Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can Your Community Go “Viral”?

By Alex Pearlstein, Director of Projects.

One of the great challenges of economic development marketing in today’s wired, information-overloaded world is how to penetrate the noise and get opinion-makers, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, investors, and top talent to notice your community. While site selection and corporate real estate-focused publications and websites still reach a certain percentage of relocation professionals, they will probably not compel a prospect to consider your community or attract skilled professionals looking for a new place to live, work, or start a business. Successfully leveraging a public relations program to seed stories in top publications might get you some play with particular executives and investors, but not necessarily with “millenials.” Putting all your eggs in the social media basket would improve your reach with “millenials” and the more media-savvy corporate folks, but what about those decision-makers who don’t have time to check their online networks every day or sift through the endless stream of postings to Facebook or LinkedIn.

The reality of today’s marketplace is that no one failsafe strategy, program, venue, or medium can cover all the bases of your outreach campaign. The strategies I described in the previous paragraph (maybe with the exception of site selection trade mags) should be considered as components of a holistic marketing program. The degree to which one is prioritized over another might vary by community and target audience; these are questions that should be assessed and answered through thoughtful communication with top volunteers, local companies, community partners, and assessment of best-practice programs from top economic development marketing organizations.

If you are creative and think outside the box in terms of telling your community’s story, you might just strike a vein of gold and get yourself “viral.” In some cases, you’re not so much telling your story as just making a statement about your community or taking a stand against what you feel is an undeserved stereotype. The best example of a city striking back at negative press and seeing its response burn up the internet is Grand Rapids, Michigan. The city’s reaction to being included on a Newsweek list of “America’s Dying Cities” was to film a “lip dub” music video to the tune of Don McClean’s “American Pie” that did nothing more than show Grand Rapids residents of all stripes proudly singing, marching, walking, dancing, and riding through their downtown.

Since its debut in early summer of last year, the Grand Rapids LipDub  has been viewed over 4.6 million times on YouTube, a self-described new world record. Think about that number – 4.6 MILLION. That’s a lot of “eyeballs” as the advertising people say. Not to mention the exposure the video got on NPR, Salon.com, NBC’s “Today Show,” and other outlets. Film critic Roger Ebert even called it “the greatest music video ever made.” The filming of the lip dub involved over 5,000 people, featured complicated logistics and staging, and required the donation of resources from multiple public and private partners. Lesson being, just because it’s YouTube doesn’t mean it’s cheap!

Another viral video – an Iowa filmmaker’s response to perceived stereotypes of the state during the Iowa caucuses – also made national press. The “Iowa Nice” video  (this is the “clean’ version) helped dispel myths and get Iowa noticed by 20-somethings and creatives all across the country.

Will millions of web hits and viewings single-handedly turn around Grand Rapids’ economy or trigger a mass migration of “creative class” talent to Western Michigan or Iowa? Doubtful. Have perceptions about Grand Rapids and Iowa been changed in the minds of thousands of people? Probably. In today’s world, that’s no small feat.