December 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA7

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The Ability to Relate: Assessing the Influence of a Relationship Marketing Strategy and Message Stimuli on Consumer Perceptions of Extension

Extension professionals are encouraged to market their programs and their organizations, but one of the most important marketing resources--their relationships--could be overlooked. The exploratory study reported here assessed the influence of a relationship-oriented marketing strategy and specific message stimuli on consumer perceptions of a statewide Extension service. A set of two focus groups, comprised of members of the general public, was utilized. Probability samples were generated using a predetermined sampling frame based on demographic variables. Results of the study showed that the user-focused marketing concepts resonated with participants, providing support for a message strategy focused on a two-way communication approach.

Tracy Irani
Associate Professor
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Amanda Ruth
Assistant Professor
College of Charleston
Charleston, South Carolina

Ricky W. Telg
Associate Professor
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Lisa K. Lundy
Assistant Professor
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Extension has been perceived as better at carrying out effective programs than at communicating these programs to stakeholders (Warner, 1993). Studies have demonstrated that legislators and the general public do not possess a clear understanding of the mission and funding of the Cooperative Extension Service (Blalock, 1964; Adkins, 1981). One study (Warner, Christenson, Dillman, & Salant, 1996) found that 45% of respondents said they had heard of the Cooperative Extension Service, while only 26% said they or a member of their immediate family had ever used the services of Extension. These researchers noted that Extension continues to have a fragmented image and must do a better job of establishing linkages between individual programs and the overall mission of Extension.

In an attempt to address these issues, Cooperative Extension has engaged in strategic marketing efforts in recent years at the federal and state levels. Since the mid-1980s, many state Extension services began constructing a consistent and uniform statewide identity with new names and logos (Verma & Burns, 1995). A primary goal of most marketing initiatives is the development and repetition of a good name or brand image (Marken, 2001)to increase public awareness of their programs(Boldt, 1988; King, 1993; Maddy & Kealy, 1998; Nehiley, 2001; Verma & Burns, 1995; Warner, 1993; Warner, Christenson, Dillman, & Salant, 1996).

However, most of these efforts have been unidirectional in nature and have overlooked the value of listening to their constituents. Chappell (1990) suggested that Extension must communicate with its constituents in a way that creates awareness, stimulates interest, and ultimately produces participation by targeted audiences. "The strategy to establish, develop, enhance, and maintain relationships to build loyalty and support for the organization revolves around three key factors: building relationships, retaining current customers, and recognizing internal and external markets" (Drysdale, 1999, p. 23).

In January 2004, a task force was called together to explore creative ways to market the new long-range strategic plan of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service. The task force proposed a marketing campaign designed to foster two–way relationships between Florida Extension and its constituents, including current clientele and potential users.

Tactical elements for this campaign included a slogan that focuses on illustrating the relationship between Extension and its publics; a user-focused Web portal that features dynamic content, maximum usability, two-way interactivity, and strong visuals; and an accompanying print brochure. Pictures, links, and texts will focus on the user, including identifying Extension services in "public value words" like "lawns and gardens" and "families" rather than the academically focused terms ("environmental horticulture" and "family and consumer sciences"). Based on the above, the purpose of the study reported here was to assess the influence of specific message stimuli on consumer perceptions of Extension in the state of Florida, using a relationship-oriented, two-way symmetrical communication marketing strategy.

Theoretical Framework

One approach to extend relationships with internal and external markets, while maximizing credibility and cost effectiveness, is the public relations model of communication. "Public relations contributes value to an organization when its communication programs result in quality long-term relationships with its strategic publics--also known as stakeholders" (Grunig, 2001, p. 25).

Grunig (1989) suggests four models for public relations: (1) the press agentry/publicity model, which refers to propagandistic public relations that seek media attention, however and whenever possible; (2) the public information model, in which the organization disseminates information to its publics, but does not seek out information about them; and the (3) two-way asymmetrical model, which uses research to determine what messages are most likely to produce support of an organization's publics without changing the organization. Finally, in the two-way symmetrical model, organizations use bargaining, negotiating, and strategies of conflict resolution to precipitate changes in the organization itself and its publics. Although the most difficult to accomplish and sustain, the two-way symmetrical model is most efficient with respect to building give-and-take relationships with its publics (Grunig, 1992).


Due to the limited literature on the influence of relationship marketing approaches on perceptions of Extension, a qualitative research design specifically utilizing focus groups was deemed the most appropriate method of data collection for this qualitative study. Borrowed from market research, focus groups can be defined as "a video- or audio-taped small group discussion that explores topics selected by the researcher and is typically timed to last no more than two hours" (Morgan & Spanish, 1984, p. 254).

