Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Value of Coming In Third

I didn’t remember that my adopted home of Durham, North Carolina is only one of 150 communities it serves, when SONOCO awarded it a Bronze-tier Sustainability Star Award this month.

Durham is no stranger to accolades, especially in the sheer breadth of areas recognized, but in my former career as a community marketer, I would usually breeze past one like this to immediately dig down into the rating scheme and how the community could improve.

Beyond validation, accolades serve as a vanity metric for some but the true value of any ranking, if scientifically done, is as an extremely useful diagnostic to shed light on areas for improvement.

More later in this blog on why accolades are a double-edged sword when it comes to community marketing.

In this case though, it was apparent that Durham was one of the few—if not the only—community awarded at any of the three tiers and that in addition, Energy Digital has named Durham a “Top 10 Recycling Community in the US.”

Durham was the only city in the Southeast to make the list, falling right after Madison, Wisconsin, which hopefully it will soon emulate at recycling plastic film such as shopping bags.

Making its appearance in the top ten even more remarkable, North Carolina as a whole ranks 41st at recycling.

Durham recycles 1,000 tons of material a month (2 million lbs. – 8 lbs. per capita) so it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking this must be the norm everywhere until you read about some other pretty cool cities that really struggle with recycling.

It is also important for Durham to remember that SONOCO Recycling alone now collects 292,000 tons of material a month or 3.5 million tons a year.  If they aren’t already doing so, SONOCO could help us establish a per capita benchmark for which to strive.

Beyond their diagnostic value, community accolades are a signal of quality.  But care must be taken when using them to leverage awareness through community marketing for visitors including the more than 8-in-10 who secretly shop a community as a visitor first.

The accolades provide reasons to believe in Durham’s deep-rooted values and personality traits but a study published last year shows The Paradox of Publicity.

Community marketing is about helping people make decisions that are best for them, and Durham is not for everyone, no community is, but especially one such as this with a strong sense of place and identity.

The study shows there may be more enduring value in not being first in a ranking or accolade, which according to the researchers, if not used carefully, can lead to adoption by audiences who would not have been attracted otherwise.

This can lead to a backlash and disgruntled individuals.  This is why community marketing arms must do their best to provide a full range of content that will help potential visitors, newcomers and relocating executives find the right fit, even if it isn’t your community.

In other words, don’t be quick to discount missing out on first place.

An example is another recent ranking of metro areas by a series of indices that rate sprawl.  When I first looked at the work of researchers at the University of Utah, I questioned if they had been careful to look at variables such as whether the region is polycentric.

Fortunately, they also provided the measure by county, which in a polycentric area, more accurately reflects how people live and perceive where they live.

At this level, the indices reflected accurately what I know to be the differences between Durham and other counties in North Carolina (pages 33-34.)

Sometimes, using rankings or accolades requires digging more deeply into the metrics before publicizing them as a means to help prospective residents, as well as officials, make decisions.

I was shocked recently to hear two people, one in my former profession, question the value of undergoing an in-depth organizational diagnostic for accreditation or reaccreditation.

Communities have very different personalities unless they have surrendered theirs to emulate others.

But I can’t imagine a community that would tolerate having representatives that aren’t accredited or eager to seek any diagnostic that would ensure they are proficient.

Don’t give me the bunk that you are too busy, or in my mind, you better be busy looking for a new line of work.

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