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Economic Development Website ROI

The job of an economic development department is to increase the tax base by attracting and facilitating business growth. Why does the department need an investment attraction website to do this?

How can the department justify an investment in developing or enhancing a website, when funds for new initiatives are so hard to come by? In other words, what is the ROI?

The answer lies in articulating the critical role of economic development, realizing the unique tasks that can be supported by a website to carry out that role, and then evaluating the success of your site in supporting those tasks.

Advantages and Risks

First of all, economic development expenditures are justified by the need for a community to expand its tax base and re-invest in the quality of life for all who live there. An increased tax base is made possible by new and/or expanding businesses. They enable a community to sustain itself over the long term, providing jobs for families and for the children of those families.

A positive spiral of growth and a vibrant community are the result.

Communities that do not invest in economic development risk the opposite. Young people will leave such communities to find education and work in larger urban centres. Businesses won’t locate in these communities, as there is a lack of available educated labour force. The result is a downward spiral and a dying community.

Attraction of business investment is a fiercely competitive activity. Success requires a layered process of analysis and strategy development (See “Defining Website Goals,” October 27, and “Hitting Your Targets,” November 10).

An economic development website should be carefully planned to meet internal and external goals within the municipal strategy. But planning is one thing; spending is another. To justify website expenditures it is necessary to show why the site is uniquely valuable.

An Enabler, Not a Product

The first thing to remember in making a business case is that the website is not a product that the economic development department is offering. It is not an end in itself. But it enables your department to achieve its goals in ways that other media and other activities cannot.

In the context of how site selectors operate today, the economic development website is the only medium that can effectively support four critical tasks:

  1. Taking your community out to the world. Messages developed by the economic development organization must appeal to the creative class and should center on place-making, so that the community is seen by a network of interested people as having a distinct character and a high quality of life. No other medium can do this like the web.
  2. Getting on a site selector’s shortlist. Site selection is a process of elimination. Research shows conclusively that the majority of research to build a site selectors’ shortlist is conducted on the web. If your website doesn’t do the initial talking for you, you won’t have a second chance.
  3. Winning the investment. Personal contacts and visits are still indispensable, but site selectors depend extensively on your website to assist in the information verification process and provide answers to second and third rounds of questions before making the final investment decision.
  4. Retaining and expanding businesses. The web is an increasingly important business retention tool. Interactive features available with today’s technology, including social media, give the web unique capability to reach out to existing businesses, demonstrate the community’s continuing business value, and create a strong community brand and pride of place.

In presenting a business case for web investment, your argument must focus on the capabilities of a high-quality website to help your department accomplish the tasks above.

Remember that the job is not accomplished by the website, but by people in your department using it as a tool. Accountability must be built into any plan for a powerful economic development website. Measurable goals must be established, and results must be continuously evaluated.

Lastly, expenditures must be planned realistically to take into account how a modern website can be an enabler for your department. Forthcoming articles will examine best practices for setting website budgets.

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