Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Marketing a city one tweet at a time

Mike Marini spends his days and nights tweeting and posting to Facebook.

His BlackBerry is constantly vibrating — and with that little device he’s ushering in a new era of marketing this city through social media.

Shortly after he assumed the title of coordinator of marketing for the city’s economic development and real estate department in the fall of 2008, Marini figured he’d better throw himself into social media. He says his bosses were totally supportive, although no one was entirely sure the effort would pay off.

It has, in the form of awards and national recognition, although maybe the dollars and cents attached are hard to measure. The city’s economic development Facebook page has close to 900 friends and there are about 1,000 followers on Twitter.

InvestinHamilton TV, which has produced about 110 videos since launching about 19 months ago, documents what Marini says are the “good news” stories of Hamilton’s economy, which are often overlooked. Those videos have collected more than 410,000 views, some as many as 40,000 each.

Marini is active on FourSquare, a mobile phone app that has users “check in” to their locations and share recommendations, tips and tidbits about places to go and things to do in their city with their social network. He uses it to point the digitally connected to places they might not know about.

The department also posts its videos to a YouTube channel, and photos to Flickr — all selling Hamilton as a great place to live and work.

There is an immediate and tangible result to all this. The more “hits” via social media, the higher a city will rank in a Google search, which is hugely important when trying to catch the eye of people making investment decisions, perhaps from across the world.

The key, say experts, is constantly feeding the information beast. It’s not enough to open accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter and expect friends or followers to appear. Instead, it’s about creating a flow of regular and interesting conversations, building relationships and developing an identity.

Marini says that can only happen by being authentic and showing some personality … in 140 characters or less.

“You can’t sit back and keep spitting corporate lines. People aren’t going to listen to that. You have to have a conversation, be adaptable and be responsive.”

That means listening as much as talking … well, reading as much as typing.

A local restaurant owner recently tweeted that he wanted to open a second location, but was having trouble with the city. That was retweeted (or repeated) by a community blogger with a big following. Marini immediately replied: “How can we help?”

Ultimately, the goal is to attract the attention of outside investors — people and companies who can bring jobs and wealth to this city. That’s no easy task, obviously. Every community, big and small, is doing exactly the same thing. It’s like trying to sing above a 100-piece orchestra.

Marini thinks social media can amplify Hamilton’s voice.

But what makes it particularly hard, says Marini, is the negative perceptions some Hamiltonians hold about the city and how that can discourage potential investors.

A casual chat with a disgruntled Hamiltonian in a coffee shop could make a big difference to an outsider’s perception, says Marini.

“We use social media to educate people in this city and engage them in what’s happening.”

And just as important, is to make sure vital information — things like demographics, maps, tax rates, grant programs — are readily available to investors on the web and on mobile-friendly platforms, says Marini.

The next project is to create an interactive map of the city’s downtown that the public can help populate. The map would include video tours of landmarks and allow investors to “visit” neighbourhoods.

Harvesting the power of online communities doesn’t mean abandoning traditional marketing, such as media advertising campaigns or tradeshows or one-on-one visits with local businesses through the city’s Hamilton Calling program. Social media is simply another layer of outreach, says Marini.

Hamilton’s social media approach is getting noticed.

Marini was invited to teach social media for the Economic Developers Association of Canada accreditation program. And the city was highlighted as a best practice by the Economic Developers Council of Ontario.

Hamilton has ranked fourth among Canada’s largest cities two years running for its use of social media in marketing. In 2010 the city was behind only Edmonton, Ottawa and Halifax (tied) and London. InvestInHamilton TV was particularly praised, along with the city’s frequency of Facebook, Twitter and blog posts.

“Hamilton was the first to be so strong at using videos to promote the region,” said Isabelle Poirier, president of Intelegia, the Montreal-based social media consulting firm that completed the study.

She said Hamilton has been at the vanguard of social media adoption and that head start is important, but there will be increasing competition from cities that initially languished.

“Some are behind, because they didn’t understand why they should be there … but now they know. There is a feeling of urgency to really engage.”

But urgency doesn’t mean success in social media happens overnight, she said. It’s a long process and there has to be a strategy behind every status update and tweet.

For Hamilton, that probably has a lot to do with reframing perceptions, says Poirier, much like the Trois-Rivieres and Shawinigan areas of Quebec.

“They had lost much of their industry in the 1980s and ’90s and people would say things like don’t go there, don’t invest there, they’ve lost everything. We worked with stakeholders and one by one showed them how they can use social media to reinforce their positive values and be enthusiastic about their region.”

But it takes lots of voices to make that happen, and Hamilton needs to get more of its city staff, civic and business leadership and ordinary citizens talking proud about the city in online communities, says Poirier.

“There becomes this ripple effect in the public space … the message becomes very powerful.”



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