Social Media in Economic Development

 

Clearly, social media is all the rage. It seems almost every economic development organization is diving into the deep end of the pool and is trying to utilize social media channels to tell their story.

The typical reasons I hear from economic development professionals to justify their use of social media include:

  • My budget has been cut, and unlike traditional media social media is free.
  • Everybody is using social media so it must work.
  • If we don’t use social media, our community will be at a competitive disadvantage.
  • I don’t know if it works or not, but I don’t want to miss out by ignoring social media.

In my opinion, none of the above reasons are sufficient to make a compelling case for an EDO to invest in a social media effort.

First, social media is not free. The care and feeding of a social media effort requires staff time. This time represents a real overhead cost (salary and benefits) to the Organization, and carries an opportunity cost (the staff time is not being invested against other priority work) that can be considered. In addition, there may be out-of-pocket costs.

Second, if social media doesn’t deliver a return on investment you lose nothing by deciding not to participate. In fact, you could argue that your community will have a relative advantage because your budget will be better invested than the competition. The argument that everybody is doing it so you should too doesn’t work when your children try using it as a justification to do something wrong or dangerous. Why should it make any more sense to justify a business investment?

My Counsel Before You Waste Your Money – Be Strategic

If you want to invest in a social media program, you should have a sound, compelling strategic rationale for doing so. If you can’t clearly articulate a strategic objective then don’t invest in the communication channel. For perspective, this is exactly the same counsel I would give for media choice you might consider.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with the strategy of learning about the role a communication channel might play in your overall media mix. But, in my mind this strategic rationale demands you approach the investment as a legitimate test with pre-determined measurements and pre-established learning objectives.

Is There a Role For Social Media in Economic Development?

Undoubtedly the answer is yes. But, to date I have only found examples of social media being effective in B2C communication rather than B2B. Please note this observation is for economic development and not intended to be generalized. I have seen social media used successfully in B2B in the area of e-commerce. But, e-commerce is not where I see EDO’s trying to leverage social media.

I’ve published my observations on strategies that make sense, as support for an EDO investing is a social media effort. In this post, I’d like to share another example that I found interesting.

Madeira Proud Case Study

Madeira, Ohio is a city in Hamilton County with a population of roughly 9,000 (4,000 households and 2,500 families). About 30% (2,700) of the population are under the age of 24.

A development group wants to build a 184-unit luxury apartment complex in the city. A citizen action group has launched a Facebook page called “Madeira Proud” to oppose it. On the page they state – “We feel there is a better use for this property and we need your help to stop the development.” To present the other side of the argument, the development company created its own Facebook page called “Camargo Crossing”. The developer states – “We want people in the community to know about our development plans and to be as excited about them as we are.”

I thought this case study is an interesting example of engaging the public (B2C) in a discussion of importance to a community. It potentially represents a strategy worth considering when community engagement/education is your primary objective.

The city manager was quoted in the paper as saying – “Facebook has become increasingly more popular as a method of getting people more connected with a public issue.”

For perspective, the Madeira Proud page has 140 “likes” while the Camargo Crossing Page was reported to have 5 (I couldn’t even find the page). To finish the story, the development was voted on a resoundingly rejected.

Thoughts

Three thoughts come to my mind from this case study –

  • Can social media be used to educate the community on a particular issue of importance? Madeira had ~ 2% of the residents over the age of 24 (145/6,300) participating, and I believe the comments were reasonably rich in quality (ignoring the expected over the top ones).  I wonder how many people would have participated if there was a more robust investment to create awareness and encourage input.
  • Can social media be used as a pseudo focus group to better understand the perspective of the more vocal factions in a community? It might be a way to assess the pros and cons of a given issue. While 145 people may not sound like a lot, typically it would take 14 – 15 focus groups (assuming about 10 people per group) to get input from that many people. Of course, you’d want to structure the execution a bit differently to mimic a focus group better. But, I think the potential may be there. I’d love to hear the opinion of the market research professional community on this concept.
  • Can social media be used to create advocacy or neutralize misperceptions of citizens in a community? I am intrigued with the possibility of providing links and media (e.g. video) that can be shared between chat leaders within a community and their personal networks.

Discussion

I tend to view social media in economic development as still experimental. I think there is a lot to learn yet. But, some of the potential uses may be both useful and exciting to consider. If you want to read more about my thoughts on the subject, simply click on this LINK.

I am preparing to participate in a panel discussion about social media at the upcoming IEDC national meeting in Houston. I would greatly appreciate any insights, thoughts, examples, references etc. that you might share with me. If you want to share directly, my email address is eburghard@mac.com. Or, simply comment on this post (that way everybody will be able to read your input). The more examples I can share about what seems to work and what hasn’t worked the better the educational value of my presentation. Thanks in advance for the help.

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