Thursday, November 7, 2013

Putting Your District's Best Foot Forward

Author Kristen Wilke is a Project Manager at Larisa Ortiz Associates. 

Whenever friends come to visit my hometown (see below), I take them on a tour of some of my favorite places. Mostly I bring them to the places off the beaten path - a hard-to-find antique store, the waterfall, my friend's cafe, the independent movie theater - all places that one might not find without an experienced guide. If my friends visited without my carefully curated itinerary, they might have a different experience. Rather than a beautiful town with unique history, charming shops and sightseeing, they might drive in the other direction and find fields and an abundance of gas stations.

As a district manager, you most likely have a similar challenge. You know your district is great (even if the streetscape or the business mix has a few challenges), but not everyone will have a seasoned tour guide to help them get their bearings. When visitors don't have anyone to show them the way, or don't know what to look for, they may leave with a negative first impression. On top of that, even before visitors see your district, they most likely have done a little research on their own. They've read through reviews online to find businesses, or if they're coming from further away, may have gotten ahold of a guide book. These resources aren't necessarily telling the right story.
Since you can't be everyone's tour guide, here are a few ideas for helping to put your district's best foot forward:

Work with businesses to remind shoppers or diners to write positive reviews (on Yelp, or any other sites that people turn to for reviews in your city) if they had a good experience. Try to build positive feedback and debunk the negative. In New Rochelle, New York, our firm worked with the local Business Improvement District to do an “online optimization”, where we helped the BID correct and update information about the area and local businesses (on local travel websites Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc). We also recommended that the BID work with restaurants to encourage diners to write about their positive experiences on Yelp by putting small postcards reminders in with the check.

Scan what the guidebooks are saying about your district. Did they leave something out? Are they presenting it in a negative light? I once worked in a community where a popular guidebook dismissed one retail corridor entirely, advising shoppers not to waste their time. When I saw that, I emailed the editor about all of the great things they must have missed. Today (though admittedly this could have had little to do with my email) the corridor's description is much more positive. You are the local expert, so make sure publications have information to tell the right story about your district. 

- Last week I wrote about taking real estate brokers on a tour of your district so that they can then tell the right story to the retail tenants they represent. If you missed it, take a look at it here

- Control the message by writing a neighborhood profile and posting it (everywhere). Some ideas:
  • Wikipedia
  • Travel websites
  • Local real estate blogs and databases
  • Yelp
The most important thing is that all of this is rooted in facts. Don't write that your community is a happening destination for shopping and dining if your stores are primarily convenience-oriented - misled visitors won't come back. 

Here is a tool that I like to use when thinking about how to tell a neighborhood's story (click for a larger version): 

This graphic is included in a guide called, Branding Your City by CEOs for Cities. The whole report is definitely worth a read.

Here is how we used it to think about a community we worked with recently:

It is helpful for taking what may be someone's negative first impression, and putting it in a different light. Try thinking about your district in this way. It will help to craft your message in a way that reshapes negative perceptions and promotes an identity that is rooted in reality.