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Online Strategies for Economic Gardening

In economic development, knowledge is power.  The more knowledge you have of your economic region, its companies, issues, strengths, weaknesses and prospects, the more power you have to help that region prosper.

This concept has been behind the growth and success of economic gardening for more than two decades.  Economic gardening employs data-based strategies, techniques and tools to help existing companies within a community to grow.  It focuses on building three main elements for companies and communities: information, infrastructure and connections.

There is a growing body of evidence that these principles work.  In Littleton, Colorado, where Chris Gibbons developed and applied the first economic gardening program in 1989, the number of jobs more than doubled by 2005 to 35,000 from 15,000, while the city’s population grew by only 30 per cent.

A growing number of jurisdictions have become strong believers in economic gardening.  One of them is Kansas.  In 2010 NetWork Kansas, the state’s economic development arm (, launched the Kansas Economic Gardening Network to connect promising second-stage companies with sophisticated technical assistance.  This year, on September 19, NetWork Kansas announced that it is inviting Kansas communities to apply for matching funds for economic gardening engagements with three to seven businesses in an applying community.

The deadline for initial community applications is October 12.  In each successful applicant community, selected businesses will work with a national economic gardening team who will deliver services tailored to meet the needs of each business.  The services could include GIS technologies, market research, SEO tools, social media monitoring and sales lead generation.

The announcement by NetWork Kansas included a quote from Chris Gibbons, who said: “The Kansas economic gardening program for rural communities has proven to be a resounding success.  Not only are growth companies found in all sizes of communities, but economic gardening tools and concepts were shown to be immediately useful in helping these companies add jobs in very tough economic times.”

With such examples to learn from, economic developers all over North America should now be asking themselves how to apply the lessons of economic gardening to make online communications, including websites and social media, more effective.

Better Information

A focus of economic gardening is to provide timely and relevant information to entrepreneurs about key topics such as their competitors, customers, markets and industry trends.  Economic developers can take inspiration from this to overcome a common problem — their websites don’t give them adequate information.

An EDO website, after all, should be valuable as much for the information it brings in as for the information it disseminates.  But many don’t bring in much information at all.

If your website is typical, only two or three out of 100 people who visit it will contact your economic development organization.  Who are all the others, where do they come from and what are they interested in?  There is a huge gap on most economic development sites between visitation and inquiries.

Typical website analytics leave EDOs almost blind.  Data is shown in aggregate.  The analysis shows the quantity of visitors but says nothing about their quality as prospects, or even as indicators of what industry segments the site and related campaigns are attracting.

The next step for EDO websites, emulating the success of economic gardening techniques, should be to implement modern tools that bridge the current knowledge gaps.  Tools are available that can identify in real time the businesses that visit a site, what industry segments they come from, how visitors got to the site, where they spent their time and how they navigated.

Better Infrastructure

Economic gardening evangelists like the Edward Lowe Foundation encourage communities to invest in infrastructure that simultaneously improves their economic and social attractiveness — not just basic physical infrastructure but also quality-of-life infrastructure and intellectual infrastructure.

Similarly a modern web strategy for economic development should approach the website or portal as though it were a business development centre, a concrete place.  Is the site truly a one-stop shop?  Can growing businesses find all the answers they are looking for in that place, and does it add to the comfort they feel in your business community?

In Portland, Oregon, it’s clear that economic gardening has been conceived not merely as a program, but as part of the city’s comprehensive online business infrastructure.

In March 2012 the Oregon Small Business Development Center Network launched a pilot program called Grow Oregon, created by the 2011 Oregon Legislature’s “Economic Gardening” initiative.  Running until June 30, 2013, the Grow Oregon program has a budget of $300,000 with a goal to serve at least 40 companies.  Assistance under the program may include market research, website and search engine optimization, social media development, GIS, strategic consulting and CEO peer networking.

Have a look at the Grow Oregon program via  This is not just another program, it’s a business development center.  Here are toolkits, workshops, success stories, resources of all kinds.  It’s an admirable illustration of how the quality of business life in a community can be enhanced through online infrastructure.

Better Connections

Economic gardening programs are designed to develop connections between businesses and the people and organizations that can help them expand and create jobs — business associations, universities, financial and technical service providers, and of course potential suppliers and customers.

Economic development websites typically assign the role of making connections to social media.  A typical site will have links to Facebook and Twitter and perhaps a couple of others.  But do they actually make connections?  Any random sampling of such social media links will reveal that most are being used as just another channel for announcements.

The true value of social media for economic developers is that they generate leads through dialogue, for both the EDO itself and its client businesses.  Once again, the use of modern website analysis tools can facilitate this by revealing the source and direction of social media traffic linked to the site.

There’s an instructive article about social media on the website of the Florida Economic Gardening Institute (  Originally published in USA Today, the article describes how small business owners in a variety of communities used social media productively to help improve customer relations and boost brand awareness and sales.  They did it by engaging with people and having genuine conversations, not by using social media as billboards.

Useful Principles

The past couple of years have witnessed the start of numerous pilot projects in economic gardening.  The approach has demonstrated its ability to strengthen local and regional economies by providing resources and services to growth companies.

Whether a given economic development department chooses to adopt economic gardening or some other business retention and expansion strategy, the department can benefit by incorporating principles and techniques of economic gardening into its website strategy and design.

To make the most of this opportunity, however, it’s necessary to maximize the effectiveness of the website for two-way information flows.  In particular, EDOs should set the achievable goal of bridging the gap between web visits and inquiries.

For your website to work as a lead-generation tool, and to allocate your marketing budgets most effectively to reach the right people, you need the kind of knowledge that gives economic gardening its power.

Please comment on this article, give us your feedback or provide a topic idea for a future article!


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One Response to “Online Strategies for Economic Gardening”

  1. November 4th, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Anatalio Ubalde says:

    A key concept of economic gardening is bringing business intelligence to local small businesses. Large companies are able to make more informed decisions because they have access to great data and can afford to hire consultants or internal staff to analyze the best path to success. Small businesses are often the information “have-nots”. We are bringing small business intelligence to all businesses with SizeUp ( so that they can benchmark their success against competitors, identify suppliers and customers, as well as the best geographic locations to advertise. Although it doesn’t follow the traditional model of economic gardening, it is certainly a type of online economic gardening that SMBs can access for free.

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