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Fresh ideas for marketing your incubator: Find out what floods, port-a-potties, trading cards, and, yes – even a conventional scheme or two – have done for some programs

by Meredith Erlewine

October 1999

Flood waters rose around the city of Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997, submerging homes and workplaces in water, muck and mud. Making a devastating situation even worse, a downtown fire erupted, destroying 11 buildings in three blocks. The entire city – 60,000 people – was evacuated.

Across town, the Rural Technology Incubator, open for just a few months and about 50 percent occupied, sat perched on dry land on the western edge of the University of North Dakota campus. As water lapped at buildings a mere three blocks away, incubator staff saw an opportunity not only to help their community, but to perform some powerful public relations for the incubation program.

"The day after the flood swamped the city, I visited with emergency personnel, inviting them to utilize our incubator as a place for meetings," recalls Director Bruce Gjovig. "In another two days, we invited the Chamber of Commerce and United Way to set up emergency offices out of the incubator. That provided a beachhead for the business and nonprofit community to begin operations."

The incubator also made available every bit of spare space, rent free, to businesses that needed to set up shop immediately because they had to serve their customers – flood or no flood.

"Since we had no water or sewer, port-a-potties were brought in ... and for three weeks I filled my car with drinking water," Gjovig says. Over the coming months, thousands of people from all segments of the community attended hundreds of meetings in the incubator, and staff made sure literature was available for everyone to learn the incubator's mission.

"Although we interrupted that mission for seven months, the marketing and public service we performed allowed us to be fully occupied within six months after our temporary tenants moved into their restored offices," Gjovig says. "Our response to the community's needs provided an opportunity to let many people know what incubators do, why we do what we do, and helped build a strong support base for the community."

We're not suggesting that you need a natural disaster to market your incubator, just that the best opportunities come sometimes in unusual packages. Here are some ideas – from off-the-wall to no-brainers – from incubator staff who reached precisely the market they were trying to capture.

Get on the Web

NBIA Board of Directors Chairman Sam Pruett, director of GENESIS Technology Incubator in Fayetteville, Ark., makes no bones about the importance of an incubator having a Web site. At NBIA's 1998 conference in Philadelphia, Pruett highlighted the positive effects of moving GENESIS' public awareness efforts online.

Pruett noted that an incubator has many publics to serve, referring to boards of directors, clients, community members, business people, peers and funders. "Instead of trying to invest in a brochure that addresses the specific needs of each, you'll probably find ... that you can address the needs of all of those publics through the World Wide Web."

Pruett also points out that the Web allows for more frequent updating than do printed materials. He remembers thinking the incubator's first brochure in 1986 looked high tech. "By 1990, the photos looked fairly low-tech," he says. "With the World Wide Web ... we can update the photos immediately." Another plus, according to Pruett, is that board members and funders love seeing things like construction progress shots of a new parking lot or building they've helped bring to fruition or links to their businesses' sites on the incubator's home page.

Even though the Web may reach a large segment of your audience, not everyone is connected, so electronic communication can't be the only means of marketing your program. "But for those whom the Web does reach," says NBIA Webmaster Tom Hanlon, "it certainly offers some exclusive benefits."

According to Hanlon you should budget at least $1,000 to start out with a basic site that provides visitors with information about your program, your clients and how to contact you. By comparison, that same $1,000 would barely cover the design costs of a printed brochure – not to mention the hundreds or even thousands of dollars it would cost to print and mail the brochure.

Grab attention early – and keep it

During the often lengthy feasibility and development stages of an incubator, community leaders, potential clients, funders and maybe even staff are in on the conversation. This is a key time to start your marketing.

At the Hastings Industrial Incubator in Hastings, Mich., Executive Director Joe Rahn staged one of the incubator's most effective marketing events before the project even received funding. Incubator proponents had garnered excellent political support locally, and Rahn feared that the federal and state grant application process would drag on so long that the hard-earned local support would wane or even worse, turn away.

To sustain and even increase interest in the project, Rahn held an incubator preview in the industrial building targeted to become the incubator facility. It was not exactly a high-brow event. Staff rented a neon sign on wheels and parked it out front to draw attention, placed an ad in the paper inviting all local officials and sent invitations to the appropriate state and federal pols.

"The site had no running water or heat and it was late October in Michigan," Rahn recalls. Staff brought in kerosene heaters and port-a-potties and posted a rendering of what the facility could eventually look like in a cordoned off space that would someday serve as the reception area. Prospective clients already in the start-up phase set up booths, passing out information and free samples of products including dog and cat food.

