SS Online Insider Week of July 20, 2009
  Special Report

The Tangled Web of Investment Information

Executives going online to scan area Web sites for location data today find a few good sites amid a worldwide jumble of frustrating and ineffective presentations. Here is a proposal for improving the system so it better serves both corporate executives and development managers.

by McKINLEY CONWAY, Site Selection Publisher, editor

User Analysis Can Help
       An economic development Web site user study conducted in 2008 by Chabin Concepts, Austin Consulting and FirstEnergy yielded insights worth heeding.
      What do those users want to find most? Information on properties, transportation, taxes and incentives, utilities, contact information and quality of life.
Don Schjeldahl
      "If you build a site around a very targeted audience, all the people who come to it should be satisfied," said Don Schjeldahl, vice president and director, Facilities Location Group — The Austin Co., in a presentation at the UEDA Summer Forum in July 2008 in Cleveland. While the standard recommendation is to place more data out there, he said the study revealed several frustrations, ranked in order: out-of-date information, lack of contact information, incomplete information and navigational issues.
      Among the content searchers want to see most? Maps and site/building inventories, followed by records of business activity, training resources, industry sector profiles and cost comparisons. Schjeldahl said there was a lot of room for improvement on the property databases.
      "There have been improvements in technical functions," he said, "but populating that database and keeping it up to date is a huge task." The most important criteria to keep track of are type, use and distance to transportation, followed by such details as sale or lease options, ceiling height and work-force demographics. As for accompanying mapping and GIS technology, users want to know about incentive zones, business parks, airports, rail and roads, industry clusters, zoning, university locations and work-force radii.
      Audrey Taylor, president, Chabin Concepts, said nearly three quarters of surveyed users were viewing sites on hand-held devices, meaning the volume of flashy graphics ought to be kept to a minimum. She also observed the frustration users encountered by limited use of hyperlinks, or links that took them to home pages, rather than to the exact Web pages containing the detailed information they sought. Social network use among respondents is growing (especially on LinkedIn), she said, and value-add features such as an RSS news feed are essential.
      Schjeldahl said most users want to obtain utility rates online, despite the complexity of ratemaking.
      "I think somehow you have to get beyond that concern now, and simplify it in some way to provide meaningful results," he told his utility audience. "Then we found that at the end of the process, they want to have somebody they can call. You want to be able to get the detail."
Adam Bruns
et's say you are an executive of a large global corporation with offices and manufacturing plants scattered around the world. You are responsible for asset management, location studies and site selection surveys. In short, you are one of the Web surfers most sought after by area development groups around the world.
      At this moment, you are compiling a list of Web sites for areas you may wish to study in connection with a new project. If you are interested, you may then make further inquiries at a later date using the "contact us" information you have gathered.
"Most of the people given responsibility for area Web sites know nothing about the audience they seek to reach. What appears to be a slick, award-winning site to an uninformed Webmaster may bore or offend the typical corporate real estate executive."
      It is your practice to do such a preliminary screening before you make any personal contacts or arrangements for visits. You do not wish to have your identity or that of your company revealed at this time. Any contacts with you regarding this inquiry would be annoying and counterproductive. You expect reliable area development professionals to understand and cooperate.
      Now the fun begins!

A Woeful Dearth of Local Data
      You start with a search of investment promotion agencies. You would like to pinpoint certain cities and areas. In the USA, Canada, and the UK, there is good coverage below the national level. In most foreign nations, however, state and local coverage is very disappointing. Many nations seem to be depending on one central agency to provide response for any and all provinces and localities. Consequently, those nations get the same quality of results that we would get in the USA if all contacts were handled by the bureaucracy in Washington.
      Among the larger, more active nations, India appears to have more live sites for states. There are a number of provincial sites in China, but many key areas are not listed. Among European nations, there is spotty coverage in France and Germany and less in Italy and Spain. Mexico falls into the same category. Russia and Indonesia are among the large nations with the least coverage.
The Web portal for Tennessee Valley Authority's economic development department offers a healthy blend of data, links, news and contacts.
      If you do a search of free zones, you will find many sites scattered around the world. Some are good, but many are inadequate. The same is true for the sites offered by science parks.
      What do we deem to be an inadequate site? For an answer, just log onto Google and type in, for example, "Invest Podunk ". The chances are about one in three that you will get any kind of response. If you're lucky, a Podunk home page will appear — although you may have to wait a while for it to load, since the Podunk Web planner has included a lot of artwork, boxes and color backgrounds to display his/her skill. Never mind that all you want is to find a good "contact us" entry and copy it to your file.
      After a couple of minutes of searching, you finally find "contact us" — and that vital information is in small print in an obscure location on the page. You click on it and discover an incomplete entry that lacks a phone number or a postal address. There is an e-mail address that doesn't match the one you used to find Podunk.
      Even worse, a substantial number of "contact us" entries found on Web sites lead to a questionnaire or form you must fill out before getting into the site. This tells you right up front that the folks sponsoring that site are novices you don't want to deal with.

A Proposal: The 'First-Response Screen'
      These are just a few of the frustrations we encountered in scanning hundreds of sites throughout the USA and around the world. We were appalled by the enormous waste of energy and considerable capital that areas have invested in Web sites that serve little purpose. The basic problem seems to be that most of the people given responsibility for area Web sites know nothing about the audience they seek to reach. What appears to be a slick, award-winning site to an uninformed Webmaster may bore or offend the typical corporate real estate executive.
      Here, then, is a radical thought: What if all area sites truly interested in attracting investment looked at Web design from the corporate real estate executive's perspective? It would be wonderful if all area sites adopted a standard first-response screen as shown in the accompanying box.
Contact Us Page
  • Familiar masthead/logo
  • Contact us:
  • Web site name (hopefully just one or two words)
  • Name of sponsoring organization
  • Name/title of official in charge
  • E-mail address
  • Tel/fax
  • Postal address
  • Date of last site update
  • Location map
  • General presentation of location advantages with photos and charts
  • Latest news regarding this location; listing of firms that are located here
  • Specific files giving details on available sites, vacant buildings, incentives, labor force and other location factors

About the Author
    McKinley Conway's development history is voluminous and distinguished. Just a few of his milestones include founding Site Selection, the first-ever magazine focused on corporate real estate and economic development, and founding two industry associations that set the standard for the industry's professional development — the International Development Research Council (IDRC) and the Industrial Asset Management Council (IAMC).
      And there's much, much more. Conway created the industry's first development-focused Internet site, SiteNet, all the way back in 1983. And he founded Spruce Creek, the pioneering fly-in community near New Smyrna Beach. For even more on Conway's sizeable development-industry legacy, click here.




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