AACC VIRTUAL INCUBATION NETWORK TOOLKIT

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1 Tool Summary This tool was created by the VIN for community college deans and key staff who implement the virtual incubator. It provides guidance and insight for marketing a college s incubator services, curriculum, partnerships and resources to the entrepreneurs in the community who may use and benefit from them. Branding Marketing a business incubator, whether it is virtual or bricks and mortar, is no different from marketing any other product or service. The first order of business is to establish a strong brand identity: What is the organization s distinctive value? What are the core competencies that differentiate it from other organizations? For a community college, educational expertise is a given, and all virtual incubator staff should have a solid grounding in the fundamentals of enterprise development. Therefore the brand and identity should focus on specialized knowledge and resources. This is where the opportunity to differentiate the virtual incubator from generic business consultants comes into play. Branding the business incubator creates a delicate duality within the community college. The business incubator is a part of the college, and its promotional activities must align with the college s policies. However, because the business incubator s mission is distinct from the college s mission, its marketing must be equally distinctive. As in a choir, the business incubator s voice must blend with the whole but stand out as unique. To succeed, incubators need to fight the urge to be homogenous with the college, maintaining fidelity to its mission and scrupulously defending its unique brand. Diversifying Capabilities to Meet Client Needs The entrepreneur is looking for people who can fill gaps in their knowledge and experience. The more diverse the incubator s capabilities and competencies are, the greater the diversity of the entrepreneurs and businesses it attracts will be. Skilled generalists who have specialties in engineering, investment banking, distribution, advertising, marketing, finance, etc. can help meet entrepreneurs specific needs. Diversifying an incubator s capabilities begins with defining who are the target customers and what is their pain. Philosophically, most community colleges pursue an egalitarian policy of service to all, but the specific skill sets of the staff will enable greater engagement within certain niches. If the college can help local entrepreneurs get what they need, they will help the college get what it needs. Some people call this servant leadership; others say it is common sense. Most entrepreneurs need help with basic start-up needs such as business planning, obtaining capital, accessing government programs, and bookkeeping and finance. The incubator should assess the entrepreneur s skill sets and address the greatest gaps, recognizing the solution may be to outsource the skills needed to staff, another employee or outside entity. Marketing There is a myriad of information available on how to reach customers and certainly no shortage of opinions on best practices. J. Conrad Levinson, author of the Guerilla Marketing books and blog, identifies more than 200 different marketing tactics. Obviously, all methods cannot be simultaneously pursued. This representative sample highlights the most successful approaches, based on the experience of the cohort. Since most PAGE 1

2 community colleges have funding constraints, this list tends to be resource efficient as well. As Pablo Picasso said, Good artists copy, great artists steal. The VIN did not invent these ideas, but community colleges have adapted them to their needs and other colleges may do the same. Providing Content and Expertise. The media (traditional and new) have become voracious content hogs because of the 24-hour news cycle, and service clubs are constantly looking for new programming. Entrepreneurship, business creation and job creation will always be popular topics. Having a few prepared presentations in the can will make your incubator popular with reporters, bloggers, and organizations that sponsor business development events. Being known as an expert attracts invitations to serve as a panelist or interviewee on commercial and public television and radio. Writing. Print media and trade associations need and welcome guest articles. Blogging is also a great way to build the brand and disseminate information, but it requires discipline to deliver content on a regular basis to build a loyal readership. In all writing, it is important to avoid controversy and political positioning. Focus on facts. Word-of-Mouth Marketing. If being a source of content and expertise is hey-look-at-me marketing, word of mouth represents the more powerful hey-look-at-them marketing. Advertising and public relations focus on telling people how great the incubator s services are; the audience expects it to gloss over any less-than-perfect execution. However, if someone outside the organization sings its praises, the credibility of the message increases by orders of magnitude. This third-party endorsement can take the form of referrals, testimonials and awards. If local businesses and entrepreneurs believe the incubator is adding value and making their jobs easier, they will refer people to your organization and serve as strong and credible advocates. Similarly, awards from government agencies and trade associations reinforce the value of the incubator s offering. Website Development. The Internet has become the 21st century Yellow Pages: If a program has no web presence and Google can t find it, it doesn t exist. The problem is that everyone puts out the same tired information and uses the same tired links. s need to work hard on creating true engagement with the entrepreneur and change the content often enough to drive them back to the site repeatedly. Newsletters. Newsletters can be valuable or a waste of money, with little in between. They are all content-driven and their success often depends on the strength of the first issue. Like a website, a newsletter needs to consistently deliver content that is relevant and thought-provoking to build an audience of loyal readers. Social Media. The objective of social media outreach is to create an ongoing, constructive dialogue with the organization s fans, spur them to share content with their own networks, and drive traffic to the incubator s website and other resources. This requires regular and frequent content development, strategic oversight, and active management. It can be particularly effective at building community with younger entrepreneurs and other visual learners, as illustrated in the graphic on youth motivations for entrepreneurship. PAGE 2

