My first visit to Durham, North Carolina was twenty-five years ago this month for my final interview before being selected to head the formation of the community’s first community destination marketing agency as a means of fueling visitor-centric economic and cultural development.
I retired going on five years ago, but Durham is still my home.
This month is also the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Internet for general use, something that a new Pew study, released a week ago, shows is considered a good thing personally by 90% of Americans and by 76%, a good thing for society.
Eighty-seven percent of American adults now use the Internet. Sixty-eight percent connect to it with mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. But a stubborn 17% of Americans still insist that old fashioned, tethered land lines will be very hard or impossible to give up.
More telling is that only a third of Americans now say the same thing about television.
The timing of my arrival in Durham and the availability of the Internet for commercial use was fortuitous. As a co-worker once said, “we hit fast-forward without saying goodbye to yesterday.”
I took that to refer to the fact that we adopted the latest office productivity technology including a local area network of desktops and inter-office emails. Yes, that was in 1989 when less than 4-in-10 Americans used computers.
Within a few years, we began using the Internet for marketing Durham, when more than two-thirds of the population had still never heard of the Internet or were only vaguely aware (21%.)
Back then, with only 14% of Americans using the Internet, it was considered a strategic risk, as any good strategy-making is.
At the same time, we made Durham’s unique sense of place and what we would later call place-based assets, including Durham’s inherent nature of “genuine, authentic and diverse,” our keystone strategy.
By the time our more established competitors caught on to the former we had leapfrogged nearly all of them but what really made that edge sustainable for Durham was that only one other would ever seize on the latter.
Of course, there were other decisions that proved fortuitous as well, such as spearheading a grass-roots effort to reclaim Durham’s story and reverse a negative image stubbornly embedded among residents of nearby communities.
Marketing a community is 1/3rd hurdling barriers and 2/3rds lowering barriers, reversing image was part of the latter. No amount of investment in the promotional third (hurdling barriers,) can overcome the other two-thirds (lowering barriers) alone.
I often get asked how we made those decisions. The easy answer is that I had already cut my teeth on various aspects in a previous communities including one that was data driven.
There are several other more complicated variables, but one important one is that I answered to an unusually diverse governing board made up of movers and shakers not only in business but in community and neighborhood-making.
They enabled and entrusted us to take those approaches that then seemed novel and now seem so safe.
Of course, I continued to evolve and even with nearly two decades of management experience by then, including a decade and a half as CEO, I still had a lot of evolving to do.
A lot of it was timing, much of it was luck and a good deal of it was a forgiving community that allowed me to make and recover from mistakes. A place that believed in me, stood up for me and taught me the importance of place.
Anything we accomplished has been greatly transcended by those still spearheading the marketing of Durham because they grasp Durham’s story and because they benefit from that uniquely balanced governing board.
Twenty-five years ago seems like yesterday, hell, 60 years ago seems like yesterday.