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Using Unimpressive Data to Tell an Impressive Story About Your City

People walking in the backgrond with dots connecting

During a recent talk I gave with a colleague and friend, Dave Parsell from Localintel, a question came up in the Q&A that captured a struggle I have worked through with smaller cities and rural areas many times over. The question was, “How do we use our data to support and highlight our story when it is just not that impressive?”

The conversation that followed was so consistent with the struggles many cities often face that I wanted to revisit the highlights of what Dave and I both shared here. Because when it comes to attracting companies and jobs to your city, it is essential that you understand how to use your data in a positive way, no matter what it looks like in its most raw form.

First, a little good news - If you are a smaller city or in a rural area, sometimes you may feel like there really is no way to compete with the rest of the country. But take a look at this chart showing United States Census data for incorporated places in the U.S. by population size:

The first thing to note is that if you are a community of under 10,000 people, you are in a massive majority of all cities across the country with a significantly smaller budget and set of assets than “the big boys”. You are not alone, and that should be encouraging. So let’s look at a few good starting points to turn things around if you find yourself in a data dilemma.

Truth #1- You can’t hide from your data, so give companies a positive side to look at 

The first thing you have to face up to is the truth that if you are speaking to companies outside of your community, they will at some point uncover your unimpressive or perhaps negative data points. It’s the digital age; chances are they have already looked up your numbers well before visiting your website. The flip side is that if you address it front and center, you have the opportunity to shape their view of your story in a positive way. So don’t hide from your data. Find the good in it and address it in a way that tells the positive side of your story.

Cast a vision for future growth and talk about what you are doing to change and improve weak areas over time

Sometimes cities fall into the trap of just talking about common data points and trends when it comes to economic development marketing. But what are some of the things you are doing to prepare your city for a better tomorrow? Can you can project future results of some of the programs or initiatives you are actively working on to change and improve your weak points? That is data that companies will sit up and take notice of!

One area we see this play out today is in workforce conversations. Your pipeline for future skilled workers is just as important to growing companies as your current workforce numbers are. Show how your workforce pipeline is making you competitive in a predictable way over time or how your infrastructure changes will prepare you in a way that other cities are usually lacking.

Use your content to give context to your data and create a positive view on it

Don’t just rely on raw data to tell your story on your website. Having reports for your 35-mile and 45-mile rings available for download are great, but you must use your content and other visuals in strategic ways to provide context and interpretation of that data to your viewers.

Think about your audience and how they might be viewing your site. When they land on a page, ask yourself why they might be going there and what knowledge do they expect to leave with? Then add the content and visuals around the data they will be looking at in a way that interprets it instead of just presenting it.

Showcase your success stories 

Talk about the companies that have chosen your community and how your city has helped them grow and be successful. Any business that is thinking about locating in your city wants to know that they will have a positive experience. In fact, one of the biggest draws of a smaller city over a bigger option is the small town atmosphere, less regulation, less red tape and lower costs. So include well-written stories about companies in your city that have been successful and specifically include the ways your EDO or city has been creatively and directly engaged to help keep them in your community.

Choose visualizations that show your data in the most positive form

This one is a little tricky. Because most of us aren’t graphic designers, we rely on companies or people to create visualizations to show our data in unique forms. But often those visualizations are just standard, run-of-the-mill bar charts or fancy icons that make the raw data look nicer. If your data isn’t great, that may not be the way to go. You may need to be a little more creative to show less-than-ideal data in a fresh light.

For example, instead of just using a line or bar chart that ends up showing your workforce numbers are below the national average, come up with a graphic that compares your concentrations of skilled workers by industry. You are telling a story with your data that showcases your strengths first, even if the raw data shows you have some work left to do on your total workforce numbers.

Wrapping it all up on your website

Of course the most important place you need to showcase your new, impressive story is your EDO’s website. You cannot control whether or not an investor or company chooses to look at you online after seeing your numbers on their ESRI research. But you can make sure that if you do get that visit to your homepage they are presented with an honest, positive and upbeat story of your city supported by data that changes their original perspective on your community. And be sure to let us know if you need help creating a website that will do just that!

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