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Social Media: From Internet Fad to Indispensable Communication Tool

June 30 is World Social Media Day, an opportunity to reflect on how much communication has changed in the last decade.

As badly as COVID-19 has disrupted the world and our work in UF/IFAS Extension, I sometimes wonder: What would have happened if the pandemic had struck ten years ago?  Or even five years ago? Imagine trying to keep a statewide organization on the same page with speaker phones. Imagine cancelling all of our workshops, field days and conferences for months until classrooms are safe to enter. Imagine 4-H or the Family Nutrition Program running entirely on email.

Fortunately (I should say deliberately), UF/IFAS Extension has always been an early adopter. About ten years ago, we greatly stepped up our embrace of interactive media, including blogs, online courses, podcasting, webinars, video sharing and social media. At the time, some of these platforms were viewed skeptically, as fads that came with a lot of hype, but limited usefulness. What good is Twitter, we wondered, when you only have 140 characters?

As it turns out, 140 characters is more than enough to draw thousands of people to read, watch or listen to our educational programs. As we learned this, more and more Extension specialists began to write blogs, create Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and master the arts of using hashtags, Zoom rooms and YouTube videos. After 10 or so years of practice, many of us have become proficient (or at least more comfortable) with online communication and social media platforms.

So in March of 2020, when COVID-19 started closing classrooms, Extension offices and RECs around the state, we were in a position to use social media innovatively to connect with our stakeholders and make a fairly seamless transition to virtual programming.

We have been able to use social media to keep our faculty, staff and stakeholders up-to-date on COVID-19 news, and graphic “tiles” with CDC and FDH guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 have been distributed in English and Spanish over all social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. With social distancing measures leaving Florida’s farmers shut out of traditional markets, we’ve partnered with FDACS and growers’ associations to help producers find alternative markets and connect directly with consumers. To measure the impact of COVID-19 on Florida’s agriculture industry, we’ve developed a Qualtrics survey to distribute to producers around the state, which gave us in-the-moment data to share with state and federal agencies.  The large number of responses we received and the speed with which we were able to collect the data would not have been possible without social media.

Thanks to Zoom conferences and live webinars, we’ve been able to take questions and communicate important updates weekly with the help of guests including the Commissioner of Agriculture and experts from UF Health, the Florida Department of Health and the CDC.

Most importantly, social media have allowed UF/IFAS Extension to continue our educational programming uninterrupted. Using Facebook, Facebook Live, Twitter and Instagram, we’ve been able to promote and transmit virtual programs in every Florida county. Not only has Extension “stayed open” through this pandemic, but we’ve expanded our offerings and increased our audience.

Cases in point:

  • When North Florida REC’s Twilight Cool-Season Forage Tour was cancelled in March, Ann Blount and Doug Mayo produced a video virtual tour and posted it on YouTube. So far, the virtual tour has received more than 480 views—far more than would have attended the tour in-person.
  • With summer camps closed, it’s left thousands of Florida’s youth—and 4-H volunteers—stuck at home with little to do. Thanks to social media and the innovation of Florida 4-H leadership, our youth development program has been able to offer Florida 4-H Adventures, a virtual summer program that presents dozens of hands-on learning experiences in healthy living, leadership and STEM science. Over 1,000 youth have registered for Adventures; of those, 411 are currently non-4-H members and 31 are non-Florida residents.
  • Each Tuesday from April through June, agricultural producers from around the state have logged into Zoom for the 2020 Virtual Ag BMP Summit. Participants have been able to talk with UF/IFAS specialists to learn about current research and Extension programming and discuss the future direction of the Agricultural Best Management Practices program. The best thing about the virtual BMP summit is that if you missed a session, blog summaries and recordings are available for free.

These are just three examples of the hundreds of ingenious virtual programs that Extension faculty throughout the state have put together, sometimes on very short notice, to share with our growing population of fans and followers on social media.

Of course, virtual programming has its limitations, and as social distancing restrictions ease, I can’t tell you how much we look forward to meeting people again at open houses, field days, plant shows and community gardens.

But if there’s one lesson we’ve learned from COVID-19, it’s that social media has become an indispensable tool for connecting with our audience and providing them with the information they need to better their lives.

For a list of UF/IFAS social media accounts, visit: https://ifas.ufl.edu/social-media/

View the files below to see how UF/IFAS Solutions’ audience has grown on social media:

Facebook Pages (UF_IFAS) August 1, 2011 – June 24, 2020

Twitter Profiles (UF_IFAS) August 1, 2011 – June 24, 2020

Instagram Business Profiles (UF_IFAS) August 1, 2011 – June 24, 2020

 

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