Sound hokey? It worked. "Even the regional official for the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration came in from Chicago," Rahn says. "Those officials responsible for deciding whether or not to fund the project [which they ultimately did] got a chance to interact with the building owners, prospective tenants and City Council members."

"Incubator proponents obviously had done some heavy marketing in order to gain local support, but they were smart to realize their work was not done," says Brenda Robinson, NBIA's own marketing consultant. "It's often better to do small but periodic marketing efforts, rather than one big event with no follow-up."

Talk to anyone who will listen

When opportunity knocks, give a speech. "Every chance we get we speak to civic clubs and we give tours to anyone who will come to the center," says Sonya Buckner, vice president for small business development at the Montgomery Area Center for Entrepreneurial Development in Montgomery, Ala. Buckner says her staff's commitment to paying special attention to all interested groups has helped the incubator recruit new clients, generate business for current clients and create strategic partnerships within the community.

Trade and social groups are always looking for speakers, adds Charles D'Agostino, executive director of the Louisiana Business & Technology Center (LBTC) in Baton Rouge, La. D'Agostino says it's imperative to speak to as many groups as possible to get the word out about your program. "I encourage and demand that each of my staff members make as many as six speaking engagements annually," he says.

Buckner also encourages audiences to come to her, by inviting community and business groups to hold programs at the incubator – with the provision that her staff get to do a presentation about the incubator during the program. She says this captive audience technique is effective. "People who never would have used our services have been referred to us by people in those groups," Buckner says.

Don't Be a Party Pooper

A special event each year in your incubator is good. Two is better. Six is even better. Mix up the guest list at anniversaries, grand openings and awards ceremonies so that everyone eventually is on your dance card: the mayor, legislators and local officials, corporate heads, university dignitaries, venture capitalists and so on. These events are prime opportunities to create a positive image and to recruit new service providers, funders, board members and clients.

At LBTC, D'Agostino's staff always is busy preparing for an event. Following is a sample of LBTC's annual activities: two receptions with the mayor, legislators and other dignitaries; a luncheon/board meeting for clients and the LBTC board of directors; six economic development roundtable breakfasts (hosting Louisiana State University officials and government and industry leaders); and 16 workshops and seminars for entrepreneurs.

"You don't want to wear out the same people," D'Agostino says. "You want to make it so that when you invite them, they do attend and do respond." Thanks to word of mouth, he says, "when we call community officials and industry leaders, they know who we are."

If someone you really want there isn't responding, get creative. "For example, if you know that a CEO of a firm from which you're going to seek funding isn't likely to attend your event, and you also know he'd like to meet a senator who will be there, make sure the CEO knows the senator will be there," Robinson says.

Create a buzz

Getting attention from the media is free, but to get them there and keep them engaged, you have to have a news "peg." If you give your program a particularly good spin, you may reap the marketing benefits for months or even years.

"Go out on a limb to get some coverage in any way possible," says Mary Shepard Spaeth, former director of marketing and public relations for the Northwestern University/Evanston Research Park, which includes the Technology Innovation Center in Evanston, Ill.

A few years back, Spaeth felt the incubator needed the boost that a media blitz could provide, so she called the producer of the popular public television show Wild Chicago, which airs in the Chicago metropolitan area and parts of Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. "[I] told him graphic details about crazy products in the park and incubator – like acoustical levitation, 3-D algorithmical art and soil penetration, and used language that was both colorful and titillating to try to get [him] to think we had the next best thing to Bill Nye the Science Guy," Spaeth recalls.

Three months later, Wild Chicago came to the incubator to film what was one of the longest segments the show has ever aired. In 1997 and 1998 the segment was shown on the Chicago-area PBS station more than 16 times, and the park is still channeling calls from viewers once or twice a month who want to know more about the incubator, Spaeth says.

In Baton Rouge, LBTC staff make appearances on local TV and radio talk shows at every opportunity to promote activities at the incubator. Recently, LBTC had 60 people registered for a small business financing seminar. "The day before the event we went on a morning talk show," D'Agostino says. "Before noon, 50 more had signed up and we picked up another 20 at the door."

Think like an entrepreneur

The High Technology of Rochester incubator lures potential clients by offering something they can't refuse: a $20,000 award to the winner of a business plan contest open to current clients and local entrepreneurs. An evaluation committee of local attorneys, accountants, investors and seasoned entrepreneurs provides written feedback to all participants. "The business plan contest has allowed us to effectively identify prospects," says Cindy Gary, program director, adding that "the award has caught the attention of the local press."

