About the Author: Gregg McLachlan is the founder of WorkCabin Creative. He's a rural digital marketing strategist, videographer, guest speaker and a leading social media expert in Southwestern Ontario. He works with rural businesses and nonprofits who want to take the next steps to greatness, rather than doing the same old things. In 2014 he co-founded award-winning TweetFolkTours, a social media phenomenon that is changing the way rural businesses engage with consumers
You can create that emotion by rolling out small things now. The public will notice your efforts. Don’t wait for grand revitalization reports, the unveiling of templates for moving forward, or some external consultant saying this is how you can fix it. Just start doing things now. Today. Not a year from now. Or holding meetings about scheduling more meetings.
Here are 10 simple things your small-town downtown can do, and show the public you are already kickstarting revitalization efforts from within rather than waiting for others.
Wifi Here signs: Get branded Wifi Here signs and put them up on the exterior storefronts of every business that is offering wifi to customers.
Create a Main Street Facebook page: This is completely different than the usually dormant or once-a-week posts on Facebook pages of local chambers of commerce or BIAs. This is a central Facebook page specifically created for your small-town main street businesses to use and post to. It’s also a one-stop Facebook page for your residents to visit and see content from all the businesses. It is administered by the participating businesses who will be given Facebook administrator privileges to the page. Tip: Keep the page specific to businesses in one central core and resist the temptation to have it evolve into retail sprawl beyond the page’s core focus.
Monthly VIP Nights: Downtown businesses are always getting in new stock and products. Stores unpack boxes, put stuff on the shelves, and then think the public has ESP to know new stuff has arrived. They don’t have ESP. Give your best customers, or interested new customers, exclusive looks at what is new. Think of it like a Tupperware party with a modern twist. A few refreshments and nibbles, and voila, you have a series of VIP Nights.
Sandwich boards: Put professionally branded sandwich board signs in front of businesses. These signs are so adaptable. They can feature specials. They can have words of humour. They can have social media promotions. Most importantly, they provide readable content at sidewalk-level for pedestrians who don’t always look left or right in a storefront window because they are looking straight ahead (where your sandwich boards will be!).
Mini performance hubs: Convert one or two parking spaces into mini performance ‘amphitheatres’ with a summer deck feel, complete with wood benches and plants. This can then be part of a summer buskers concert series. Too often, parking spaces are just converted to outdoor cafe spaces (a great idea!) in the summer. But this is a limited option for downtowns with few restaurants. Mini deck amphitheatres can give more shops the opportunity to sponsor or get involved in sidewalk ‘bump outs’ that temporarily convert parking spaces.
Give your audience After 5 Nights: One of the biggest ongoing complaints from the public about small-town downtowns is that stores close after 5 pm, making it difficult for working folks to shop locally. Create a Facebook ‘event’ for an After 5 Shopping Night. Hold these Event nights when stores are typically not open after 5 pm. By creating a Facebook Event, you’ll also see who’s Going which can help you build a list of local shopping supporters. P.S. The great part about Facebook Events is that when a friend says they are Going to an event, their friends will also learn about it too. Facebook Events are simple ways to crowd source for events.
Host a My Idea Is…. weekend: The purpose here is to get people sharing their ideas and thoughts about “My downtown is important because….” or something similar. Hang extra large canvases on storefronts, provide markers, and invite the public to come on down, write down their thoughts, and then come in the store for some exclusive ‘thank you’ deals and giveaways. To qualify for the thank you deals, they simply have to take a photo of what they wrote on the canvas or post it on social media and then show what they posted to staff when they go in the store.
Host a Meet Your Local Store Owners Night: So many downtowns talk about how shops are owned by locals but often the public doesn’t know them, or they interact with an employee only. Sadly, the phrase “We are locally owned” has lost meaning and value because it’s too often just words that don’t create a genuine connection with real faces. It’s also now a phrase that has filtered into large franchise marketing. Host a night where each downtown store owner is outside on the sidewalk to greet passersby. Have the owner stamp a Passport called “I Met My Local Store Owners” that can be completed and handed in for free giveaways at the end of the night. Nothing says “C’mon in!” like a welcoming small-town store owner that you can also meet and say hello to.
Host a Show Your Downtown Love Day: Too often these kinds of ‘days’ are a marketing fail because they consist of an ad telling people to come out and shop, and by doing so, they will show their love. Um, marketing doesn’t work that way today. There is no call to action. You need to be inventive and unique. So try this. Create a two-hour street closure. Promote that you are doing a special outdoor crowd photo shoot in the downtown with people who care about downtowns, revitalizing them, and shopping locally. Everyone who participates in the giant photo shoot will receive a voucher after the photo is taken. You’ll need elevation to take the photo so inquire about a fire ladder truck, lift truck, or something to get your photographer up high. Beware of drone use in your downtown. Follow Transport Canada rules.
Planters and benches: When I visit many small-town downtowns I immediately notice two simple differences. Many attractive downtowns feature storefronts with flower planters directly in front of the stores, rather than, or in addition to, at the street curb where they are obscured by parked cars. It’s well known that flowers are attractants. Put them where you want to attract pedestrians…. at the doors of stores. Stop placing them just at the street curb in hopes speeding drivers will see them (they don’t). Secondly, try placing benches against storefronts rather than only at the curb. Who wants to sit at the curb and have a parked car and its exhaust greet you and your lungs? Let’s get people sitting directly in front of storefronts. Tip: If your downtown encourages awnings on storefronts, you’ll instantly have benches that are popular and welcoming stops for pedestrians.