By SHANNON WATKINS
At Tuesday night’s town council meeting, Economic Developer John White came forward to continue the discussion of how best to foster business development in Pulaski, a topic in particular focus since the Route 99 feasibility study was presented this summer by the New River Valley Planning District Commission.
White said Bill O’Connor of The O’Connor Group, a Roanoke marketing firm, had come to Pulaski to look over the town and visit the museum with White the day after the last council meeting.
“I think that as we approach the budget process, one of the things we need to take into consideration is advertising and marketing our community,” said White. He said most advertising and marketing to date has been done in-house and there has been no consistent theme for what is presented to the public. “I think much of that is due to the fact that we simply didn’t allocate the resources to do it,” White added. He said O’Connor had some fairly critical comments about the town’s advertising currently, and offered that redoing the town website was a top priority, along with fully utilizing Facebook as a tool. “Right now, it’s a little tawdry, it’s about five years old,” said White of the town webpage. “Let’s keep this in mind as we go into the budget.”
He continued by reiterating the need for consistent branding, calling for “a common general theme that articulates who we are and who we wish to be. I think we need to spend some time figuring that out.”
White said when O’Connor got to the museum, “He had a comment. And I was pleased by it, but I didn’t take credit for it: ‘Wow, walking in here is very different. You have a different feel about the community.’ And I think that’s in part because of the storyboards. They’re all consistent, they have a common feel. You have photographs that all have a consistency about telling a story. And I think his experience was sort of an ‘aha!’ experience. So I think we need to give some thought about the commonality about everything we do.”
As an example of updating the town image, White said the last time its stationary had been changed was 1995. “It’s very nice, I don’t have anything against it,” he said, “but it’s not fresh, its not new, it may not represent who we are now. Plus it’s got the clock tower of the courthouse, which has also been co-opted by the county.”
“So I guess my first appeal to you is, let’s begin to figure out how we want to market ourselves, how we want to advertise, and let’s consider what budget we have,” he said. He also said he felt it was hard to do in-house marketing, but despite O’Connor advising against it, White said he had thought up an in-house publication. He said he took some cues from the last meeting’s discussion, particularly what councilman Greg East had said might be appropriate, such as a map, information about the availability of property, why people ought to be attracted to come to the community and what it has to offer. “I guess the point of what I’m saying is, there’s a lot of great, positive things that we don’t need to make up. We don’t have to spin it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting it and putting it all together.”
Mayor Jeff Worrell asked, “Is there an industry standard for how often you have to update your website?”
“You’re not going to be happy to hear it, but it’s about every three years,” answered White, who said he also discussed this topic with O’Connor. White pointed out the full update to the town website was in 2008, although minor changes have been made since then.
“You’re exactly right,” East said, “I certainly agree with that, but do you have any idea what it would cost?”
“Are you sitting down?” asked White. “He said probably $100,000 a year.”
“For a website?” asked East.
“No, for an advertising campaign that could be consistently budgeted each year” which would include a website, said White. “A fresh marketing campaign, a fresh approach, getting your name out there in the right places.”
“It seems like something you could kind of ease into,” said East.
Vice Mayor Joseph Goodman said he had worked with a company that put in a bid to work on the town’s website about two months ago, for approximately $6,000. “What we looked at, I think most companies would look at it as well; most companies update every day,” said Goodman. “Your website nowadays needs to be alive. That’s why you see a lot of content going off and coming on it, a scrolling newsfeed or event feed. When you land on the front page of that town’s website, you know immediately what’s going on in the next few days in that town. You want to make it interactive. The cost varies.” He said the town website has very outdated software currently, but advised council that a WordPress-based site would be good for a municipality of Pulaski’s size.
“Social media’s the way to go,” said White.
Goodman also said that since there are three colleges with design or marketing programs in the vicinity, council might want to talk to their deans’ offices to get start a capstone program, where people trying to graduate with degrees in marketing and design could work for the town in this capacity.
White pointed out some things from his first in-house publication that was in council’s information packet actually came from a class at Virginia Tech.
“What’s our next step here?” asked East.
“It seems to me that working in the current budget we have, unless we would reallocate funds, we’re sort of stuck for now,” said White. “Unless you all want to move forward and give us new policy and new direction. I would like to see us move as quickly as we can, working with the GPA but also working with someone from the outside that can help us develop this consistency of advertising. And I think we can ease into it, but I think that’s part of an overall attempt to raise our image in the valley and in the state and in the southeast, and that’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a challenge. Let’s think about it, talk about it, and at the next meeting, give it some more thought.” He added, “You’re not going to change your image overnight with just a couple of brochures.
“Before we can come out with brochures, websites, anything, we have to answer those questions of who we are, what image it is that we wish to, for lack of a better word, sell to the community and the folks we want to come to our community,” said Goodman. “Because once we know what that message is, we can make sure that it’s delivered in a comprehensive plan.”
East said he would like to see something like the Route 99 study done for this topic, to see what options exist for creating a plan.
White offered the possibility to make it a contest, having different advertising companies come in and present to council. “Having a competition may get some really interesting ideas,” he said.
Goodman asked what prize should be used to motivate the presenters.
White quipped, “They could get free Mariners t-shirts.”