Sponsors Nixon, Peabody LLP and PricewaterhouseCoopers provide $10,000 for the cash award in exchange for the benefits of having their names on all related marketing materials. A $10,000 in-kind contribution from the incubator, in the form of a suite in the incubator for up to one year, rounds out the award.

You don't have to offer a $20,000 purse to get prospective clients to learn about your program, as long as you offer something of value – even if it's just hard-to-find information. Sandy Bourne, president of Pasadena Enterprise Center (PEC) in Pasadena, Calif., has initiated a quarterly Home-Based Business Luncheon for potential clients who are working from home. "We are grooming these businesses to come in," Bourne says. At the first meeting, Bourne facilitated a discussion about home-based businesses' needs, and PEC consultants gave attendees an idea of the types of information that would be available at future meetings. "[Attendees] were very excited about returning," Bourne says.

Get a gimmick

Gimmicks still work. Hosting an unusual event or passing out memorable marketing materials keeps your incubator on top of people's thoughts. Fortunately, unusual twists often can be concocted from pedestrian circumstances. Take PEC's most recent annual meeting, for instance. When construction was completed on a new parking lot this spring, staff decided to throw a party on it to promote the incubator.

"The idea for the parking lot party came from the board of directors. They wanted to say thank you to our donors and the community," says Bourne. "It was great fun."

Since Bourne likes to get the business and residential community involved in PEC functions whenever possible, she decided to install new board members and present client and community awards during the event, which was as elegant as an outdoor wedding. "We had catered food, donated wine, balloons, a canopy, jazz and photographers. It was fun — it gave lots of visibility to the incubator and pride to local politicians," Bourne says.

In Roanoke, Va., the New Century Venture Center celebrated the receipt of state funding, which will be used to pay off the incubator's mortgage, by holding a mortgage burning at the center's third anniversary celebration and open house. A story about the center's third anniversary appeared soon after in The Roanoke Times (circulation 106,000) with the following lead: "The New Century Venture Center celebrated its third anniversary last week with a big party and a small fire."

Ride on coattails

Whenever possible (and appropriate) piggy back on someone else's marketing efforts. Theresa Profant, marketing director for the Regional Business Technology Incubator at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tenn., saw such an opportunity while browsing the Sunday supplement.

"Part of our marketing strategy this fall involves 14 million people – virtually," she says. "[The university's] incubator is participating in Make a Difference Day – a day of volunteer service – by producing a CD-ROM that demonstrates volunteer activities throughout Putnam County, Tenn."

Make a Difference Day is a nationwide volunteer day spearheaded by USA WEEKEND magazine. Millions of people participate, accomplishing thousands of projects, some of which are selected to receive portions of $2.6 million in award money. "Winning requires getting noticed, and a CD-ROM will boost our [visibility] in this national competition," says Profant. "Benefits to our program include demonstrating our business technology tools to the community and garnering support while serving our community. We've already become a local topic for discussion after only volunteering for the job."

One of the grandest examples of piggyback marketing in the incubation industry is The Enterprise Center in Philadelphia, which is located in the building where American Bandstand was taped. The famous building certainly lends itself to media opportunities, and the incubator's grand opening was no exception. By pairing the opening with Bandstand's 40th Anniversary, President Della Clark was able to attract much more interest to her program than an incubator opening alone would have garnered. The double celebration attracted hundreds of people who watched Clark dance to "The Twist" with the likes of Chubby Checker, the governor of Pennsylvania and the mayor of Philadelphia. Also on hand were former Bandstand host Dick Clark and rockers Bobby Rydell and Fabian. "The Bandstand anniversary was an opportunity to commemorate the historic past of our new facility and create awareness for our incubator program," Clark says. She says she knew from the start that the famous site would allow her to turn its history into attention for her program: "This ... has minimized marketing dollars."

In keeping with the building's famous past, the renovation of the building used décor that carries on the culture and feel of the Bandstand era. Additionally, Bandstand's studio was kept intact and is an attention-getter for the incubator. Clark constantly focuses her radar on opportunities to use her building's history to benefit the incubator. Baby boomers involved in American politics at the national level, who no doubt have fond memories of American Bandstand, are her next targets: "The next window of opportunity that I am currently plotting is the Republican National Convention, which is coming to town July 2000," Clark says. "Our building is prime for rentals as well as private spinoff parties. We currently have booked one event for $3,500 for four hours and we're working on others. We want the money and the foot traffic so they learn what we do."

Pick up a pen

Even in the information technology age, the power of the pen is still mighty. Newsletters, press releases and other written materials remain an important component of any incubator's marketing plan.

