Marketing has long been one of the main drivers of economic development. As an economic developer, your ability to promote your community and highlight its potential is instrumental in attracting investors and stimulating the local economy. With the bulk of marketing activity nowadays taking place online, your economic development organization (EDO) must establish a strong internet presence.
Most site selectors and location decision-makers will go to your organization’s website to learn more about your community and find out if it suits their particular needs. In many ways, this site will serve as the online face of your community, so it needs to be designed accordingly.
In this article, we will discuss 8 elements every successful economic development website must have.
When a potential investor arrives at your website, you have just a few seconds to grab their attention. Before they start looking for information and interacting with your content, you need to lure them in with strong visual elements. A good way to do so is by utilizing the right colors in your design scheme.
According to research in color psychology, a branch of behavioral psychology that focuses on the effects of colors on the human psyche, bright and vibrant colors are the best at catching the attention of website visitors. As the color of peace, security, and order, blue is perhaps the best choice.
It is closely followed by green, another tranquil color that is commonly associated with positive returns. For example, green light is the universal sign of free, uninterrupted passage. Furthermore, the adjective “green” is often used as a synonym of youth and prosperity. On the other hand, red is the opposite of green and is seen as the color of danger and negative returns. While it is often used in website design, color psychology experts recommend the use of orange instead.
Of course, the colors you use need to fit in with all the other visual elements of your website design. These include logos, photographs, titles, font colors, and the general page layout. Rather than distract from these elements, the colors you choose need to complement and highlight them.
Since your goal is to promote your community, region, or state, you should think of your website as a great branding opportunity. All the content on your site – visual and textual – needs to reflect the unique identity of your community and motivate visitors to stick around and learn more.
Be original. Don’t advertise your community as the next Silicon Valley because such a place already exists. In fact, there are so many technology hubs with the word “silicon” in their name that the novelty has worn off a long time ago. Instead of copying someone else’s local or national brand, come up with an original concept that incorporates one or more recognizable elements of your community’s identity.
When writing about your region, focus on the facts that showcase what it has to offer, and highlight the exact things that make it better than, say, a neighboring region with similar geographic characteristics.
Don’t use overblown phrases, half-truths, and outright fabrications just to toot your own horn. Every claim you make should be backed up by facts from trustworthy sources. Otherwise, prospective investors may see right through your “stretched truths” and could lose any interest in doing business with you.
Although by no means unimportant, most other elements of website design fade in comparison with user experience. Often referred to as UX, it is used to measure how satisfied a user is while browsing a site. Since the main goal of your website is to engage visitors and turn them into partners and investors, you need to ensure an optimal user experience. To do that, your site must meet certain criteria.
For one, you must optimize your webpage loading times by using clean code, uploading images in a web-friendly format, and hosting videos on your own servers. All the information visitors may be interested in needs to be easily available in no more than three clicks from any page on your site. The navigation must be simple, with easy-to-read fonts, proportionately sized images, as well as clear and consistent labeling.
Like your labeling, the user experience you provide must be consistent across all platforms where your website is available. Research shows that 20% of site selectors access economic development websites from their smartphones, so it is essential that your website is mobile-friendly. Otherwise, you could lose one-fifth of prospective partners before you have even had a chance to pitch your proposal.
Optimizing your website for mobile platforms is also important for your ranking on search engines. Google, the most popular search engine in the world, is currently testing its new mobile-first indexing system which ranks mobile-ready sites higher than those that are not compatible with mobile browsers.
What does this mean for your organization?
Let’s say that your EDO is one of 100 similar organizations in North Carolina with their own website. However, your website is among the handful that aren’t mobile-friendly. When a site selector enters the term “economic development organization North Carolina” into Google, the site will give preference to the other 90+ EDOs that have mobile-friendly sites, effectively pushing you to page 5 of search results.
By the time they reach your website in the search results, many site selectors will probably have found at least five other organizations they are interested in. This policy doesn’t only affect your rating on mobile platforms but on desktop, too. To improve your visibility, you need to build your website with a responsive framework (e.g. Bootstrap) which will automatically resize the content to fit any screen size.