3 Business Cards. Business cards have two sides, but usually only one is used. Be sure the incubator s services are printed on the blank side to serve as a reminder of what your organization can do for everyone who receives a card. Direct Mail and . In an ongoing study, all of the marketing methods described above were useful to build awareness and create brand equity, but almost without exception only direct mail and drove behavior. To promote and drive registration for an event, printed mailers (catalogs, bulletins, flyers and save-the-date cards) brought in 60 percent of the attendees, while the other 40 percent came from Constant Contact or another distribution method. Newspaper, radio, television and even personal contact had almost no effect upon registration. The key is respecting the entrepreneur s time and exhibiting restraint. Too much contact may cause direct mail and to wind up in the recycle bin without even a first glance. Educational Symposia and Networking Events. Although it is considered heresy by some, educational programs do not always need to be profitable or revenue neutral. A regular free early-evening event using local or regional presenters can drive traffic and build awareness and brand equity. A free 90-minute overview may educate and spur attendees to register for an incubator seminar or class. A free 90-minute seminar on Selling Your Business can drive attendance for a for-fee, all-day seminar on the same topic. A Younger Generation Desire to become Entrepreneurs In November 2011, funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a survey conducted by the Young Invincibles, Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research polled 872 millennials (18 to 34 year old) about entrepreneurship. They found high recognition and understanding of entrepreneurship to be a economic revitalization strategy as well as demographic breakdown of those most engaged as well as desire for increased entrepreneurial education by this population people of color For details on the study, see: poll/150077/ Students- Entrepreneurial- Energy-Waiting- Tapped.aspx PAGE 3

4 Like everything else in marketing, content drives traffic. Topics such as sales, marketing and customer service attract more attendees than financial topics do; human resource topics are also popular. At the high end, a leadership series that exposes local entrepreneurs to national thought leaders generate more revenue and help raise brand awareness. Marketing a business incubator, like any business, is not executing one strategy or set of tactics, but rather constantly using different tools in different ways to build awareness, enhance brand equity and create ongoing engagement with local entrepreneurs. A Note on Marketing in Rural Areas In some smaller rural communities, personal relationships are particularly effective way to reach and attract potential entrepreneurs. Those relationships may involve other entrepreneurs, opinion leaders (who may not necessarily be political leaders or economic development professionals), farmer s market staff, post office clerks and letter carriers, bank tellers and anyone who may regularly come into contact with large portions of the public. Community bulletin boards at grocery stores, one-stop centers and other high traffic areas in small communities may also serve as effective low-tech marketing vehicles. PAGE 4

5 Long Beach City Long Beach, CA Indian River State Fort Pierce, FL North Iowa Area Community Mason City, IA Primary Methods of Attracting Entrepreneurs The SBDC program operated by LBCC in many ways provides virtual incubation to small businesses, as entrepreneurs visit the SBDC offices at an off-campus location. The SBDC network is very engaged with local and regional business meetings, such as expos and networking events, where small business owners gather. Many of the LBCC clients find the program through the SBA website, and many are referred by resource partners such as financial institutions, banks, city agencies, legislative offices and existing clients. Clients also find out about SBDC consulting through its business seminars/workshops on topics including social media and marketing, Quickbooks and importing and exporting fundamentals. In addition, SBDC staff are often invited to attend meetings and give presentations at events on services available to assist entrepreneurs. IRSC generally attracts entrepreneurs through SBDC clients; referrals from financial institutions, the community and economic development organizations; the college s BIZ website ( Continuing Education and Professional Development courses (both live and e-learning); and seminars and events, such as Lunch, Bring Your Own Business and Steps to Make Your Business Successful, in partnership through SCORE, that focus on essential topics to start a business. In a virtual setting, IRSC expects to draw students in the same manner and plans to continue all of these activities, with the addition of webinars. In 2012, IRSC is continuing its offerings through additional online classes and stepping up outreach by conducting webinars to augment its ability to reach businesses and entrepreneurs that are unable to participate in the Innovation Incubator and/or live seminars and events. The NIACC s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center generally attracts entrepreneurs through referrals from regional economic development professional, chambers of commerce, bankers and entrepreneurs. The college uses various workshops designed for entrepreneurs, community leaders and elected officials to build awareness of its programs and services to attract entrepreneurs in need of assistance to the center. The center s staff also seeks out opportunities to speak at service club and professional organization events to educate their members on the center s services and outcomes. In addition, the center partners with organizations such as the Iowa Farm Bureau, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration, Extension Services and the United Way. PAGE 5

6 Southeast Community Lincoln, NE Santa Fe Community Santa Fe, NM Primary Methods of Attracting Entrepreneurs SCC generally attracts its constituency through incubator companies, SCORE and recruiting through professional organizations. The college is now getting referrals from its instructors and other program personnel. In a virtual setting, SCC has found that clients are being referred through the same channels. The difference is that the new virtual program seems to be more appealing to many businesses. The college also found that professional organizations are a bigger contributor of referrals for the virtual incubator because it can help businesses among their membership. SFCC students created a website for the Red Dot Gallery that promotes the student-run business and provides virtual training in collaboration with the Small Business Development Center, SFCC faculty and business leaders. The gallery also hosted three workshops on Pricing Your Artwork, and the digital version of the workshops was loaded onto the Red Dot Gallery website in spring PAGE 6

7 S5. Attracting Entrepreneurs to PAGE 7

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