by Jim Phillips
The young entrepreneur’s start-up was a perfect fit for Ohio’s Youngstown Business Incubator, which was located nearby and well-publicized. So why did it take an online social networking site like MySpace to bring them together?
The 24-year-old entrepreneur had grown up in Youngstown, earned his computer science degree at Youngstown State University, and then launched a software company with two buddies. And if you have a software start-up anywhere between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, boasts YBI Director Jim Cossler, “you’d be crazy not to bring it to Youngstown.”
The incubator also gets ample coverage in local print media. “We’ve been above the fold in our daily newspaper many, many times,” Cossler notes. “But this kid never heard about us until he saw us on MySpace.” After spotting YBI’s MySpace page, the entrepreneur contacted the incubator – and joined a growing number of his peers who’ve found it first through the networking site.
“Eighteen- to 20-year-olds don’t do mainstream media,” Cossler explains. “To reach an 18- to 20-year-old, you’ve got to do some Web 2.0 stuff.”
Web 2.0 is shorthand for a new concept of Internet use that stresses information-sharing and self-organized collaboration. It’s not an outgrowth of new technology so much as a new way to look at the Web as a shared virtual community where ideas propagate virus-fashion at lightning speed. If you work primarily with technology businesses, the use of some Web 2.0 strategies is nearly mandatory. But even for mixed-use incubators, the use of social networking, blogs and other new media is probably worth considering. The benefits are concrete, readily attainable, and best of all, often dirt-cheap.
These tools can be used to augment more traditional ways of keeping in touch with clients and supporters, though the biggest value for incubators seems to be in reaching a population that didn’t know the incubator existed.
One quick way to a more interactive presence is a page on a social networking site like MySpace or Facebook, which between them account for more than 100 million users. Though you might think of these free sites mainly as places where young people swap pictures and music files with their online friends, they are also used by organizations, businesses and event organizers. More narrowly focused networking sites also exist, like the business-oriented LinkedIn.
“Facebook is a real connector for us,” says Dan MacDonald, president and CEO of inNOVAcorp, an incubator in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Getting a Facebook page, he says, was part of a larger Internet strategy the incubator put in its latest budget. (He also uses MySpace.)
“We had to decide, would we spend resources upgrading our Web site, or would we spend them on new media?” he recalls. “We decided systematically not to invest in our Web site, but instead to invest in new media, and networking, and events, and all of that. ... It’s not all about new media, but new media’s definitely a big part of it.”
As inNOVAcorp moved toward more new media marketing, the program joined East Coast Connected, a Facebook group of former Nova Scotia residents who’ve moved away – and from whose membership the incubator gets useful tips about potential clients and investors.
“The primary reason [for using new media] is quality pipeline,” MacDonald says. “We have almost tripled the pipeline of start-up companies that are coming toward us now.”
YBI also uses both Facebook and MySpace, with more focus on MySpace and its younger demographic. Besides information about the incubator, its pages include fun items like music videos to pull in viewers. When he tracks sites from which people visit his home page, Cossler finds that between 30 percent and 40 percent come from MySpace and Facebook in an average month.
Another popular Internet site with social networking aspects is YouTube, which uploads user-supplied video clips. Incubators shouldn’t overlook such video sites as ways to get the word out about their programs.
InNOVAcorp, YBI and other incubators post promotional videos on YouTube. A five-and-a-half-minute clip from the @Wales Digital Media Initiative in Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom, for example, leads viewers through a virtual tour of the incubator building, swooping in and out of rooms over a driving rock soundtrack.
Another useful tool for reaching potential clients and stakeholders is a blog. Short for weblog, it is also a verb, “to blog.” Essentially an online essay site, a blog contains anything from personal musings to fact-filled reports, plus links to other Web sites. Incubators can use blogs to publicize events, keep stakeholders and clients informed, or discuss issues.
Starting a blog is as easy as finding someone willing to write regular posts, and as cheap as the fee to host it. Lance Weatherby, venture catalyst at the Advanced Technology Development Center in Atlanta, reports that in addition to staff time, the incubator’s “PeachSeedz” blog costs him about $16 a month.