A newsletter remains an effective forum for updating clients, funders, stakeholders and community members about goings-on at the incubator, and with a targeted mailing list can attract prospective clients. Including useful, educational information in a newsletter adds value for the recipient and clout to your program.

Arts Bridge, an incubator for arts and cultural organizations in the Chicago, Ill., area, produces a particularly informative newsletter. The most recent issue, for example, focused on fundraising and was packed with information by local and national experts in the field, rather than simply using the space to pat people on the back or make announcements.

"Usually recipients can get something from each article that they should be able to apply to what they're doing," says Arts Bridge Program Director Jim Faucett. An insert that accompanies each issue highlights the workshops that will be offered at the incubator – focusing on the same subject introduced in the newsletter – in the coming months.

Another Arts Bridge publication, the monthly participation calendar, includes upcoming Arts Bridge training events, brief descriptions of available funding and deadlines for application, and training events offered by other service organizations in the Chicago area. "That's put us in very good stead with other service organizations," Faucett says. "Many of those organizations see the calendar as a very useful tool, so rather than trying to duplicate it, they'll have us do a special membership offering to their members, which provides us an excellent source of new members without having to do all of the legwork."

Press releases are another tried-and-true marketing tool, and the trick is writing ones that get noticed. David Elbert, business editor at The Des Moines Register (one of the papers that picked up a press release that NBIA recently provided to all members to customize and submit to their local papers – another example of piggyback marketing), has several tips for making sure your press releases actually become news. "First of all, it's got to be something local," Elbert says. "Then, the news has to be out of the ordinary."

Elbert also suggests sending press releases directly to the writers. "They'll have better luck sending it straight to our business writers than sending it to me, the business editor," Elbert says. "I simply get too many things and it's likely to get pitched."

No matter what type of written material you're working on, both the information and the grammar must be accurate. Check and double check your information sources, and make sure a skilled person proofreads every word. "Your incubator's written materials, both printed and online, form the basis of many potential clients' and funders' very first impressions of your program," says NBIA Executive Director Dinah Adkins. "Don't embarrass yourself." And never, no matter how much you think it will help your cause, oversell your program to the press. "Misrepresenting your program or massaging statistics will not gain you anything," Robinson says. "Honesty is the only policy."

Keep at it

Above all, remember that you must budget time and money to market your program. Marketing can be an easy task to push off due to time and financial constraints, since the results may not always be as immediate as helping a client write a business plan or dropping a grant proposal in the mailbox.

And remember that while some marketing efforts take weeks or months of planning, such as newsletters, receptions or workshops, others may pop up when you least expect them. "You just have to look at each day's events as opportunities," Robinson says. "Promotion can be as easy as answering a question. It's not a fluke that many of the members who responded to NBIA's e-mail survey on marketing are now receiving industry-wide press on the pages of this story. They saw a chance and they took it."

When floodwaters and fire gutted downtown Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997, the Rural Technology Incubator found itself on some of the only dry ground in town.

The incubator donated space to the flooded-out University of North Dakota to set up a virtual university; the school's president and each of its four vice presidents had a table, a chair and a phone – generosity that parlayed into invaluable public relations.

John Brassil, right, a mechanical engineer at IDEO Product Development, a graduate of the Technology Innovation Center incubator in Evanston, Ill., points a dental instrument at wary Wild Chicago host Will Clinger. Being featured on the popular Chicago public television show turned out to be an excellent marketing tool for the incubator, part of Northwestern University's Evanston Research Park. The park continues to get inquiries from the show, which aired in 1997 and 1998.

Lisa Ison, president of The New Century Venture Center in Roanoke, Va., often includes mementos with invitations and other marketing materials. Recent open house invitations included a seed packet of forget-me-not flowers, with the incubator's name and open house dates stamped on the back. "Anything to make [the invitations] stand out," Ison says.

Charles D'Agostino, executive director of the Louisiana Business & Technology Center (LBTC) on the campus of Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, La., also has found that unique mementos, dollar for dollar, often are more effective than run-of-the-mill brochures. At trade shows and community events, D'Agostino passes out baseball-style trading cards that feature pictures of the LSU campus with vital statistics about the incubator on the back. "It's amazing to see how people are attracted to something different," he says. "They pick them up and put them in their pockets — and the novelty is what makes them keep them after the show or conference."

Keywords: effective communication, idea generation and creativity, marketing and promotion, marketing/sales, networking, new technology, stakeholder development, stakeholder relationship management

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