This past Monday, I enjoyed the privilege of speaking on a panel at the IEDC Economic Futures Forum in Buffalo, NY. My fellow panelists, Sherron Washington of marketing consultancy, The P3 Solution, and Sandy Sponaugle of Platinum PR, and I were charged with a discussion of how economic developers could assist social media entrepreneurs in their communities. We eschewed the usual 20-minute PowerPoint discussions for a rollicking question and answer session and then an interactive activity where participants put themselves in the role of entrepreneur and tackled some questions a new business owner might face.
This turned out to be an awful lot of fun. Even better, it spurred some very practical discussion of the ways economic developers and chambers of commerce may be disconnected from the small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in their communities. We then addressed the practical ways EDOs and chambers can address this potential disconnect. I'd like to share four specific ones with you here.
Help them learn about you. It's a mistake to think that small and medium-sized business owners know about the economic development organizations in their community. They may think you are focused on attracting foreign direct investment, or bringing new businesses into town. Or - especially with the newest startups - they very likely have no idea you exist at all. You'll need to go beyond email newsletters and LinkedIn to reach them, meeting them in the online (and offline) spaces they use to let them know who you are and how you can help.
Help them connect with each other. Small and medium-sized businesses can benefit a lot from collaboration, strategic partnerships, and support from other local businesses. However, they may not have the time or energy to seek them out. These business owners and managers - especially the young ones - may think chambers of commerce and economic development organizations are irrelevant to them because they would never fit in with the corporate crowd. Set up online spaces such as Facebook groups where local businesses can connect, learn about each other, forge alliances or supply relationships, and cross-promote their goods and services. Reinforce this with workshops that support skills they need to grow, such as writing a business plan, seeking investment, or managing distribution. Sherron suggested periodic "Starbucks takeovers" (or any other coffee shop you prefer), where local entrepreneurs are invited to informal gatherings IRL in local cafes to chat, exchange contact information and learn about each other. What a great idea!
Help them know the knowable. Entrepreneurs and start-ups can't afford the pricey market intelligence and consultants available to bigger companies. One of the things they tend to miss most is access to data to help them make more informed decisions. Things like labor force and consumer spending data. Listing and mapping out their suppliers and competitors. Looking for the right location with a reasonable drive time. Demographic and talent pool data. Projections for the next five years. Economic developers that provide interactive online data tools such as ZoomProspector Enterprise and Intelligence Components on their websites offer significant assistance to help existing small and medium-sized businesses grow. Want to see what they look like in action? Check out the Bergen County, NJ website, BergenForBusiness.com.
Help them amplify their social messaging. Make it a point to follow and monitor the social media accounts of local businesses. When you see their posts, retweet, reshare, like and comment. Help them stimulate engagement with others in the community, and amplify their messaging to your followers. Come up with a hashtag for growing business in your community that will help you track their social messaging. The City of Abbotsford, BC uses #bizfriendlyAbby in their posts and encourages others to use it as well. Hashtags help you track messaging to stay in the loop. Draw up a list of hashtags used by locally used businesses to help you stay on top of communication. This is the kind of relatively simple thing economic developers can do to build rapport, stay current, and offer something of value to growing local businesses.