ATDC started blogging and using sites like Facebook and LinkedIn after doing research in 2006 about its visibility. “We found that a lot of entrepreneurs didn’t know we existed,” Weatherby admits. “It became apparent to me that a lot of these social networking types of things were things we needed to get involved with, to get the attention of the new generation of entrepreneurs.”
PeachSeedz has about 200 subscribers, a number Weatherby expects to reach 500 by next year. Without new media like a blog, he says, “you won’t reach [young entrepreneurs], and even if you reach them, they’ll think you’re old school. ... [Now] entrepreneurs are saying, ‘There are great things going on over at ATDC,’ whereas two years ago, I don’t think they were saying that.” Since ATDC began using new media, it has seen an increase in applicants, from 105 in 2006 to 180 last year.
Weatherby recalls that before launching his own personal blog, which focuses on entrepreneurship, he asked a consultant for advice, and was told: “Just start writing.” And that’s just what he told ATDC staffers about PeachSeedz. Blogging duties rotate through a small staff, easily meeting his aim to have at least one new post a week.
“You have to have at least one person [on your staff] who’s comfortable writing,” he advises. “If you’re not comfortable with blogging, start finding blogs that you think might be of interest to you and what you’re doing as an incubator, and start following those.”
One key to a successful blog is frequent refreshment. This not only benefits readers; it also tends to push the blog higher up in search engine results because online searching robots are fond of new content. Conversely, a stale, infrequently updated blog can turn readers away and hurt your incubator’s image.
With a blog, “you’d better have something to say on a regular basis,” warns Evan Jones, head of digital and incubation for the Welsh Assembly Government.
Blogs and social networking sites hardly exhaust the interactive new media outlets incubators can use. The “wiki” approach, for example – as in Wikipedia, the popular online user-written encyclopedia – is used by some organizations to work on group projects inside and beyond their walls.
A wiki is software that lets different people contribute to and change the content of a Web site. But the wiki concept, as described in the book Wikinomics, by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, is also “a metaphor for a new era of collaboration and participation.”
ATDC used a wiki to manage its most recent CapVenture program, which helped train early-stage CEOs about capitalizing their businesses. During the six-week program, representatives from 15 companies exchanged ideas through the wiki. At the end of the program, each firm had its own funding strategy based on an assessment of its fit with various forms of capital.
“The end product was that each company pitched its business to approximately 100 people, including angel and venture capital investors,” Weatherby says.
Lakeshore Business Garden in Zeeland, Mich., uses new media to broaden its reach as an area business resource. It hosts an online experts forum that’s free, but open only to in-house clients, nonresident clients, and local businesses and entrepreneurs who apply.
The program enlists the volunteer services of 15 area experts, in fields from banking to law to management. Users post questions that are directed to the appropriate expert, with answers posted online. The experts also blog, according to marketing manager Amanda Chocko.
“It’s a great marketing tool for us,” Chocko says. “People say it’s been very, very helpful, especially when it comes to some of the legal questions that are asked.”
Creating the online experts forum cost about $2,500, with a discount from the Lakeshore client who developed it. Chocko spends five to 10 hours a week managing it, and about $10 a month for hosting. At some point, she says, she may begin charging a nominal fee.
The Enterprise Center at Salem State College in Massachusetts is taking its first steps into new media with the help of a $20,000 grant from the state’s Office of Housing and Economic Development. The money bought equipment to offer online audiocasts of workshops hosted by the incubator, making them available to many more people than the 70 who typically attend. The center pays $30 a month for hosting and devotes some staff time to the program.
“We’ve had 500 people go [to the audiocasts] this month [March] alone,” reports Executive Director Christine Sullivan. “My goal is to do a survey of everyone who’s using it. There are a lot of new people we’ve never seen before doing the audio.”
Taking advantage of new media can bring challenges, though several incubator managers stress that many valuable benefits can be gained at little or no cost.
Some incubators view new media as mainly an add-on to their current marketing arsenal; others see them as where they want to direct most of their attention in the future. Some use them mainly for finding new clients and supporters, while others focus more on better serving and keeping informed their current clients and stakeholders.
Cossler of YBI argues that a Web 2.0 strategy is close to a no-brainer. “One, it’s free,” he says. “Two, it’s viral, because it’s a social network. And three, it’s instantaneously global.” He admits that the move onto sites like MySpace “raised the eyebrows” of some incubator board members, who “had heard some of the pejorative things” about the site [like privacy issues], “but we explained to them, ‘We absolutely have to be there.’”