Focus groups have several advantages. Focus groups are the sole qualitative method of data collection that allows for rich and enlightening exchanges between participants. They are commonly utilized by marketing researchers and consultants to explore marketing ideas. With respect to their use in an applied context such as Extension, focus groups provide local perceptions in rich detail and report actual statements from real people (Creswell, 1998) and can provide high-quality data about programs and services that surveys may miss (Iowa State University Extension, May 2004).

In the study reported here, two focus groups comprised of representative members of the general public were utilized. A market research firm was employed to qualify potential participants via telephone random digit dialing (RDD) sampling. Probability samples were generated using a predetermined sampling frame based on demographic variables including gender, age, income, ethnicity, and use/non-use of Extension. After qualifying the panel, the market research firm contacted potential participants and recruited them to participate. Participants received $50 as recruitment incentive after participating in the focus group session. Faculty in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communication and members of the Florida Cooperative Extension Service's marketing task force reviewed the focus group protocol and question guide for face and content validity.

An objective moderator was utilized to conduct the focus group and guide the group discussion. Moderator involvement was a balance of low to medium involvement, based on the facilitation needs of each group. A question guide was used to facilitate participant discussion and interaction.

During the sessions, focus group participants were first asked questions about their knowledge and awareness of Extension and then shown message stimuli consisting of concept boards depicting a series of slogans, Web site designs, and a brochure. The sessions were recorded using audio, video, and field notes and sessions were transcribed and analyzed by researchers to look for common themes, similarities and dissimilarities, observations of non-verbals, interactions, and reactions to message stimuli.

Data was analyzed using Glaser's constant comparative technique (1978). This technique is based on comparative analyses between or among groups of persons within a particular area of interest. This comparative analysis is the central feature of grounded theory in qualitative research and often allows the researcher to identify patterns and relationships within the collected data (Glaser, 1978). An audit trail including original data analysis, codes, semantic relationships, and listing of all domains was kept for verification and trustworthiness.

Two focus groups sessions consisting of five to seven participants each, were conducted in Fall 2004 at a central facility in Orlando, Florida. Participants included males and females and a mix of age ranges (20-70), ethnic groups, and those who use and do not use (non-use) Extension's services. During the sessions, participants were shown two different versions of a slogan for Extension that specifically focused on the relationship between Extension and its users. Two mock-ups of a Web site home page, one featuring more interactive content in the form of animation and containing changeable dynamic content and one featuring static pictures, were also shown to participants.


Reactions to Message Stimuli

During the focus groups, two slogans were tested: "Solutions for Your Life" and "Solutions for You." During the sessions, it became apparent that both groups strongly preferred the "Solutions for Your Life" slogan, indicating the other choice was "too vague." As one participant noted:

It's more reassuring because it says 'your life,' not solutions 'for you' because you don't know exactly what they're talking about. But if you're talking 'solutions for your life,' I think that helps someone as an individual. It personalizes it.

Interestingly, participants associated "Solutions for You" as someone solving someone else's problems and felt the theme raised too many questions, lacked context, and was not personal. On the other hand, the addition of two words, "your life," while making the slogan longer, made a huge difference in the meaning of the slogan for participants. "Solutions for Your Life" was felt to be more personalized and suggested improving lifestyles and quality of life for participants. The latter slogan made participants feel that the organization was talking to them, helping them solve problems, and thus was more inclusive. As one participant said:

To me, a lot of what Extension does is answer questions. You can pick up some strange little spooky-looking bug in your yard and take that to the Extension office and somebody there will help you figure out what it is and how to get rid of it. They answer questions and if you want to grow a particular plant you can call your Extension office and they'll give you all their little sheets on it and test your soil and this and that. They provide answers to questions. And that's where they're the most helpful.

Web Site and Interactive Web Portal

In general, participants' self-reported information-seeking behaviors seemed strongly associated with Web usage. Both focus groups saw the Internet as "the primary way to get information." As one respondent said, "Anything that I want to research or find out about, I go to the Internet, both for the information itself--content--as well as places and organizations that could provide information for me or information about their services." Every participant in the study said they access the Web for work, school, and personal uses, and they all used the Web every day.

Participants in both focus groups found the overall proposed Web site design appealing. Focus group participants said this about the Web site: "It looks professional." "It's simple. It looks like it would be easy to use--user friendly." "It's crisp and well laid out and not busy. It's easy to use."

With respect to the interactive Web portal concept, the consensus of both groups was that the site with interactive content and animation would be more useful. One respondent said:

I like how each time you log on, that this box would change. You know, so it gives it more of a variety instead of looking at the same thing every time you went on. I think that is beneficial for a lot of the people who go on the Web site, trying to research more about--learning about that Web site.

