Beyond Likes and Followers – Social Media and Local Economic Development

Social media has quickly emerged as a dominant mode of communications and interaction in today’s society whether it be in current events, political elections, entertainment news, open government and a slew of other subjects. Over the last ten years, local economic development agencies have increasingly turned to social media as a means for branding and marketing their communities, assisting in site selections or location decisions, forging networks with local businesses and establish direct contacts with business decision makers. Similarly, local tourist promotion offices have also turned to social media to attract visitors to their festivals, cultural events, museums and other attractions.

In the following blog, I undertake a simple review of the role of social media platforms in three business related applications at the community level – Economic Development offices (EDOs), tourism marketing agencies, and Chambers of Commerce or Boards of Trade. My focus is on municipalities located in Southern Ontario. I also include other larger Canadian cities and a few US metropolitan centres as additional benchmarks (I picked a few US cities identified by Forbes as the 2016 fastest growing cities with populations between approximately 1 to 2 million).

Three social media platforms are examined: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. The metrics used to measure the level of social interactivity or participation include the number of followers and/or likes depending on the platform which are available on the individual sites. I also included the month/year that the Twitter account was created (only Twitter puts this information on their platform). It is worth noting that LinkedIn is often viewed as being the most business friendly platform . A recent study stated that 97% of the 2016 Fortune 500 companies have a LinkedIn account, 84% have a Facebook account and 86% have a Twitter account.

Economic Development

The following list of EDOs includes Community Futures Development Corporations (CFDC) as well as individual agencies for the larger metropolitan centres in Ontario and other agencies (non-CFDC) in Eastern and Western Ontario. Ontario CFDCs are part of the Government of Canada’s FedDev Ontario Community Futures Program. CFDCs are community-based, non-profit organizations that offer a wide variety of programs and services supporting community economic development and small business growth outside the Greater Toronto Region. CFDCs tend to be located primarily in smaller, rural communities but do include some that are located in proximity to the Greater Toronto Area and metropolitan cities like London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa or even include a fairly large city such as Niagara Falls / St Catharines and Brantford.

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The above table shows a wide range of social media metrics across not only communities and but also platforms. As expected, the larger Canadian cites or metropolitan regions exhibit the largest visitor or likes counts with the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance far outnumbering all other EDOs.  The GTMA is a public-private partnership that serves as the primary business contact point representing 29 municipalities and regions in the Greater Toronto Area including Halton, Peel, York, Durham and Metro Toronto. Individual regions and a few municipalities also maintain separate EDOs. Interestingly, Durham and York Regions display relative strong performance when compared to Toronto Global (previously known as Invest Toronto) and Halton Business.

At the opposite end, similar marketing networks in western Ontario (the Southwestern Ontario Marketing Alliance) and eastern Ontario (Ontario East Economic Development) show relatively low scores compared to other economic development organizations.

In general, Twitter was the most popular and highest source of Followers and, to a lesser extent, Likes. There are some notable exceptions. For example, Calgary has a much larger interaction with Facebook users compared to Twitter. Choose Cornwall also displayed a disproportionate number of Facebook Likes compared to Twitter. LinkedIn Followers tended to be the third most popular although there are, once again, significant exceptions in the case of Montreal International and Quebec International. Invest Ottawa also shows a relative healthy number of LinkedIn Followers.

Turning to the smaller CFDCs, the social media indicators again display a wide pattern. The number of Followers / Likes are much lower compared to the larger cities which, as noted earlier, is expected but even within this group, there exists a wide disparity in performance which leads to the question if there are acceptable returns on investment for the CFDCs showing poorer results. Some CFDCs with lower social interaction numbers are also “competing” with municipally based EDOs with stronger results – e.g. Cornwall, Kingston, Peterborough, Sarnia/Lambton, Norfolk. Also, Choose Cornwall’s Facebook Followers/Likes top all the other cities including large metropolitan centres except for Calgary while Northumberland CFDC had the highest number of Twitter Likes.  On the other hand, there are a few examples where both types do not show strong performance e.g. Niagara.

Interestingly, the social media indicators for the few selected US cities are not significantly higher when compared to Canadian cities with the exception of Raleigh. Three of the fastest growing US cities – San Jose, Austin and Charlotte, have somewhat low rankings despite the fact that San Jose is an important city of California’s Silicon Valley.

Tourism

Tourism promotion represents another municipal level activity where social media can perform a critically important role. Social media influences many social and economic aspects of the tourism and hospitality industry. Social media is fundamentally changing the way travelers and tourists search and find as well as collaboratively produce information about tourism suppliers and tourism destinations.

The following table summarizes social interaction measures for Twitter and Facebook (Likes only) for selected larger Canadian and US cities. More so than economic development, social media stands out more clearly as an important marketing tool for local tourism promotion agencies. Facebook, with its broader population base, is the most popular platform but Twitter generates a relatively large number of followers especially for more popular destinations. As the Nation’s Capital, Ottawa comes out somewhere in the middle in terms of social media interactivity.

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Local Business Networks

Local Chambers of Commerce or Boards of Trade is another group of community based organizations that would benefit from adopting social media as an essential communications and business networking and engagement tool. From the table below, this appears to be the case for most of the larger Canadian cities although some centres do fall in the lower rankings such as Ottawa, Quebec City, Hamilton and London as well as, perhaps surprisingly, the Toronto Region. Portland, Oregon, which scored relatively high in the other two markets compared to other selected US cities, comes out much lower in terms of local business social networking strength. For smaller centres in Eastern Ontario, Peterborough stands out. In general, Twitter emerges as the more dominant platform for business networking but less so for Montreal where all three platforms have large numbers of participants and Quebec City.

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Conclusions and Some Questions for Further Thought 

  • In all three types of local business development, there are cities that appear to be stronger leaders in adapting to social media as a marketing and networking tool and there are others who seem to be more lagging. This applies to both larger cities and smaller communities. It could be worthwhile to undertake some type of best practices assessment to see what the leaders are doing right and what the more lagging communities could do better to adapt to social media technology. Perhaps, some organizations have incorporated a social media component directly into their strategic or business plans while others have not. Such a best practices review could also compare the benefits of establishing public-business partnerships versus in-house government agencies in the areas of economic development and tourism.
  • Related to the above, another best practices suggestion would be to focus on how to best market small, rural communities. For example, there are many CFDCs in Eastern and Western Ontario all promoting basically the same programs and services to the local communities they represent. Keeping in mind that these communities are smaller and more rural, social media seems to be less effective as a communications tool. This situation cannot be attributed either to the later adaptation to social media technology compared to larger cities as most of the Twitter sites have been created around the same time period (2009-2011). It may be useful then to examine the potential benefits of integrating or coordinating social media efforts of individual CFDCs as well as with nearby larger cities.
  • Social media represents just one part of a total approach to communications and marketing and should not be seen as a replacement for more established tactics such as face-to-face contacts, traditional advertising, direct phone calls etc. Using tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can lead to new opportunities for partnerships and customers, and can be used to sustain relationships that have been established through traditional networking.
  • Perhaps, the most unclear results from the above cursory analysis is the potential of social media in strengthening local economic development efforts. There does not exist, to my knowledge, any study or report identifying the ROI of investments in social media – examples of where an EDO has generated a capital investment lead from their social media efforts. Perhaps Followers on Twitter or Likes on Facebook are overrated as indicators of business attraction efforts. Or maybe, social media is still in its infancy and it will take more time to demonstrate its value to communities.
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