Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA2

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Bridging Gaps Between Them and Us


James I. Grieshop
Lecturer and Specialist
Cooperative Extension and Department of Applied Behavioral Sciences
University of California-Davis

Pamela S. Bone
Urban Horticulture Advisor
Sacramento County Cooperative Extension
University of California

Gordon W. Frankie
Department of Entomology and Parasitology
University of California-Berkeley

In an ideal world, what we as Extension educators want audiences to know will correspond perfectly with what those audiences need and want to know. Unfortunately, the world deviates from the ideal. Important differences often occur between what people want to know and what they need (or what we think they need) to know. Extension educators have to deal daily with the challenges created by such differences.

An immediate challenge lies in the necessity to use appropriate and effective techniques to determine what, if any, gaps exist between what clients want and what we want. A second challenge appears as gaps are revealed - how do you effectively communicate needed information to audiences when they're more interested in some other information?

Market Research

Nationwide, Extension educators work with many issues that might illustrate the challenges implicit to contradictory perspectives. The issues of chemical pesticide use in urban areas and consumers' related attitudes and informational expectations contain the necessary ingredients: social concern and significance, differing opinions, and conflicting expectations. The study described here used market research tools to document what consumers (as Extension clients) think about pesticides, how they use them, and what information they want as they use pesticides. The study serves to spotlight the dilemma of informing clients about socially relevant topics about which they may be only secondarily interested.

In our study, surveyors worked to learn what information clients wanted while also assessing client evaluations of the type and nature of information available to them on pesticide use in the home. Several techniques - point-of-purchase contact, survey research, and focus group interviews - were used to query clients. They were asked about information sources, attitudes toward pesticides, and how they used them, and to evaluate two Extension publications about pesticides and pest control.

The Research Target

Consumers in the Sacramento, California, metropolitan area who use pesticides in home and garden were the targets of this market research study. With the cooperation of 22 grocery stores, 20 discount drug stores, 16 hardware stores, and 12 nurseries, direct, point-of-purchase contact was made with pesticide purchasers. In each retail outlet, Master Gardener volunteers placed and monitored pads of bright pink "shelf talker" post cards that advertised a free 16-page University of California publication, "Using Pesticides Safely in the Home and Yard." To evaluate their effectiveness, two versions of this publication were used with the same title. One version, published in 1979, presented illustrations of insects, discussed insect control, and used a textbook format. The revised 1987 version illustrated the safe use of pesticides, discussed safe means of home application, and used blocks of text. Changes for the revised edition were obtained through focus group interviews with Master Gardener volunteers.

When the local Extension office received the returned post card requests, consumers were sent one of the two versions of the leaflet in a predetermined, random order. Detailed records were kept of each request and 10 days later a follow-up leaflet evaluation survey was mailed. Items included preferences of leaflet features, pesticide users' attitudes and practices, opinions about pests and pesticides, and some demographics.

Nearly 800 valid requests for the publications were received, yielding 415 usable surveys (53% return rate). Over half (56%) of the respondents had received the original version, 44% had received the revision. Less than one percent (3 individuals) of the sample said they'd never used pesticides for home and lawn use, suggesting the target audience (pesticides users) was reached by the point-of-purchase approach.

Preferences for Publications

As illustrated in Table 1, a large majority receiving both the old (90%) and new (87%) versions reported that the publications provided new and useful information. A considerable proportion (45% old and 41% new), however, indicated improvements were needed (more details on pest problems and understandability). Due to the nature of the questionnaire items, changes or improvements were largely unspecified. However, their comments referred to publication details, contents, and style in both versions, but neither was preferred over the other.

Participants also expressed strong interest in pest-specific information in a leaflet that was written to inform on the safe use of pesticides. Perhaps the line of thought is that the first step to safe use is using the right pesticide on the right pest, as well as knowing what constitutes a pest problem. Or perhaps pesticide safety is a personal issue, one that most people feel they either have control over or that they enjoy personal immunity from harm. These types of conclusions can't be inferred from these data.

Focus Group Interviews

Focus group interviews gave us a chance to intensively explore the meaning of responses to the survey questions, thus contributing depth and breadth to the results. In general, the aim of focus group interviews is to allow groups of five to 12 users of a product (the leaflet) to review, evaluate, and react to it, discussing personal criteria, preferences, and biases. If groups are representative of the target population, confidence in the qualitative results (typically in the form of descriptive statements) increases.

For this study, four focus group interviews were conducted, each with five to eight individuals who had completed the survey. As incentives and compensation, participants received a meal and a $10 honorarium. Sessions lasted one and a half to two hours and were held in the evening in the local Cooperative Extension office.

A week before each session, participants were mailed copies of both versions of the publication with a comment sheet. About 40 to 50 minutes a session were spent discussing the leaflet preferences, features liked and disliked, improvements, and information needs related to urban pest management. Pesticide labeling, perceptions of risk, home pest management decision making, and selection of pesticides were also examined. Interviewers were guided by responses to the survey in the first study phase.

As shown in the study phase, no preference for one version over the other was apparent. However, as attention turned to specific features of the two leaflets, a different picture emerged. Few features of the original version were mentioned positively. Group members liked the original's "easier-reading format" and text on symptoms of pesticide poisoning. The newer version, however, received many more compliments on table of contents, quantity, quality and relationship of illustrations to the text, easy-to-read format, use of sample pesticide labels and tables, information on California Poison Control Centers, and the general design of the leaflet.

