Friday, June 13, 2014

Creating Buzz For Your Downtown

It's a common catchphrase that we all use at one time or another.  Some companies spend ridiculous amounts of money trying to create it.  We are all striving to generate buzz about our downtowns through our events, capital projects, new businesses and everything in between.  Why?  Because this buzz, this "x" factor, is what puts feet on our streets, makes the registers ring and, in short, makes downtown vibrant. 

For purposes of this post, I'll give my definition of "downtown buzz"

Downtown Buzz - To inspire others to take action and ownership in support of downtown

Pretty simple concept really, but creating buzz isn't as easy as you might think. Buzz is elusive, hard to predict and quite honestly, hard to plan.  I gave up a long time ago trying to anticipate what would strike a chord with people.  Sometimes I hit it spot on, other times I was left scratching my head trying to figure out what went wrong.  Good downtown ideas only become great when they receive buzz.  For example, you can build an awesome pocket park, but if no one uses it, is it really a success?  Or you plan an absolutely killer event, but only a few hundred people show up.  Success or no?

Does that mean that you don't have any control over your downtown buzz?  Absolutely not, but you need to make an effort.  It has to be project specific.  You can't use the same tactics to market a new streetscape and a music festival.  You need to look at each project - break it down and identify the hot buttons (or sweethearts as I like to call them) that will not only grab attention, but will engage your audience.  To that end, I think it's important when planning any event or project, that you look beyond the nuts and bolts of making it happen and figure out how you are going to market it on the back end and have that as a part of the overall plan.

Unfortunately, I think marketing is all together lost in some downtown promotions planning.  So much focus is put on the actual execution of the event, rather than the plan to get people there.  For any event we do, we typically have two marketing strategies.  First, we work on inspiring people to get involved in the event itself.  Once that's done and the event planning is almost complete, we switch gears and start a marketing initiative to drive traffic to the event.  And to be clear, ads in the local newspaper are not buzzworthy.  They have their place in your overall advertising plan, but should never be confused with actual marketing.

Here's a recent example to support my point.  In my town, Downtown Rochester, we are planning a new holiday event, the Downtown Rochester Festival of Trees.  This is an event that is going to require a significant amount of community support, so we need to get the ball rolling now.  We just received our approval last month, and are still working on all the details, but we wanted to start to get the word out now and generate a little buzz. 

So how do you  promote a new holiday event in the middle of June?  We decided to create a new Facebook Page for the event.  This is not something I typically do or recommend only because you want to keep traffic on your downtown's primary Facebook Page, rather than watering down your message and reach by creating a bunch of individual pages for your various events.  But I believe that the Festival of Trees is different and will take on a life of its own if we craft the story correctly.  We will eventually roll out the participation opportunities, event schedules, call for designers, call for sponsors, tickets on sale, etc., but for starters, we did a simple "Save the Date" message. 

So, did it work?  Well, within the first 24 hours, we had over 900 likes on our page.  Pretty darn good for an event that no one has even seen, and that many people probably don't even know what the heck it is all about.  But what they do know is that it's something new, has an interesting look and everybody loves the holidays here in my town.  Even more importantly, our initial campaign was successful because of our reputation we've created over the past several years that we are an event town, and anything that we do is usually pretty darn cool. But did we create buzz?  Absolutely!  Not only did we get a ton of our fans sharing our post about the new page, but we have already been contacted by several people asking how they can get involved.  Inspiring others to take action and ownership, yep, check.

Is buzz important?  Absolutely.  It's not about the money you spend, but about the time you take to develop your plan and tell your story.  I've said it before, as downtown managers, we wear many hats, but none more important that that of storyteller.  You have the power and the passion to tell some amazing stories about your downtown, to shape perceptions and opinions and most importantly, to inspire ownership of your downtown.

The Downtown Geek