I love driving through Baltimore and seeing the banners on the lampposts. I love seeing how the sports teams talk about themselves. I love seeing how each neighborhood has crafted its own unique story.
Messaging a city
For cities, messaging isn’t just found in the marketing materials you create, it has to be far-reaching. You must think about what your social media is doing, what you’re doing in the neighborhoods, and what you’re putting out into the world. If you think about your city, or your state, think about the issues that it faces. What do people think about when they come in? What do your out-of-town friends say about it? What do you think people say when they come visit? Can you look at your city, or your town, and pinpoint some of the key messages that live there?
This kind of messaging is just not an obligation of tourism sites, either. It’s on the shop owners, the government, the nonprofits, and the people that make up the city. You have to treat your city like you would a business. What is the look and feel? What is the vibe people get when they come here? What do you want them to do? What are some things people say about you? Is it good, or is it bad? How do you think you can shift it? What are you known for? What has worked in the past? What old messages did the city once live by? Do people remember the history of your city, town, or state? Do you want to bring that history in? Is it worth it?
You go to Philadelphia, and there are blocks dedicated to the founding of America. People get swept up in the patriotism and the feeling of being right alongside Ben Franklin and John Adams. You walk the streets and you feel connected to it. I have to believe that this was completely intentional. Philadelphia loves its history and it takes pride in it. And it was smart enough to centralize so much of this history into one location, rather than asking visitors to go searching different locations miles apart from each other.
Meeting multiple audiences where they are
If you’re doing it right, you will have multiple audiences when you talk to tourists, both in and outside the city. Each one of them needs to be addressed in different ways. How do Millennials need to be messaged? What do they think of your city? How do they move through it? Are they leaving the city, or are they building lives here? If they aren’t doing any of those things, then why? What messages aren’t they receiving?
What about older folks? Baby boomers? How are you talking to them? Are you even talking to them? Have you neglected them because you’re too busy talking to Millennials? Are you talking about the city on platforms that Baby Boomers live on? Are you creating events and spaces that make sense for them? What about Baby Boomers who are building businesses and starting second careers? What resources do you have for them? How are you encouraging them to stay in the city, and make something special?
And what about college kids? You have four years to convince a college student that he or she should be staying in this city and making a life here? New York doesn’t have to worry about this; there is every reason in the world for kids to stay in that city (even though it’s pricing people out every single day).
But what about the college towns in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Colorado, West Virginia? How are you talking to these folks so they want to stay? Yes, some of them will never be convinced to stay. Others, though, they may very well want to stay here and make something happen. And why not? They’ve made friends, they’ve probably interned here, they know the area. Why can’t your city be the cool, new, innovative place you know it is?
I’ll tell you about my own experience. I left for college and moved back home for a year. This was more than a decade ago. Everyone kept talking about how my city was on the up and up. A film office was going to be opening soon. Companies would be flocking to the city to shoot there. I heard that things were improving. However, I couldn’t tell you where I saw a single message speaking to that fact anywhere throughout the city. I couldn’t tell you about the events, programs, websites, or postcards that spoke to me.
Instead, the messages that I received were quite the opposite. It didn’t seem like film production could ever be a viable industry here. It didn’t seem like there were any agencies that would give me a chance to start on the ground level. And even though an apartment wasn’t hard to come by, I didn’t see enough nightlife happening around me to encourage me to stay. No, it seemed the city was more focused on keeping the 40-something moms and dads who had established jobs. I would have liked to stay in that city, raise a family, and make some good money. I honestly could have seen a life there. But in terms of my perception, my feeling, and what I was hearing and seeing, all signs were pointing me away.
Marketing and tourism as one
Cities and towns have to dig deep to figure out what people are saying about them. This takes learning sessions where you bring in people and hear what they have to say. What do they think about your buildings? Your nightlife? Your job opportunities? Your real estate? Just like when you talk to a client and get to know their story, figuring out the messaging of your city begins with listening to the stories of those who are in the thick of your city. And it would make sense to do this strategically and in a focused manner. You cannot call together a committee of 100 people and use that as your benchmark for getting to know a community. I don’t think you’re ever going to get the response you want. In fact, you’ll get 100 different responses, and that is no way to build a strategy.
When you can tap into your message, you can begin to build your voice and begin to really see what the next steps could look like. That’s when strategy comes in, and you begin to piece together real, focused objectives that plot a path that makes sense for you. That’s the brunt of what I’m trying to bring up here. You need a strategy to change the focus and perception of your city. Some cities do this and they thrive. Others just allow the city to go on as is and don’t feel a need to change up the narrative. Others don’t have the money or the resources to commit to something like this.