The main purpose of your website is to inspire site selectors to get in touch and start talking business with you. It is thus important not only to display a shortcut to your full contact information on every page of the site – preferably as a fixed navigation link – but also to make it visible and easy to find.
Keep in mind that a clickable, generic email address (e.g. pr@EDOname.gov) doesn’t constitute “full” contact information. After all, moving or expanding a business to a new region is no small undertaking, and any experienced site selector would want to know who they’d be dealing with if they chose to move to your community. You thus need to include the name of the person in charge, a short bio or a welcome message, as well as a contact form or an email address.
Some site selection professionals may prefer talking on the phone to sending an email. It might thus be a good idea to also add a direct phone number – preferably toll-free – to your contact details. If you receive lots of inquiries in your inbox, you should also consider adding live chat functionality and having one of your staff members talk directly to prospective partners during the hours specified on the site.
In addition to eye-catching design, easy navigation, and visible contact information, your website must also include every single piece of information site selectors and potential investors may want to know.
Before they even start considering a move to your region, site selectors will want to know what you have to offer that can benefit the businesses they represent. Furthermore, they want to know what your community can offer in terms of demographics, as well as the volume and type of workforce available.
Businesses will also look for information about the industries that are already present, as well as an overview of companies of all sizes – the more familiar, the better – that call your region home. In addition, they might be interested in local businesses that are active in their niche, which can help them assess the competition and identify possible local partners. Moreover, the names of these successful companies will serve as further proof that your community is as good for their niche as you claim it is.
Of course, a company looking to expand their business will also want to know what you have to offer in terms of sites and buildings. This means that your website must include complete listings of properties that are available to buy. In addition to large, high-quality images, each listing should include price, square footage, and the contact information of the agent in charge of selling. Ideally, all listed properties should be ready for use, and the listings should be updated regularly.
Whereas interactive elements on economic development websites were once seen as a competitive advantage, they are now a necessity. This is especially true of geographic information system (GIS) tools that allow prospective investors to browse an interactive map of your community, see what the area looks like, and take a closer look at the available properties without having to inspect them in person.
In just a few clicks, visitors can access up-to-date demographic analysis for any location in the region, see the map of industries and businesses in the community, find properties based on the criteria they enter (e.g. sites or buildings, for sale or for lease, etc.), and easily export and print their search results. Some GIS tools also allow users to select a site they like and send an email to the broker in just one click.
If you have a GIS tool installed on your website, you also need to feature it prominently. Like the contact link, a link to your GIS page should be fixed to the navigation menu and visible on every page on the site.
There is more to website interactivity than just site selection tools, though. Any content that involves user participation – be it a poll, a survey, a cost calculator, or a click-through guide – is encouraged. Site selectors need plenty of information to determine if your community is the right fit for them, so your website is bound to include a lot of static content. However, tables, graphs, stats, and reports can all be made interactive or at the very least less dull with the use of bold, eye-catching graphics and fonts.
To make sure that more site selectors and potential investors can discover your website, you need to optimize your content for search engines. We have already discussed the importance of having a mobile-friendly version of your website, but there’s more to search engine optimization (SEO) than just that.
To start with, all posts and static pages on your site need to incorporate the search terms that are most likely to drive traffic from Google. For economic development websites, these include the name of your organization, the name of your region in combination with the term “economic development” (e.g. “economic development Blaine”), and the names of successful companies operating in your region.
For optimal results, it is best to make SEO part of your content strategy. Ideally, you should post new content once a week and build it around one or more keywords relevant to your business. Your content should be easily scannable, which you can achieve by incorporating bullet points, numbered lists, graphs, and clickable links. Including internal links that lead to other pages on your website is also good. Not only does it keep visitors engaged for longer periods of time but it’s also considered a good SEO practice.
Use these eight tips to create a well-designed, easy-to-use website that will provide site selectors with all the information they need, give them access to useful features like local business reports and GIS tools, and allow them to get in touch with you easily no matter what device they’re using. All this functionality should be wrapped in a vibrantly colored package with bold visuals and plenty of interactive elements.
Remember, your community only has one chance to make a first impression on a site selector or a potential investor, so you must make it count. To do that, your website should showcase the economic potential of your community, highlight all the opportunities you can provide to investors, and make note of all the things that make you stand out from other communities vying for their consideration.
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