Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Nine ways economic developers can use social media

Michelle Madden / March 2, 2015

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The Higher ED Blog: Nine ways economic developers can use social media

Social media is not a fad. In Canada, 69 per cent of the population visited at least one social networking site in 2013 and social media is the top activity on laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. Globally, more than two billion people are active social media users. While the platforms of choice might wax and wane, social media is highly likely to remain a part of our everyday lives as individuals, which means it will continue to be important for companies and organizations. Clearly, the economic development field is recognizing this fact; a survey of EDAC members showed that about half are using Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to promote their communities/organizations and many are using social media platforms to find information to support their work.

It’s clear, then, that economic development organizations are and should be using social media. The complicated part is how to use social media effectively. Airdrie’s Sara Chamberlain wrote her Year 3 paper on this topic (available in Volume 14 of Papers in Canadian Economic Development) and found a breadth of applications for social media specific to economic development. Under the assumption that you are already using social media to some degree, this blog will focus on giving you new ideas on how those channels can be used.

I’m also assuming that you already have some kind of social media strategy in place. If you don’t currently have one, I recommend checking out the many available resources that can help you develop a strategy before moving forward with the suggestions in this article. General guides are available online and Sara provides a useful step-by-step guide in her paper. If an in-depth learning experience is more your style, the University of Waterloo is hosting a Social Media for Economic Developers seminar this May featuring Altas Advertising’s Guillermo Mazier, Intelegia’s Isabelle Poirier, and MDB’s Brock Dickinson. It will be offered in Stratford and online (end of shameless plug).


Like traditional methods of communication, social media can be used for a variety of goals. You’re probably already using your social media channels for a few of these, but maybe this list will inspire you to use those channels in new ways you hadn’t considered before.

1. Reputation management

Social media is a great way to monitor what people are saying about your community, and to intervene if necessary. A destination review, arrival of a major company, or natural disaster can all trigger far-reaching conversations. In the past, these conversations were very difficult (or impossible) to hear, but in the digital age, you can use social media monitoring tools like Hootsuite to make sure hear them.

Once you’re aware of what people are saying, you can simply take the information into consideration, or reach out to them directly to thank them or attempt to resolve issues. If conversations are happening en masse, there are tools available that can aggregate the conversations and analyse the tone of what’s being said.

2. Media monitoring and news dissemination

Social media monitoring doesn’t stop at individual users, it also extends to the media. Instead of poring over a stack of newspapers, economic development organizations can automate the process by using tools like Google Alerts to find relevant stories.

On the flip side, your social media channels can be used to disseminate news too. Newsrooms are much smaller than they used to be so posts and tweets should be used alongside press releases to get the word out. It’s also smart to digitally reach out to niche bloggers and groups and ask them to share information on your behalf.

3. Market intelligence to develop relationships

The internet is a boundless source of information—some useless, and some incredibly useful. Keeping tabs on local businesses can help you understand their exciting milestones and plans for the future. Following potential investors can keep you up-to-date on their activities and spark conversations.  LinkedIn is a particularly good tool for gathering information on companies, organizations, and individuals, and for engaging with them directly.

4. Workforce attraction

Most communities have a website or webpage that showcase the community to prospective residents. Social media can take that information a step further. Use channels like LinkedIn groups and niche message boards to share job postings and networking events directly with people in your desired fields.

From another angle, social media can also be used to find content for workforce attraction marketing campaigns. Use your channels to engage current residents, generate testimonials and discussions, and find success stories.

5. Public engagement

Public engagement is critical to economic development initiatives. Social media can be used at any phase of the process but it is especially helpful in the early stages when you want to crowdsource ideas or improve on existing ones. Economic developers can also expect to get interactive feedback in real-time, and to engage people who are challenging to reach (such as busy professionals, youth, and housebound individuals). The virality of social media can spread the word about engagement opportunities much further than a newspaper ad.

6. Tourism

According to Leadsift, “Social media and tourism have forever gone together like peanut butter and jelly”. Destination marketers have been using social media to promote their destinations for some time now, and travelers are using platforms to share tons of photos and experiences with their friends. Leadsift found that 74 per cent of users make use of social media while on vacation, and 76 per cent share information about their vacation after they get home. Those conversations can be leveraged for building a brand, reputation management, and customer interaction. Don’t overlook the fact that review websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp are also social media. These should be monitored to understand if the brand is resonating or if there are weak links.

7. Business retention and expansion

The role of social media is not just to build new relationships, it can help with maintaining existing relationships too. Traditional BR&E practices are time and resource intensive and therefore aren’t always deployed as often or as extensively as we would like. Social media tools can help economic developers listen to, learn from, and take care of their local business.

8. Business assistance

Business assistance is one of the core activities of economic development. Social media can help EDOs help their businesses in three ways. First, many business owners are overwhelmed by the web and social media. These owners might appreciate if you hosted learning opportunities. Second, social media offers an alternative way for business owners to reach out. Economic developers should be prepared to respond to a cry for help that is in the form of a tweet instead of a telephone call. Third, social media channels (especially Twitter) are great for promoting local businesses and amplifying their messages. Look through the Downtown Kitchener BIA’s twitter feed to see an example in action.

9. Marketing and investment attraction

And finally, there’s marketing and investment attraction. Social media is rising as an important tool in site selection because it is another venue to have conversations with industry peers and drive awareness of the community. Another great benefit of social media and technology-driven solutions is that they typically cost less than print formats. However, it’s important to note that social media is never free; at the very least, it will take staff time, and at the other extreme, creating quality content (particularly video) can be costly. Like other marketing tools, you will need to measure the performance of your social media efforts and evaluate future efforts based on these findings.

Additional resources

About the paper’s author

Sara Chamberlain has worked in the economic development profession for nearly a decade. Currently, she is an Economic Development Officer with the City of Airdrie, one of Canada’s fastest growing communities. Sara has Bachelor degrees in political studies and public relations and holds the Ec.D. designation from the Economic Development Association of Canada and is an Accredited Business Communicator through the International Association of Business Communicators.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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