Why the Future of Economic Development Is Online

By Joshua Hurwitz, IEDC
International Economic Development Council

Today, most economic development organizations are online. But while some EDOs still have a sleepy page off their city’s main site, others have dynamic, informative, multi-pronged digital economic development strategies. Having an effective digital strategy, rather than simply an online presence, is critical to today’s economic development practice.

SEO, SEM & IA

Google “economic development” today and you are likely to find the sites of two very different counties near the top of your results – Sonoma in California and Aiken in South Carolina. The “secret sauce” that connects them is search engine optimization (SEO), the activity of getting pages listed highly on search engines, which translates into more visitors. Robert Payne, who oversees Georgia Economic Development’s websites, says SEO is the main reason his organization boasts a million web visits annually.

Another way to get noticed by search engines is through search engine marketing (SEM), or paying for listings through services like Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Baidu. For the right price, you can ensure that when users search for certain terms or phrases – say “site location” or “great business climate” – your website pops up first.

A less expensive but more labor-intensive way to boost search rankings is to improve the website’s information architecture (IA) to make it more user-friendly and dynamic. Good IA is an important component in the algorithms that search engines use to rank sites. Good IA will not only bring more visitors through SEO, but it will also leave them more informed and satisfied through a good user experience. Search engines are also increasingly rewarding website design that adapts to a users’ browsing device, including tablets, cellphones, and computers.

Social media matters

Well-designed websites are a critical component of today’s digital strategy, but so too is social media. Just as social media has changed the way businesses reach and engage their customers, so too has it transformed how economic developers reach out to existing and new businesses. Social media casts a wide net, allowing economic developers to share up-to-the-minute information and dialogue with many customers.

On the whole, social media allows economic developers to cost-effectively build a positive community brand and join critical community conversations. Yet within the realm of social media, different platforms connect with different audiences, so a multi-channel approach makes sense. For instance, Orlando’s much-lauded #WhyOrlando campaign began on Flickr, a photo-sharing website, but has since expanded to Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and LinkedIn too.

Business-oriented LinkedIn is probably the most popular social media tool for economic development marketing right now. Québec International, Québec City’s regional EDO, puts LinkedIn at the center of its marketing efforts. In Kitchener, Ontario, Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc. (CTT) another regional EDO, administers several LinkedIn groups to manage different types of content. CTT also pushes content to other LinkedIn groups, such as site selectors, marketing organizations, and international chambers of commerce.

Janet Grondin, manager of marketing at CTT, says that CTT’s LinkedIn strategy focuses on getting testimonials from business and community leaders because audiences connect better with narrative than with raw, quantitative data. With a limited marketing budget, Grondin says that LinkedIn is a crucial tool in keeping audiences apprised of new developments in the community.

Non-business social media platforms can be well-suited for certain purposes too. To promote its Rose District shopping area, representatives at the Broken Arrow (Okla.) Chamber of Commerce chose Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. Those platforms best suited their target demographic, women aged 35-45. The chamber’s Warren Unsicker says that by complementing its social media campaign with digital billboards and strategic paid advertising buys, the chamber was able to generate a tremendous amount of earned media coverage.

Instagram campaigns take off

Instagram allows users to upload and share photos. The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation chose Instagram to promote its “Live. Work. Play.” initiative, which aims to have Anchorage recognized as America’s best place to live and work by 2020. Each week, Anchorage EDC gives ownership of its “I Love Anchorage” account on the site to a different city resident, who uploads photos illustrating how they enjoy the city’s lifestyle.

Anchorage EDC employs a software suite called Iconosquare to track likes and followers of the account. Valerie Walsh, Anchorage EDC’s director of communications, says the account has succeeded beyond expectations. When the account was first started, the organization recruited highly followed Anchoragites as hosts, and promoted the account through its e-newsletter and Facebook page. The account’s popularity took off when Anchorage EDC hosted a “Live. Work. Play.” event that featured huge banners with images from the campaign, prompting past account hosts to take selfies next to their own pictures.

Since then, the account has garnered as many as 200 net new followers per week. Today, there is a four-month waitlist to host. “I Love Anchorage” has been so successful in boosting the city’s profile that communities as far away as Belton, Texas, Ashland, Virginia, and even the Northern Mariana Islands have created their own Instagram campaigns modeled after Anchorage’s.

Economic developers have more opportunities than ever to connect with investors – but they still need to know how to employ the best techniques and smartest tactics. Learn them with IEDC’s fall webinar series, The Future of Economic Development is Online. For six Tuesdays, starting October 27, you will learn the best in digital strategy from our partners at Atlas Advertising and from economic development practitioners whose organizations have been recognized by IEDC’s Excellence in Economic Development awards for digital marketing.

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