MacDonald of inNOVAcorp is equally enthusiastic, though he also acknowledges that “you have to understand there is some risk.” What Wikinomics author Tapscott once dubbed the Net Generation, he notes, has zero tolerance for hype. “You’re out there – you’re sticking your neck out,” he says.
Jones uses plenty of cutting-edge new media at his incubator in Wales, including such things as skypecasting, a method of free online teleconferencing. He’s even toyed with the idea of opening a “virtual incubator” in Second Life, a “massively multi-player online game” where players assume virtual identities and can interact, buy, sell and even start businesses. But Jones stresses that an incubator should assess new media like any other marketing tool.
“There’s an awful lot of pressure for people to get into new media because it’s new, and it’s sexy, and it’s what everyone is doing,” he observes. “But it depends on where you’re coming from. It all boils down to your market. ... The best advice is, always start with ‘Why?’”
Questions to ask, he says, include whom you’re targeting and what you want to say to them; what media your target audience use to get their information; and “what is it going to do for your brand?” If some of your audience isn’t new media-savvy, he says, “there’s a danger, if you’re not careful, of alienating people” with a wholesale abandonment of traditional media.
“A lot of our messages are layered [in different formats], so you don’t have to go to the end of the technological universe to hear what we’re saying,” he adds.
If an incubator does plan to use more new media, he adds, it should find people who are knowledgeable about it, but not insistent on getting “all the bells and whistles” if they’re not really needed.
And ultimately, Jones stresses, no communication method is better than the message it conveys.
“The key point here is content,” he says.
Those in the know talk about “natives” versus “immigrants” on the Web – young people who’ve grown up with computers, and the older generation who learned e-mail as a second language. For incubator managers in the second group, here’s a simple tip for increasing your Web 2.0 savvy: Find native guides.
Those born in the 1980s and later “network and communicate much differently from us old guys, and you just have to know that,” explains 45-year-old Dan MacDonald of inNOVAcorp in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Hence, when inNOVAcorp moved heavily into Web 2.0 strategies, he turned to those in his organization for whom such things were second nature. He also gave them freedom to use their instincts to put content on the Web in ways likely to pass muster with their peers.
“We empower these guys and just let them do it,” he says. The wired generation tends to distrust what hasn’t been vetted by online friends, and to react instantly if they think they’re being snowed, he warns. “You can make a big claim on a blog, but if that claim is false, you will get punched on the chin in 20 seconds,” he says.
Jim Cossler of Ohio’s Youngstown Business Incubator agrees. On the principle of getting your teenager to design your Web site, his incubator employs college students who are happy to proselytize for YBI on various blogs because they like the organization and the prestige of being associated with it.
“We’ve created a number of ‘cyber-evangelist’ positions,” Cossler reports. “We don’t pay them; they just love us. We give them a title they can show off to their friends, and they love working with us. ... The whole campaign doesn’t cost us a penny.”
He advises incubator managers to “go to your local high school and ask the guidance counselor, ‘Who are some of your tech-savvy students?’ And hire them.” Be forewarned, though – the experience can be humbling.
Youngstown Business Incubator’s MySpace page
Lakeshore Business Garden’s Entrepreneurial Forum
Advanced Technology Development Center blog
Lance Weatherby’s blog, “Force of Good”
The Salem State College Enterprise Center’s audiocast site
An article on how an organization can set up its own blog
A Youngstown, Ohio, blogger’s post about the Youngstown Business Incubator
A video tour of the @Wales Digital Media Initiative
A video about the Youngstown Business Incubator
Amanda Chocko, marketing manager, Lakeshore Business Garden, Zeeland, Mich.
Jim Cossler, director, Youngstown Business Incubator, Youngstown, Ohio
Evan Jones, head of digital and incubation, Welsh Assembly Government, and director, @Wales Digital Media Initiative, Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom
Dan MacDonald, president and CEO, inNOVAcorp, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Christine Sullivan, executive director, The Enterprise Center at Salem State College, Salem, Mass.
Keywords: client selection/admissions, marketing and promotion, networking, new technology, stakeholder relationship management
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