Each version also received critical comments. For example, to some consumers, illustrations in the original didn't fit the text. Some also felt information was too general, elementary, or just plain omitted (Poison Control Center information). The new version was faulted for its simplicity, lack of detail, elementary illustrations, small typeface, and excessive use of "dos" and "don'ts." Coupled with these reactions were positive comments on the revision, such as it was "better at being at your fingertips when wanting to check something," was "easier to use," similar to a "reference book," and lends itself to "fact-finding."

A consistent theme raised in the focus group interviews was that readers expected leaflets containing information other than that presented. The title, "Using Pesticides Safely in the Home and Yard," inadvertently contributed to this expectation. Group members, as readers, focused on use of pesticides, that is, using appropriate pesticides for a particular pest problem rather than on their safe use. These two perspectives are distinct. In spite of the title, readers expected (and wanted) reference information on controlling specific pests. Since the reference format of the revision was preferred, a new title reflecting this may be in order ("How To Use Pesticides Safely").

Other comments underscored the demand for additional information on pesticides - for example, expiration dates, use information, precautions, information on specific compounds and their hazards, and alternatives to chemical pesticides. Although neither publication used in this study was intended to provide this type of instruction, the fact still remains that an expressed need exists for it. If only survey data were used, details of the information gaps wouldn't have been revealed. But surveys, coupled with focus group interviews, provided Extension with information on how to proceed in developing useful information materials.

Table 1. Assessments of old and new leaflets.

Old New
Agree Disagree Agree Disagree
Specific improvements are
needed (e.g., clearer wording,
more detail, references)
(old=205; new=155)
45% 55% 41% 59%
Hard to understand
(old=203; new=135)
4 96 2 98
Provided new and useful
(old=205; new=156)
90 10 87 13
I expected to find
information on specific
pests and pesticides
(old=197; new=148)
80 20 75 25
Needed more details about
specific pest problems
(old=191; new=167)
77 23 75 25

Table 2. Sources of information and help for pest problems.

Nursery 264 (64%)
Own books 220 (53%)
Magazines 146 (35%)
Friends/neighbors 133 (32%)
Cooperative Extension 123 (30%)
Newspapers 123 (30%)
Pest control advisors 65 (16%)
Library 49 (12%)
Radio/TV 46 (11%)


One implication for Cooperative Extension from this market research study is that, if marketed correctly, written information has a large, ready, and willing audience. This conclusion is supported by findings that participants use a variety of information sources on urban pest management (Table 2). Books, magazines, newspapers, other published information, and libraries were mentioned frequently as sources, suggesting the sample actively seeks written material. To effectively respond to the demand, publications must be tested by the consuming public before finalizing them and integrating them with other activities.

It's less evident that consumers want or will use information on personal pesticide safety - despite the fact that they "need" it. How can such important information be presented to ensure its proper interpretation and application? One probable answer is to develop two publications - one to address pesticide safety, including the consumer-appealing themes discussed above. The second could deal with urban pest management, pest control, and what pesticides to use. To assure Cooperative Extension representatives that consumers receive both information sets, one two-pronged publication would be appropriate. The issue of packaging the information is also significant - the attractiveness of the package must be considered to increase the likelihood that clients will purchase and read the material.

Our study demonstrates the utility of market research techniques (point-of-purchase contact, surveys, and focus group interviews) to efficiently obtain information on consumers' preferences, wants, expectations, and blind spots. The combination of surveys and focus groups yielded a richness of findings unlikely with a single method. Specifically related to the issues of pesticide use and safety was the important finding that although the Extension educators are interested in conveying information on the safe and prudent use of pesticides, many consumers are more interested in learning about specific pest control techniques. Thus, the challenge is how to provide information on how to safely, appropriately, and prudently solve pest problems when clients want information on how to quickly and easily solve their problem. What's primary to the educator isn't equally primary to the clients.

The resulting dilemma isn't unique to Extension educational efforts in the pesticide/pest management area. Educators concerned with nutrition, personal health, community wellness, water conservation, and a host of others (if not all areas) face the same dilemma. Every audience knows to some degree what they want to know about issues or subjects. And, all Extension educators also should know what they want their audiences to know and even what they need to know. If those two perspectives correspond, no dilemma exists. However, more often than not the dilemma is real. Market research methods offer the educator a means to understand the degree and nature of likely differences.

Market research has limitations when applied to Extension education. In our market- and product-oriented society, marketing's goal is to determine what customers want and to then develop a product that meets that want or need. Extension education is more problematical and therefore more challenging. We must do more than simply deliver what our clients want. To do so may be to overlook one of our most important roles - to educate (or to draw out). At times, we have to persuade as well as to inform. If we always deal with issues by providing information that clients want, we may fail in our roles as true educators to challenge, present options, and promote growth.

As is often the case, this study generated more questions than it answered. However, the questions addressed provided fundamental data for proceeding with testing the marketing model for use in public education campaigns. Unanswered questions (for example, how to incorporate distinct perspectives of audience and Extension, how best to inform, etc.) remind us of the important roles we play as Extension educators. They underscore the sometimes contrary but equally important perspectives held by our clients and us.