If an economic development organization’s website is the cornerstone of its marketing - its very public face to a world of potential investors and site selectors - then there is no excuse for having a bad one. As the director of marketing for GIS Planning, I spend hours looking at economic development websites for organizations across the United States and Canada, and I am frequently amazed by the confusing layouts, omissions and errors I see. It's interesting to note that the most serious mistakes have little to do with budgets or funding - they are simply a lack of oversight and strategic planning for this incredibly important resource.
A few strategic and thoughtful changes can make a world of difference when it comes to some of the metrics that matter the most: development dollars, job creation and business retention. Our market research shows that 97% of site selectors research locations online. They are on your websites when you don’t event know it. And if you aren’t offering what they seek (or making it easy to find), you may be losing leads without even knowing you were in the running.
Here are the 11 most common website mistakes we’ve found in economic development (in no particular order), according to three broad categories:
Basic information is missing or difficult to find.
1- Do you show (on a stylized map) exactly where you are located? Visitors from out of the state or the country can’t know where you are. There are many Springfields in the U.S., and many Washington Counties. Are you near the coast? Near a major metropolitan area? In the south? Can website visitors explore a map of your location for details of interest?
2- Is your contact information easy to find? Is there a clear Contact Us tab or icon. Is there a toll-free number? Is the email address role-based only (such as email@example.com) or do you also provide the name and contact information of an actual human being?
3- Is your GIS site selection tool clearly evident, with icon-based links from a variety of pages? Your location analysis tool is an incredibly powerful way for investors to choose your community, and then do a detailed analysis for suitable sites or buildings. Why hide it with a tiny text link way at the bottom of your page? This is the showpiece part of an economic development organization website, and it should be promoted in clear and obvious ways from a variety of website pages. Want examples? See how Choose New Jersey, the Bowling Green Chamber of Commerce (KY) and the Economic Development Association of Skagit County (WA) successfully draw attention to their high-value applications.
4- Do you offer up-to-date, searchable data about your location (see here or here for examples), or do you send visitors off to static lists on another website, possibly two or three years out of date? Potential investors need specific data to make their long and shortlists, and if they can’t easily find what they need, they may just move on.
5- Have you neglected your existing businesses? Investment attraction and job creation are important parts of economic development, to be sure, but too often they overshadow the need to nurture the business and industry you already have. Your existing businesses are the lifeblood of your area economy, and the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy explains they are responsible for 64% of net new private sector jobs. Small businesses are big business for communities, and they are more likely to contribute to your local economy than large businesses, because small businesses are more likely to be owned by area residents. Are you helping them succeed? Hosting a tool such as SizeUp Local Business Intelligence (LBI) on your website gives business owners access to the critical market intelligence they need to make key decisions and stay successful. Take a look at how the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce features this innovative online tool to offer practical assistance to area business owners 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Site design is outdated or confusing.
6- Does navigating your website feel like a scavenger hunt? Poorly designed websites don’t offer clear ways to return home, or go to the most important sections. It should never be confusing to figure out how to navigate from one section to another. Build in lots of redundancy with multiple links back to the most important sections of the website, and very obvious contact links. Check out the State of Idaho’s beautiful new website design to see how all the critical data is clearly organized and available.
7- Is your website fully optimized for mobile? Our research indicates up to 25% of economic development website visitors are using a mobile device. If they have to squint to read our desktop version, or get trapped in endless scrolling, they will get frustrated and leave. Insist on a fully featured, fully optimized website for both your organization and your GIS site selection tool.
8- Does your home page feel like a time machine back to 2007… or beyond? There is no excuse for outdated design. Choose simple fonts and timeless colors, contemporary images (with actual people in them), and try not to crowd too much in to the screen.
9- Does your site take forever to load? If it takes more than a few seconds, people will leave. No one will sit there patiently waiting for Flash animation to load. No one will download tools or plugins (such as Microsoft Silverlight) for the pleasure of viewing your site. Streamline and make it easy, or risk losing visitors.
Your site doesn’t offer a clear value proposition.
10- Your site fails to differentiate your location. There are many bucolic towns with great quality of life, many fast-paced metropolitan locations. You need to move beyond the outdated “live, work, play” economic development marketing by using your site to showcase how and why and where you can help investors succeed. There are plenty of great examples for doing this well: Show off your impressive concentration of aerospace industries, or the unique way your area serves agricultural businesses from farm to food science. Dynamic searchable tools that let website visitors understand the advantages of transportation links in your location or search local businesses for supply chain logistics and more.
11- Your economic development organization’s website doesn’t accurately represent your location. Does your online presence do justice to the community you represent? Are you using the right mix of data, clear copy and compelling images to showcase your present reality, the spirit of the people who live there, the businesses and organizations that drive it forward?
We work with all our clients to offer marketing support. Contact us today to learn more about how our four new Intelligence Components and ZoomProspector Enterprise can turbocharge your economic development organization’s online presence.