By Colleen and Jim Walton, Brand Acceleration, Inc.
A note from the writers: Throughout this article, we use words like “after,” “over,” and “end.” We want to be clear that we are referring only to this initial pandemic phase and not COVID-19 as a whole. We know that we will be dealing with the illness itself for years (if not decades) and do not mean to imply that it will simply one day be “over.” Instead, this article is intended to focus on the period of time after safer-at-home orders are lifted and people slowly begin to emerge back into the world.
After a period of rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, it appears that the United States may be approaching the peak of the wave. Even though there is still a lot of suffering and heartache across the nation and around the world, the end may be in sight. In the economic development world, this small glimmer of hope off in the distance has sparked conversations about what we do after the pandemic and how we recover from the economic and social impact of something so immense and unprecedented.
As we discussed this internally, we kept coming back to a metaphor about a leaky boat. We know it’s overused, but please bear with us.
Imagine you’re out in the middle of a lake, and your boat begins to leak. Do you focus your energy on plugging the hole or bailing water? And at what point do you start thinking about how to build a boat that doesn’t leak?
In this pandemic, social distancing, wearing masks, and increasing our sanitation practices was us plugging the hole. It didn’t solve all of our problems, but it bought us a little time as we tried to get our boat to safety.
Today, many economic developers are bailing water. They’re working vigorously to help local businesses of all sizes find the resources they need. Everything from small business loans to temporary employment programs are helping businesses address their immediate concerns.
As we drift slowly toward the shore, it’s time to begin thinking about what to do next and consider how we can recover from this crisis. We can look ahead and think about how to build a new boat. What will your community look like on the other side of this and how will that impact your marketing?
While we are not experts in post-pandemic economic recovery and can’t make one-size-fits-all marketing recommendations, we’ve had increasingly frequent discussions with our client communities about ways they might move forward. Every community’s journey will be different, and each will have different needs for a recovery plan and marketing support.
Our best advice is to plan for varied outcomes. Make a list of all the possible scenarios that can play out in your community and – for each of those scenarios – how they will need to be addressed. To serve simply as a jumping-off point, we’ve divided a few potential outcomes into different categories and shown how they might impact your marketing strategy.
In recent years, workforce development and attraction had been one of the biggest focal points for economic developers everywhere. In a post-pandemic world, one community might face high unemployment while another might have a workforce shortage. It’s also possible that communities may have to deal with the loss of residents and workers who moved to take jobs elsewhere. Some communities might simply be on the brink of losing people whose industries are not bouncing back quickly enough.
Each of these situations will require a different marketing strategy. You may need to plan a workforce attraction campaign that touts your quality of life assets in an attempt to lure new residents. Or you may need to market open positions to your existing residents as you try to get everyone back to work. By identifying the specific workforce problems you think you’ll face, you can start planning for how to face them.
In a similar vein, this may be a good time to assess your quality of life assets. Are there improvements that can be made that will make it easier to market your community in the near future? What things can you be doing now to lay the groundwork for a future marketing campaign centered around quality of life/quality of place?
A hard truth is that some of your business may not come back quickly (or at all). You probably know which businesses those are, so you can start planning for the fallout. During the recession of the late 2000s, we saw some communities find success by leveraging their workforces’ transferable skills. As one of our client communities struggled to keep workers that were highly qualified in the shrinking motorsports industry, it discovered that the skills they possessed were transferable to the growing medical industry. Now might be the time to market workforce skills and training programs that can support new industries that will bounce back quicker.
Sites & Buildings
This video by site selector Didi Caldwell addresses the importance of using this time to review the condition of your sites, buildings, parks, and online property listings and getting them ready to show. While this is a great first step, we think it’s important to take things one step further and plan how to market them. There is – and will continue to be – demand, so you can’t stop showing what you’ve got.
To wrap this up, we’ll leave you with the cliché advice to “expect the unexpected.” No one can say when, if, or how we’ll recover from all of this, so the best we can do is plan for a variety of outcomes. By identifying the different possible scenarios in which your community might find itself you can plan for how to respond. The key is to never stop marketing. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a sweeping campaign, but you need to be doing something. It’ll give you a leg up on the people who aren’t.