A few years ago, I got a phone call from a media company that was building its first website for an economic development organization. Being newbies at this, they asked if I might serve as a subcontractor to review their work.
I agreed and they showed me what was essentially their first rough draft, which wasn’t much. I gave them some input, but then months passed by, and I didn’t hear from them.
Looking back, I’m not sure if they ever built that economic development website. But they did pay me, which was nice.
You should know that I have never built an economic development website, nor do I ever intend to. But just as a film critic doesn’t have make movies, so, too, I don’t need to build websites to know the difference between a good one and a bad one.
I spend a heck of lot of time on economic development websites, probably every day. This past week alone, I have spent hours on the phone with economic developers, using their websites as a point of reference in framing my questions about their communities.
Most are Meh
To be sure, there are some very good economic development websites out there, but most are, well, meh. They’re OK at best, not as bad as some, not as good as others. Sometimes, however, I come across a website that is just shockingly bad, which was the case the past week with a Florida community.
What’s strange is that this particular community truly has a lot going for it, has a lot to crow about. But its website was worse than bad, offering little information that I would look for if engaged in a site selection project for a corporate client.
It’s no coincidence that most of the better ED websites out there are built by, guess what, companies that specialize in building economic development websites.
Too often, economic development organizations are pressured into using local vendors that have little or no understanding of what economic development is. Building a website for Mabel’s Beauty Shop and Chainsaw Repair is one thing, building an effective ED website for a community is quite another.
It just so happens that BBA, my consultancy, has a strategic alliance with the Golden Shovel Agency, which specializes in building ED websites. They are good folks who understand economic development, but they know nothing about cosmetology and/or chainsaws. For that, I would turn to my friend Andy Levine at Development Counsellors International.
I should probably mention that BBA doesn’t make a dime by recommending that economic development organizations hire Golden Shovel, even if that were to happen. We – BBA and Golden Shovel – merely have an understanding. We recommend each other and that is the extent of it. Period. End of story.
Having said that, here's what I look for in a website. The old saying that “content is king” is an understatement. It truly separates the good from the bad.
News You Can Use
Admittedly, this is all very subjective, but the very first place I go to on an ED website, the first thing I click on, is “News.” I want to see what kind of projects have been announced in a community over the past several years. I’m looking for expansion projects from existing employers. I’m also looking for new projects, new companies, that come to the community.
While press releases often don’t offer great insight, I want to get an idea of why companies made the decisions that they did relating to a community. I’m also looking for patterns. Are companies locating in a particular part of town, such as an industrial park or a business park?
Are they from a particular industry sector, such as automotive or aerospace or food processing? Inquiring minds (at least mine) want to know.
News stories on infrastructure improvements, workforce development initiatives, quality of life, will catch my eye. I’m looking for anything that tells me more about how a community works and what it has to offer.
While I typically cannot get the true zeitgeist of a place until I have visited it, the news stories on a website (and off the website from news outlets) is often the next best thing.
A Deeper Dive with Workforce
The next point of reference that I will search for is on workforce. The human resources of a place are incredibly important, transcending all industry groups. Employers want to know if they will have a sufficient labor pool, a talent pool, from which to draw.
Not only do I want to see the demographics and do a deeper dive with the labor analytics in terms of occupations within industry sectors and numbers, but I also want to determine if there is a future pipeline of talent in place.
Typically, there is little if any in-depth accounting of vocational education/training that is being offered, which is what I’m really after. If community has a university or a community college, certainly I want to know about it. But I want to see more.
Show Me, Don’t Tell Me
Schools often will be listed, and there may be some language indicating that educators will work with employers to fulfill their training needs. On the latter, forgive me, but that’s just talk. I want to see proof in the pudding.
I want to see what is being offered to teach people skills that they can take to the workplace. Show me the curriculum, so I know what specific classes are being offered. If there are case studies with examples of customized training programs for employers, so much the better.
Last year, I was in a small town in Alabama that had a community college that offered exceptionally good vocational training in the industrial trades. But you never would have known it from the ED website. Frankly, you wouldn’t have known it from the community college’s website, which is a pity.
Industrial skills trade jobs are in huge demand and pay high dollar. If a community has a pipeline of such talent, it should be telling the world about it. That’s called competitive advantage.
Have What You’re Targeting
Rather than a shotgun approach, economic development groups should take a well-aimed rifle approach and determine, through analysis, their target industries, which should be centerpiece on their websites.
I usually look at the target industry section of a website to determine if, in fact, the community has such existing companies in those sectors. Is there, in fact, an existing cluster, and if so, who are these companies?
Are they U.S., European or Asian-based? A community that has a mix is usually doing something right. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is often a good indicator that an economic development group will go the extra mile to make a project work.
Sometimes, I will come across a website that will specify a certain target industry, but upon further examination I determine there is no existing player in the community that would serve as confirmation. That’s what I would call wishful thinking.
Not necessarily a bad thing, but I would first have points on the board before I go about touting a target industry. Just a suggestion.
You Got to Have Product
Try as you may, you cannot get around the fact that there is a real estate component to economic development. If you don’t have buildings and/or sites, you’re not in the game.
And if you don’t have an inventory of real estate product on your website, direct me to where I can find it.
If in fact there is no place in a community for a new business to come into or an existing company to expand, then it has a much more serious problem than a deficient website.
Hot Licks, Cold Steel and Truckers’ Favorites
There are a myriad of other things that I look for in an ED website. I like maps. Even though I will look up the community on Google Maps, which is a wonderful thing, it’s good to feature maps on an ED websites showing where a community is in relation to a region, a state, and other places.
As logistics and transportation are key to moving people and freight, I want to see the major highways. I want to know the whereabouts of railroads, airports, and distances to major cities.
Speaking about major, and this goes back to workforce, I want to know the major employers in a community and have numbers that are approximately correct. Anything related to operating costs, as in prevailing wages, energy costs, taxes and financial incentives, will garner my attention and is always useful.
Despite the compelling subheading, there is no need for an ED group to feature anything on their website about Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. If they did, however, I would not complain.
Bring in the New and Finding You
I also want, and this is very important, the most current information that is available. Information in graphs or tables that is five years old does not fill the bill. Stay on top of current data and you will be rewarded. If not in this life, then the next. Ok, that’s admittedly weird.
One more thing, I want to see names, phone numbers and email addresses. I hate filling out contact boxes, with the hope that some unnamed person is going to get back to me. (You'd be surprised how often they don't, which is pretty incredible when you think about it.)
Finally, I want to be able to find an economic website during an internet search. If I create a search with a community’s name and “economic development” I would hope and expect to come up with the primary, go-to organization. If not, well, there are SEO experts for that.
So there you have it – my very subjective look at how I look at economic development websites. While I will never build one, I can advise on what's good and bad with an existing website or starting over with a new one, which is often the best remedy. I can be the film critic.