Marketing is a vital part of growing a business — the same can be said for growing a town.
As a community vitality extension specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel helps communities create marketing strategies that will help them draw in new residents and retain those already living there.
“New resident recruitment and retention in rural areas is a big deal,” Burkhart-Kriesel said, adding that data shows population in rural areas across the Midwest has been on decline for years. “Many of those communities hit their peak a long time ago.”
She believes part of the reason for the drop in residents is because of changes in agriculture, particularly when it comes to technology.
“When the area was first settled, you had a lot more farms and ranches, and there were bigger families,” she said, adding that large families were often necessary to keep an operation running smoothly.
As mechanization began to decrease the need for labor, the area saw a change in the structure of both agriculture and families.
While many rural communities are struggling with population decline, others are overcoming the challenge and finding ways to thrive.
“You find pockets of stability and even increase,” she said.
Those pockets are usually made up of communities with strong leadership and residents who are willing to make investments.
Several years ago, Burkhart-Kriesel began doing research on what communities are doing right and wrong when it comes to population growth and resident retention.
Through focus groups and surveys, she connected with new residents to determine what brought them to the community, what may push them away and how to keep them around.
The most common response was that communities weren’t doing a good enough job showcasing themselves, particularly on the web.
Burkhart-Kriesel partnered up with extension researchers in North Dakota and South Dakota to collect responses from a larger area.
“The results were the same,” Burkhart-Kriesel said.
She and the other researchers began to put together a program that would help communities do a better job of highlighting the advantages of living there.
In 2013-14, the program, called Marketing Hometown America, was rolled out to a handful of communities including Kimball and Neligh, as well as towns in the Dakotas.
During the program, steering groups are formed in the communities and six to eight local people are trained to facilitate small group discussions.
Then the community is invited to a kick off event where they are encouraged to sign up for a “study circle.”
These circles meet up separately for four sessions which will examine their connections to the community, how the community stacks up against others, why people would want to move there and steps that can be taken to promote the area.
During the final session, the community is encouraged to participate in a forum to select their favorite ideas from the circles. Action teams are then formed to move forward with the selected projects.
There were expected results from the pilot communities, including taking new marketing actions such as changing images on the city’s website to be more appealing or adding a welcome sign near city limits.
There were also improvements to amenities, including downtown murals and cleaned up lots.
In addition to those results, there were some “good unintended consequences,” as well, Burkhart-Kriesel said. Among them were adult and youth engagement, increased networking, expanded leadership and increased civic awareness and community spirit.
She encourages those interested in the Marketing Hometown America program to reach out to their local extension office.
Since it began, communities across Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota have benefited from the program. Faculty at Penn State are also considering the program.
“It started right here, we were the spark,” Burkhart-Kriesel said.