Put First Things First

I was recently asked by a LinkedIn connection for my thoughts on the importance of communities investing in an effective marketing program to attract capital investment. The question was asked as a follow-up to my panel presentation at the recent IEDC annual conference in Houston.

Given the importance of the question, I thought I would share my response.

DCI research indicates 76% of the time a short list of options is created without ever talking to an economic development professional. That means for 76% of investment opportunities your community’s image determines if it is on or off the short list.

Most communities have not done a good job of articulating their brand promise. And, if they do articulate it in an authentic way they find the promise is not competitive. Job #1 is to invest in “product improvement” to create an authentic, relevant and competitive promise. This is done through a strategic plan of asset creation, infrastructure improvement and public policy reform. Unfortunately, most communities do not have such a plan.

To be clear, investing in promoting a non-competitive promise is a complete waste of resources. If you try to paint a pig, it is still a pig.

But, once a community has defined an authentic, relevant and competitive promise, you need to communicate it to a defined target audience that a) will find it compelling and b) are in a position to make (or influence) a capital investment decision. At this point, creating an efficient marketing mix becomes very important.

You want your message to reach your target at the most impact full touch points. Touch points are moments when your target’s mind is open to receiving the information. Obviously, when they are doing an online search their mind is open. Therefore communities must have an effective online media plan. But that is not the only touch point to consider. Capital investors also obtain information in other ways such as reading journals, attending conferences, making site visits, reading mail, participating in telephone calls, etc. These are all communication tactics that should be carefully considered for inclusion in a marketing mix.

It is important to note, messaging research suggests it takes at least 9 repetitions of your message before it begins to stick in somebody’s mind. Creating the opportunity to be exposed to your message in multiple ways will help you achieve that threshold frequency. If you only count on your website, the underlying assumption is potential capital investors will visit it multiple times to achieve the message frequency. This is probably not a good assumption. The use of multiple media increases your odds of hitting the threshold level.

Deciding which communication tactics you should select for inclusion in the marketing mix is not an either or choice. It is an and consideration which is gated by a community’s promotional budget. The best marketing mix plans have both push and pull communication tactics. For example, journal advertising would be considered a push tactic to consider. However, for journal advertising to work the advertisement must be effective and the journal must provide good reach among the target audience. In my experience, most journal advertising fails because the advertisement is poorly deigned rather than the journal lacks reach. Similarly, email is a push tactic. And it can be effective if designed properly. But a poorly designed email will be destined for the trash bucket or will be screened out by the spam filter.


  1. Define and articulate your community’s promise.
  2. If the promise is not relevant, competitive and authentic then invest in getting your community competitive.
  3. Once your promise is relevant, competitive and authentic, then create a multi-media marketing mix to communicate it. Create a strong online presence as the core of your mix. But, do not make it your only tactical choice.
  4. Ensure all the communication tactics in your marketing mix are focused on supporting either lead identification or conversion. Be able to articulate how each choice is link to your sales funnel.
  5. Measure results and adjust your plan as needed. If a tactic is not working, be objective in determining if it is a wrong choice or if the execution is weak. Often you will find you made the right tactical choice, but the execution was simply not effective. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.


I was at lunch yesterday with a good friend and former colleague at Procter & Gamble. He worked in the Market Research function for the company. We were chatting about how challenging branding seems to be in economic development. His observation was simple, but profound. He said that like many brand managers of consumer products, economic development professionals likely do not truly understand what their community promise is. As a result, they have no objective way to see how non-competitive it really is. In his experience (like mine), whenever a brand manager tried to promote a non-competitive product it failed in the market. The solution was always to first invest in getting the product promise competitive and then to communicate that point of difference. Unfortunately, it always seemed to take a few brand managers failing before the company would admit the product’s promise was non-competitive before the right investment was made.

In economic development, to make your community’s promise competitive, you create new assets (soft and hard), invest in infrastructure improvement or reform public policy. You capture the choices on what to do in a strategic plan with a minimum five and ideally 10 – 15 year planning horizon.

My observation is that many communities cannot articulate their brand promise, are unaware if it is truly competitive, and do not have a strategic plan in place to guide investment choices. As a consequence, their branding efforts are doomed to fail. And, the effort will likely continue to fail until several economic development professionals lose their jobs from trying to press a bad hand (sacrificial lambs) and the community leadership is forced to conclude the issue of non-competitiveness must be addressed.

I think a better choice is to pursue the five steps I outlined above and get on a path to create sustainable economic success.

What is your experience with the phenomenon of economic development professionals failing by pressing a bad hand before a community will invest in becoming competitive? Have you ever taken on an assignment where the economic development professional before you was unsuccessful because the community was not competitive but leadership was not ready to admit it? Are you in an assignment now where you feel like you are pressing a bad hand?

Maybe it is time to put first things first.  Your community will benefit, and your career will thank you.

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