Economic development, really all business development, is an exercise in outreach. Making contact is the very foundation of the purpose. With no yin, there’s no yang.
In last week’s blog, I made reference to a three-legged stool approach, which I advocate to all communities, big, small, urban and rural. To recap, I’m talking about business retention and expansion (BR&E), entrepreneurial growth, and business attraction.
All three strategies necessitate business outreach in some form or fashion. Again, I believe economic development organizations should be doing all three.
One important tool in the toolbox is LinkedIn. Now I am not a happy camper of late with LinkedIn, which I will touch on later, but I nonetheless recognize its value. And apparently so does Microsoft, which bought it last month for $26.4 billion.
Big, Very Big
Consider that as of 2016, 46 percent of the world’s population (3.4 billion people) have been on the internet within the past year. That is over 100 times more people than were using it in 1995.
Now consider LinkedIn, which allows business people to create profiles and “connections” to each other in an online social network designed for real-world professional relationships.
LinkedIn calls itself the “World’s Largest Professional Network,” a lofty claim, but it has more than 467 million accounts, out of which about 106 million are active. That’s big, very big.
I have more than 5,200 contacts and more than 6,100 followers on LinkedIn. It means that virtually every day I am in contact with business people on my network concerning something, most of the time on how I can be of help.
By leveraging LinkedIn, I have had face-to-face meetings with CEOs and senior business executives from across the nation on matters of site selection. I have met with economic developers and elected officials, largely because of this digital connection.
If you are reading this blog now, it is because that you, too, have seen the light and have made the connection.
And yet, I continue to run across economic developers and business people who are either not on LinkedIn or have demonstrated that they have little interest or understanding of it by having few contacts.
It begs the question: If the very essence of your job is business outreach, how can you ignore a tool that more than 100 million business people use?
I’ll be frank, it is hard for me to take an economic developer seriously if he or she is not on LinkedIn in a big way. When I say big, I mean at least 500 contacts.
I recently came across the president of chamber of commerce in a major city in Texas, the principal ED entity, who had one contact.
I saw a vice president, the person in charge of economic development for a prominent electric utility company in the Southeast, with only 54 contacts. His boss, a senior vice president for marketing and business development, is nowhere to be found on LinkedIn. I guess those job titles don’t mean much in that company.
Just this past week, I was exchanging messages on LinkedIn with an economic developer who had more than 500 contacts, but her boss, the president of the ED group, had four contacts. Really?
When They Come
Groups of economic developers periodically come to Dallas to call on site selection consultants, and I am always happy to meet with them if I am in town. I am scheduled to meet with some from Georgia and North Carolina very soon.
Recently, I met with one from California who contacted me through, you guessed it, LinkedIn.
Last year, Tim Feemster, principal of Foremost Quality Logistics, and I met with a group from North Carolina. I noticed beforehand that one group member was not on LinkedIn. When I asked him about it during our breakfast meeting, he said, “I thought I was on it.” He wasn’t, but his answer certainly revealed a lack of interest or understanding.
And you want me to bring you a project? Hmmm.
Last year, an economic developer from Alabama wanted to meet with Tim and I in Dallas. When I saw that he was not on LinkedIn (I always check), I asked Tim if he would cover for me, as I really wasn’t interested. Tim did, because he is nicer than me. Honest.
(During SWOT analyses for communities, we forgo public town hall meetings in favor of behind-closed-doors, not-for-attribution interviews with stakeholders. Sometimes, that entails a good-cop, bad-cop strategy to elicit answers. Now guess which cop you think I am?)
Go to the Light
If a person has fewer than 100 connections on LinkedIn, I have little desire to connect with them, because they have not seen the light. My advice: Go to the light, brothers and sisters. Seek and ye shall find. And I may will connect with thee. (Well, most of the time.)
The light emanates from digital technologies that are constantly changing business models. A Digital Darwinism is at work, to which I frequently write and speak about. As I have said many times, we are in the early stages of a new digital machine age, that will make the Industrial Revolution look like child’s play.
People, organizations and places that adapt, will stay relevant. Those that don’t, well, that’s not so hard to figure out.
Am I Being Unreasonable?
Still, I wonder if I might be judging economic developers and so-called business development people too harshly who do not use LinkedIn. So I reached out to a couple of my colleagues who are site selection consultants to get their take. Oh, by the way, I contacted them via LinkedIn messaging and got their responses with 15 minutes.
One site selector friend, based in the Southeast, wrote back, “LinkedIn is kind of like table stakes. Right now, at least, you need it to be in the game.”
Another, based in the Northeast, said, “I would be very suspect” of an economic developer with little or no presence on LinkedIn.
“One of the key roles of an economic developer – Economic Development 101 -is outreach to businesses, whether that’s to attract new ones or help to retain and grow existing ones. I would think that LinkedIn would be a primary tool used for that outreach and would expect to see hundreds, if not thousands, of connections …”
I should also mention that both of these site selection consultants have more than 500 contacts each, according to their LinkedIn profiles.
The “New and Improved” LinkedIn
Rest assured that I am no shill for LinkedIn. As a matter of fact, I am angry with them right now. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has announced that it will be eliminating tags and notes features associated with contacts come March.
That will hurt me, because I have tagged, that is categorized, my more than 5,000 contacts into specific industry groups, such as aerospace, automotive, IT and the like. I also made reference notes – often including a business email address, a telephone conversation or on having met someone — pertaining to my contacts.
Soon, the so-called new and improved LinkedIn, won’t allow for that. But if you ever tried to actually speak to someone at LinkedIn, don’t bother. This is a company, like so many in Silicon Valley, that doesn’t want to talk to people, even its customers.
Despite all that, I don’t see a better digital alternative right now to LinkedIn for what it does. And again, I (and some fellow site selection consultants) don’t see how an economic developer, whose primary mission is business outreach, can ignore it.
When I pointed that out to the ED project manager who had more than 500 contacts but whose boss had four, she defended him in an admirable manner. She said he was “old school and what he lacks on the technology end he more than makes up for in knowledge and networking/relationship building in person.”
Maybe, Just Maybe
I had to think about that. Being that I am approaching geezerhood (I’m 62), I could relate to a degree. After all, I have my own technological shortcomings. I have not learned GIS mapping but depend on another team member to do that on our projects.
Maybe, just maybe, I am the one who has lost sight, that the old school approach of ignoring digital technologies is the right way after all, that forming face-to-face, honest-to-God relationships with people in order to forge the growth of a community, which in turn becomes a center for commerce, learning, healing, culture and the arts, where everyone enjoys the fruits of having a high household income, and where recreational opportunities abound, and where the natural environment is protected and cherished, and cultural diversity is deemed good, righteous and celebrated, and people love and respect each other and hold that all men and women are created equal and are able to pursue their unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. Mr. Barber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 972-890-3733. He is available as a keynote speaker.