Participants said they would be more likely to visit the interactive site more often than a static site with unchanging content. Non-users in both focus groups said they would be more likely to follow through on utilizing Extension services, especially since they felt it would be easier to find out what was offered. Both groups felt that the use of pictures was something that stood out, and which they liked, but suggested combining the Flash animation with larger, clickable pictures and labels on pictures showing how they related to specific Extension services.

The consensus of the second focus group was that the table of contents menu, located to the left of the screen, was especially useful and made the site easier to navigate because it stayed on the screen all the time so that visitors to the Web site would not have "to back track." Both groups felt that use of drop-down menus and rollovers, designed as interactive table of contents features, were extremely important, not only to access sub-pages but also to help non-users understand what services were offered.

During both sessions, the moderator went through each of the menu and sub-menu items on the page, which had been developed to identify Extension services using "public value words"--terms that non-users would easily recognize. Both users and non-users of Extension services liked this idea and were able to easily understand and identify what elements would be encompassed within the public value words "agriculture," "environment," "youth development," and "lawns and gardens," but had some problems distinguishing the difference and what would be contained within the "family" and "community" links. Participants believed "family" would be more appropriate under the "community" link or as "home and family." Another common concern was that "nutrition," a link placed in the sub-menu under "family," did not seem to be where participants would expect to find this information.

Discussion and Conclusions

In general, findings of the study provided support for the concept of developing and implementing a marketing strategy for Extension focused on a two-way symmetrical model of communication. The user-focused marketing concepts tested during the focus groups resonated with participants, all of whom--both users and non-users of Extension --responded favorably to a thematic slogan focused on identifying and illustrating the relationship Extension has with its users, in the form of providing "solutions for your life."

With respect to the use of the Web and the concept of the interactive Web portal as a way of facilitating two-way communication, it was interesting to note that participants all looked to the Web as their primary information source. Further, they favored the more interactive Web site design and felt that including dynamic, changeable content would be beneficial and cause them to be more likely to visit the site more often and avail themselves of Extension's services.

One of the most important findings of this study related to the participants' reaction to the use in the Web site design of user-friendly "public value words" and an organizational structure focused on communicating with stakeholders in terms that were mutually meaningful; this approach was perceived as very important by participants. Participants understood and shared the meaning of most of the terms that were tested and were very clear about the importance of using terms and navigation structure that made sense to them. This finding provides support for the potential positive influence of a message strategy focused on a two-way communication approach, in which feedback from stakeholders helps shape the communication message strategy, rather than the more common one-way communication strategy centered on dissemination of information within the context of standard Extension terminology and organizational structure.


Researchers in the study reported here recommend that others investigating Extension's messages and elements used to foster two-way relationships should consider or implement the following:

  • Conduct focus groups or targeted market surveys of users and non-users of Extension's services. Using research as a base for determining clients' understanding of Extension programs and services, as opposed to a mentality of "build it and they will come," will provide Extension professionals with more comprehensive information to target what they do to interested clients.

  • Use "public value words" that have meaning and strength. Academic words or phrases that may have been used in the past should be phased out to reach a more urban and needs-focused clientele.

  • Establish an easy-to-understand message. As reported in this study, a shorter message--"Solutions for You"--was less understandable than the longer "Solutions for Your Life." Focus group participants grasped that "your life" meant Extension's services would have an impact on and support activities and needs they had in their everyday life. This finding is particularly interesting, in that it goes against the accepted marketing mindset that "shorter is always better."

  • Adopt the technology used by the target audience to disseminate the message. Understand that usage may differ from preference, as in "preferred method of delivery" on a survey. In this study, focus group participants noted that they used the Web as their primary information source every day. The Internet may not be the right technology to disseminate to all audiences, however. Determining the correct technology for message delivery should be a priority.

  • Build in mechanisms for feedback. The study emphasized the need to incorporate the two-way symmetrical public relations model, which is efficient in building give-and-take relationships with its publics (Grunig, 1992). Developers of Extension messages must receive input from vested clientele as they determine and, later, disseminate the message.

In light of limited resources currently being allocated in many Extension programs, it is increasingly important to understand how to leverage marketing efforts to promote Extension to existing clientele and engage more urbanized audiences with respect to the value of Extension services. Resources for Extension are often limited, and prospective clientele often difficult to reach. Focusing on relationships may provide a way to be more effective and efficient with available marketing resources. Findings from this study will, it is hoped, provide suggestions as to how relationship marketing efforts can be used to enhance the effectiveness of Extension programs and activities.


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