In several of my blog posts, I have emphasized the need for communities to have a strong online communication presence. I have reported on the Development Counsellors International 2011 International Winning Strategies Report which indicates that 76% of the time a short list of location options is selected without ever reaching out to an Economic Development Group. The implications are clear, if your community’s online approach is weak then your economic development attraction strategy is relying predominantly on luck to achieve your growth goals.
So what does a good online effort look like? Rick Whittington Consulting has been doing a lot of work in this area. Their headline – “Make the Short List” caught my attention about the time Rick sent me an email sharing the work his consulting team did for Rockingham County.
I thought the work reflected a good understanding of what a great economic development organization website should look like. So I decided to respond to Rick and get him to share insights into the challenges and opportunities EDOs face in developing an effective online communication presence.
I think you will find Rick’s perspective refreshing. If you like what your read, I’d encourage you to check out the Rick Whittington Consulting portfolio. Special thanks to Rick for taking the time to answer my questions and for his generosity in sharing his knowledge with the Strengthening Brand America community.
Why is a strong internet presence important in economic development?
Corporate site selectors conduct their research online because they can do it confidentially and objectively. We find that they are searching for various types of information, from data such as demographics, workforce statistics, etc., to information about life in a community.
Websites are important for economic development organizations because they can provide the data that corporate site selectors and others need to help make decisions about a community. They can provide enhanced real estate listings showing inventory in the community, advantages for target industries, and give information on key contacts that can assist with a search.
Communities with economic development websites help aggregate information that site selectors are looking for, and can make that search easier for them.
What are some of the key characteristics you should look for when evaluating partners to help you strengthen your online communication program?
First and foremost, your communication partner should have an extensive understanding of websites, since a website is the “hub” of all of your online communication. Partners with experience building user-friendly, well-organized, highy-functional websites are preferred.
Second, a partner should never treat your website like an art project. Websites are also not just technology projects. The partner needs to understand economic development enough to know what prospects are looking for, and understand enough about your community to know what makes it unique.
What are some challenges that Rockingham County faced when designing their website?
There was a lot of opportunity in designing a new website for Rockingham County, because their old website was severely outdated and didn’t do a great job of communicating the economic development advantages of their community.
Because their old website served double duty as an economic development website and a tourism website, there was a tug-of-war between economic development and tourism messages. We always recommend that economic development websites stand on their own (apart from tourism) because economic development websites have a completely different audience from tourism websites.
We find that County economic development offices sometimes lump tourism and economic development together, so they naturally assume that one website should handle both functions. That’s not true, however.
What are some of the technical tools Rockingham County considered as your team built their website?
Like most local economic development organizations, the team at Rockingham County wanted an easy way to maintain their own website if they chose. Beyond just adding news, we know that it’s critical for them to be able to easily change data on the website. The content management system we put in place allows them to change things with absolutely no code knowledge at all, and we were able to plan what items needed to be changed ahead of time to make it quick and painless on their end.
Real estate search tools are important for economic development, and Rockingham County’s website integrates a great tool that is maintained by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. They give each locality a real estate search tool with just the sites and buildings in that community. To extend those capabilities, we included their county GIS system.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see with economic development organizations that attempt to market their communities online?
I think that economic development organizations are not unlike many companies in the private sector in that they understand traditional marketing communications, but don’t fully understand the value of online marketing and how it works.
Economic development organizations don’t put nearly enough emphasis on online public relations and communications. Having a steady stream of new content on your website is important and gives the perception that “things are happening.” We have one client that has seen a 46% jump in website visits just from regularly featuring new content on their website. Website content doesn’t just have to be news – it can be businesses in your community that you interview (or film), information on local corporate real estate, or you can even share news from local companies as they grow and succeed.
If someone wants to learn more about getting an economic development website, how can they contact you
Our website is http://www.RickWhittington.com, and our economic development and tourism work can be found at http://www.EconDevWebsites.com. They can also call our office at (804) 335-1477 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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