fall 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA8

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Knowing Our Customers


Dorothy H. Martin
Assistant Director, Home Economics and Staff Development
Cooperative Extension, Colorado State University-Fort Collins

Milan A. Rewerts
District Extension Director
Cooperative Extension
Colorado State University-Fort Collins

In their book, In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman emphasize the importance of "staying close to the customer."1 The successful companies they described kept a focus on understanding the customer. The beliefs, needs, and behavior of customers were studied, and the information was used in marketing company services and products.

A Changing Audience

Good Extension marketing plans also include efforts to understand audiences.2 But for two reasons, Extension has, at times, neglected this essential marketing step. First, promotion is often erroneously considered to be synonymous with marketing. Knowing your customer is frequently overlooked in the rush to promote Extension programs. Creating promotions seems to overcome the importance of doing the basic "homework" of understanding audiences.

Second, because Extension is an older agency, we tend to believe that after all these years, we know our audience. This attitude overlooks the fact that people change, move, and use time differently. Information sources change, and new sources emerge. Unless we're willing to continually reassess our audiences, our entire marketing effort may be targeted toward a mythical creature of the past - a traditional consumer who may no longer exist.

From 1982 through early 1988, a series of events made Colorado State Cooperative Extension realize we hadn't kept up with our changing publics.

In 1981, a legislative audit reviewed Extension's role and mission. In 1982-83, Colorado State University (CSU) undertook a review and redirection exercise, followed by an accreditation self-study. Then due to decreased funding and guidelines from the Colorado state legislature's joint budget committee, CSU Extension in 1983-84 drastically reduced its community and resource development program. Concurrently, CSU Extension established a Focus Committee to "review current status and make recommendations for changes within Cooperative Extension."3 In fall 1985, a futures subcommittee of the Focus Committee recommended implementation of a marketing effort as a top priority.

In August 1985, Colorado State University's Planning for Progress4 document asked Extension to obtain an "accurate view of the perceptions of...the Cooperative Extension Service in the minds of its clientele." By this time, CSU Extension had established a marketing committee,5 and members had attended in-depth marketing training in Washington, D.C.

In early 1986, Colorado state government, hit hard by declining energy revenues, told Extension to tighten its fiscal belt, resulting in the loss of some 30 FTEs in 1986 and $200,000 in state funds in 1987.

These events paralleled Extension efforts to redefine role and mission, as well as to better understand audiences through strategic planning, including emphasis on environmental scans in every county. At the same time, the Extension marketing committee commissioned the Human Factors Laboratory, an independent survey division of CSU, to conduct a statewide survey of Colorado residents.


The statewide survey of Colorado residents asked questions about Extension's role, mission, and program priorities, and assessed the effectiveness of its programs to obtain objective data on which to base marketing decisions and plans.

The survey focused on familiarity with Extension's major program areas, perceived quality of information and program services, frequency of contact with its personnel, perceived need for its programs, and willingness to pay for specific services. The questionnaire was pretested to obtain comments from people of varying ages, races, and socioeconomic status.

Coloradans were selected to participate using a computer-generated, stratified random sample (18 years of age and over) drawn from Colorado driver's license holders. The questionnaire was mailed to 2,760 residents, and after routine follow-up procedures were completed, 1,037 (37.5%) completed questionnaires were returned.

Data on seven demographic characteristics of the sample were collected: sex, age, race, level of education, place of residence, occupation, and income.


To determine representativeness of the sample, the percentages of the seven demographic factors were compared with 1980 census data. The survey data were analyzed using the Statistical Package for the Social Science (SPSS). Analysis included cross-tabulation of responses by age, education, sex, income, and location of residence.

Almost 80% of the respondents said that they were familiar with Extension as a whole. A higher number, 85%, indicated they were familiar with agricultural programs; 76% said they'd heard of home economics programs. The highest percentage, 93%, indicated familiarity with 4-H, while 47% expressed familiarity with community development programs.

Three-fourths of the respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that Extension programs were needed. Twenty-three percent were undecided and two percent disagreed with the statement.

Three-fourths of the respondents said they felt Extension was doing an excellent or good job. Another 21% rated it as doing an average job, while four percent said it was doing a poor job.


The results were written into a public document titled The Citizen's Viewpoint,6 which provided CSU Extension with two important marketing tools - a more accurate description of what Coloradans know and believe about Extension and a remarkable promotional piece.

The scientific procedures used in the survey allow us to speak objectively to the Colorado legislature about the needs and desires of today's Coloradans - the voters who elect the state legislators.

Press releases were distributed statewide in October 1986 to announce results, and to inform the non-user public about our role and mission.

In 1987, a phone survey of representative county commissioners was conducted to assess their attitudes and opinions about Extension. At the same time, the state advisory committee undertook personal visitations with legislators, providing a third audience assessment. CSU Extension has drafted a Blueprint for Future Direction7 that establishes principles for programming based on agent environmental scans, these three audience assessments, and national trends. The final plan for CSU Extension's future was completed in 1988.

We believe that the resources expended in "knowing our customers" will pay off as we proceed with the remaining steps in our marketing plan.


1. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence (New York: Harper & Row, 1982).

2. Wendy Douglass and others, Targeting Audiences and Creative Media Approaches (Fort Collins: Colorado State University Cooperative Extension and the United States Department of Agriculture, 1985).

3. Extension Focus Committee-Final Report (Fort Collins: Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, September 1985).

4. Planning for Progress was an initiative at Colorado State University in 1985 to review university priorities. A principal question for Cooperative Extension related to assessing its image and developing plans based on that assessment.

5. The need for a marketing effort by Cooperative Extension was identified by the Extension Focus Committee and accepted by the director. An Extension Marketing Committee was appointed to: (1) develop and implement an organizational marketing plan, (2) integrate marketing into the overall program planning process, and (3) provide orientation and marketing training to all staff.

6. Joe T. Newlin, Final Report:The Citizens' Viewpoint: A Statewide Survey of Coloradans (Fort Collins: Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, 1986).

7. The Blueprint for Future Direction has been developed as part of an organization-wide strategic planning effort to clarify mission and vision and identify goals for the organization.