Creating an Effective Online Presence

One of the most thought provoking statistics I have come across is DCI’s finding from a national survey conducted among U.S. CEOs in 2008 – 71% of the time a short list of locations to consider for capital investment is created without talking to an economic development professional. The implication is that for 71% of investment occasions, your community’s image determines if it is on or off the short list for subsequent due diligence. Therefore, if you want to create discontinuous economic growth it is imperative your community have a strong and competitive image. One of the most cost effective ways to create/support that image is by building an easy to find and positive online presence.

Here are 10 tips to consider when evaluating your community’s online presence.

  1. Start with your target audience. Where are they spending time online? How receptive are they to receiving information about your community online? What kind of information would be meaningful and believable? If your target audience is not reading a particular magazine, then it is pretty intuitive that it makes no sense to advertise in it. Similarly, if your target audience is not online or using a particular social media service (e.g. Facebook), then it would make no sense to invest your limited time and resources to create a presence for your community. Or would it? One of the best resources I have found to stay abreast of CEO technology use trends is Mashable. A recent Mashable report suggests CEOs are not big users of social media today, but will need to become so in the future. One research study claims 64% of the world’s top 50 Company CEOs are not social. Other studies suggest there is a “sea change” about to happen with younger CEOs being highly engaged with social media. Given these data, the strategic question is – Should your community take a leadership position and invest in building a presence in social media channels, or should it assume a fast follower position? If you decide to pursue a leadership position, then which social media venue makes the most sense for you to invest in? For example, do you know top CEOs are most engaged with Wikipedia and Twitter is used the least? What is the demographic profile of LinkedIn versus Facebook? It is imperative you understand who is using each social media channel you consider and select the one(s) that are best aligned with your strategic objectives.
  2. Understand why you need a website and the unique role you want it to play in your communication mix. I think every community should have a quality website to ensure a good impression is created when anybody finds your community online. A website is often the first introduction to the assets and benefits offered in your community. You only have one opportunity to make a good impression, so it should not be squandered by having a poor quality (or constantly out-of-date) website. But, what else do you want your website to accomplish? Do you want it to be the place to share factual information that can be used in creating a profile of your community as a capital investment choice? Do you want it to help create a feeling for what it might be like to live and work in your community? Do you want it to be a pride-building networking tool for the residents in your community? The strategic objective you choose will dictate the look, feel and content for your website. It is important to consciously select a strategy to guide development choices. If you do not, you risk creating a hodgepodge website that speaks to nobody.
  3. Determine what behavior you want to impact among your target audience. It is my opinion that a website will not “sell” your community to a potential capital investor. The decision to invest money in your community requires far more due diligence than a website can deliver. However, it can create awareness of and interest in your community that you can in turn translate into an investment if your community makes the short list for consideration. Design your community website to deliver the specific behavior you are seeking to impact and you will have far better success. Be certain though, that everybody is aligned with what that behavior is and what the best metric to evaluate success would be. Changing a perception or belief about your community is a very different behavior than trying to get a visitor to your website to register for a follow-up contact.
  4. Allocate the right resources. Interactive communication is an evergreen exercise. You cannot create a static website and hope to achieve success. Interactive tools require time and attention. Don’t be fooled by the expense not being directly out-of-pocket. There is always a significant investment of overhead resources required to manage interactive communication. You need to anticipate it and have an operational plan in place to address it. If you decide you can’t afford the time and personnel required to maintain a quality interactive presence, than you should reconsider creating one in the first place. That may sound harsh, but it also may be the best advice you get from anybody on the subject.
  5. Have a specific search strategy. If your target audience can’t easily find your information, you will not be effective. There is nothing magic about being easy to find on the web. It is simply a matter of understanding how search engines work and being disciplined to doing the right things to make your website white label seo friendly. The challenge is that the “right things” can be very technical and require some research to discover and understand. The good news is that there are a number of Agencies you can contract to help you get it right. If you have a website and want to know how easy it is to find, my favorite FREE tool is HubSpot Website Grader. In my experience, if your score is below 80, your website needs attention.
  6. Think holistic when deciding which online channels you are going to include in your communication mix. Your community image should be consistent across all online channels you decide to include in your communication mix. The tone, the focus, the messaging, everything should be consistent and reinforce your community brand promise. Disjointed efforts create confusion for any visitor who experiences your community through several different online channels. Synchronize the look, feel and focus as best you can. But, recognize different online channels have unique constraints.
  7. Remember, interactive communication is all about good communication practices, do not forget the fundamentals. Does your community have a relevant, competitive and authentic brand promise? Is it articulated in a simple to understand and compelling way? Do the visuals on your website add to the communication of your community brand promise, or are they random? Does your interactive communication create an emotional appeal to learn more about your community? Are you speaking to the right strategic target? Interactive media is different than traditional media, but just as the fundamentals of effective communication translated from radio to television, so do they translate from traditional media to interactive. The big difference is the upside possibilities in creating a real experience that reflects what it is like to live and work in your community.
  8. Create a feedback loop that allows economic development professionals in your community to leverage and reinforce your work. Everybody engaged in economic development or travel & tourism in your community should understand your online strategy and help to both amplify the messaging and extend its reach. Cross links are important to create traffic to your website, sharing the URL for your website with their contacts, encouraging participation in your social media efforts, helping enrich and shape the visitor experience are all important ways for residents, companies and partner organizations to help ensure your community’s story is heard.
  9. Think about scale. I have a favorite model for success. I call it OPM – OPR – OPK (Other People’s Money – Other People’s Resources – Other People’s Knowledge). The more you collaborate and leverage other organization’s money, resources and knowledge, the greater your chances for success. Do not fall into the trap of needing to be the center of the universe. Instead, embrace the decentralized nature of interactive media and use it to tell your story even better. This can be as simple as authoring a relevant post on somebody else’s blog that might interest their readers in learning more about you and your community. It can also include co-promotion and co-branding (e.g. Regional efforts). There is a wide range of possibilities to consider in the world of OPM – OPR – OPK.
  10. Forget perfection, it is all about continuous improvement. Accept that you will never get it totally right. The world of interactive media is changing way to fast for anyone to be on top of it. But, in my humble opinion, getting it right is also overrated. Go for close enough and be willing to course correct as you get new information on what is working and what is not. I have found Pareto’s Principle to be a good one to follow in economic development. Lean forward and succeed.

I hope the above 10 tips help you better think through your community’s interactive communication strategy. Please leave a comment and share your perspective/experience in creating an online presence for your community, region or state. By sharing, you help everybody get a better learning experience.

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