The importance of neighborhood marketing (or, How to make people want to move to your community)

by Ulises Silva, Detroit LISC Communications Program Officer

We don’t normally associate “marketing” with neighborhoods. We think marketing, and we think of glitzy ads on TV extolling the health virtues of calorie-laden food or showing SUVs blazing through the kind of mountainous terrain they’ll never once see in real life. But marketing can be just as vital to neighborhoods and community development corporations (CDCs) trying to attract new residents. And it’s just as vital for neighborhoods that are struggling with negative perceptions.

Members of the Detroit LISC staff were able to attend this past Wednesday’s Reimagining Older Industrial Communities Symposium hosted by NeighborWorks America. One of the symposium’s panel discussions was, “Re-making a community’s image,” where panelists discussed the marketing challenges facing neighborhoods and cities burdened with negative perceptions.

Something you probably didn't read about in the NYT: LISC National Day of Service.

Those of us in Detroit know a thing or two about negative perceptions and the adverse effects they can have on population growth/decline. You hear bad, scary stories long enough, and you too will believe that your neighborhood—or your entire city—must be avoided at all cost. So what can we do to reverse a depressing narrative that even the Canadians have embraced?

For starters, we can begin grassroots marketing efforts to promote a new narrative about the things actually happening in Detroit neighborhoods. Because those of us who live and work in the city understand a simple truth the New York Times sometimes forgets: there are good things happening here too.

We just need to find a way to get those stories out. Which is where marketing comes in.

The panelists at the symposium discussed the importance of building “neighborhood confidence,” and of the things neighborhoods and supporting CDCs can start doing in order to generate some positive buzz about Detroit neighborhoods. This can be through social media, traditional print publications, or any other grassroots marketing campaign that aims to attract residents.

Here are some of their suggestions.

  • “Maximize what’s hot.” Even if a neighborhood is in transition, emphasize the things that are happening. Whether it’s a new storefront, community art, or a rehabbed home, emphasize the positive elements.
  • Emphasize the “lifestyle opportunities.” Is there something about your neighborhood that might appeal to different segments of the population? Are your streets bike-friendly? Are there eclectic hangout spots that artists might dig? Are there parks nearby that families might enjoy? Then mention those.
  • Testimonials matter! One panelist gave this great example: if we see a dingy, scary-looking restaurant, we probably wouldn’t want to go in. But if we read stirring testimonials about its great food, then we would probably give it a try. It’s the same with neighborhood marketing. Make sure to get the positive stories out so that prospective residents knows there’s more to your neighborhood than the occasional foreclosed home. Think of it as Yelping for your community!
  • Ask prospective residents about what they like and don’t like about your neighborhood… Take the time to talk to people. Their insights might prove more helpful than any faceless market research study in attracting new residents.
  • …BUT make sure you understand what they mean! One panelist offered another great example: when prospective residents were asked why they wouldn’t move into a neighborhood, “safety” was a common response. Everyone assumed they meant crime; in fact, they were referring to the area’s speed limits, and how unsafe they would be for children playing in the streets. Lesson learned? Don’t make assumptions about why people won’t move into your neighborhoods.

Every panelist agreed that neighborhood marketing and re-making community perceptions, especially in Detroit, are gargantuan challenges that will take much more than bumper stickers and t-shirts. And while each city and each neighborhood will require different approaches to the same problem, one thing we all need is some creativity. Because it’ll take some creative thought to not only create grassroots marketing campaigns, but to fund them—or make them happen with little or no money. Thankfully, social media is the great equalizer in modern-day marketing: it’s vital, expansive, and free! If you’re a CDC or a neighborhood organization, make sure you’re on Facebook. (And while you’re at it, make sure to stop by and “like” us as well!)

There’s no single best approach to neighborhood marketing, but there doesn’t need to be. One panelist said it best: “The only thing that won’t work is doing nothing.”

You tell a story long enough, and people will believe it. So let’s start telling the good stories happening in our neighborhoods.

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Posted on May 20, 2011, in Community and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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