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Extension > Community > Community Features > Five insights on the Internet and rural Minnesota

Five insights on the Internet and rural Minnesota

Author: Mary Vitcenda
Content Source: Hans Muessig
Summer 2011

Some rural Minnesota businesses have embraced the Internet enthusiastically, and their bottom lines look better for it. Digi-Key Corporation, an electronic components distributor in Thief River Falls, is one example.

According to its website, Digi-Key has moved from the 16th largest to the 5th largest business of its kind in North America in just six years—doing more than $1.5 billion in annual sales worldwide. The majority of those sales come over the Internet.

Other rural Minnesota businesses are just waking up to the possibilities that the Internet offers and are realizing that without a web presence, new customers won't find them. And that's important to know when attracting just one or two more customers can make the difference between staying in business and going out of business.

The Extension Center for Community Vitality (CV) is getting a closer look at Internet use by Greater Minnesota businesses since joining the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC) initiative.

The MIRC project is funded through an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant given to the Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids. Blandin serves as sponsor for the program, and has mobilized 19 statewide partners to work with individuals, businesses and communities to support Internet adoption.

As part of the MIRC initiative, CV is helping 18 communities throughout Minnesota increase their web presence to attract more business, more visitors, and ultimately more residents.

Since late last year, Extension educators have been conducting workshops, holding strategy discussions, and advising communities on how their businesses can take advantage of the opportunities broadband offers in sales, marketing, customer communications, customer support and more efficient "back office" operations. This education and consultation, most of which is part of CV's standard programming, is provided to the 18 communities at no cost because of the grant.

Hans Muessig, program director of the MIRC initiative with the Center, recently shared what he and Extension educators have learned during the first nine months of the project. As they receive and assimilate new knowledge, they incorporate it into MIRC workshops and consultation with communities. Following are some insights Extension has gleaned, according to Muessig.

Rural businesses' web presence—not there yet

We are looking at how the 18 communities and the individual businesses in those communities present themselves using the Internet. The Internet is a quarter century old now, and there are myriad ways that a business or community can use it to advertise to and communicate with customers and visitors. In addition to websites, other ways to establish a web presence include Facebook, Twitter, and blogs—as well as Google, Bing, and Yahoo maps. So you might think that businesses would be pretty proficient at using the Internet.

Unfortunately this appears not to be the case, at least so far. In one county in the MIRC program, less than half of the businesses have a website and only half of those businesses list their email address on their website. Social media use is barely over 10 percent. And in a world that is increasingly both global and mobile, just over 6 percent of the businesses are locatable using Google, Bing, or Yahoo maps.

Put another way, 6 to 9 of every 10 businesses in this one county simply don't exist digitally. And in this economy, this means that an increasing number of potential customers will not find these businesses and therefore will not purchase goods and services from them. For businesses barely holding on, this could have harsh financial impacts.

It's hard to change priorities, but…

Many business people will say that they don't have the time or money to get into the Internet. It is just not a priority for them. The challenge for Extension and the local coordinators we work with in the 18 communities has been to change their priorities. The first step is increasing awareness, and we're starting to do that.

For example, one of the more interesting ah ha's for many business people has to do with the phone book. Nearly 50 percent of individuals in the country have dropped their land-line telephone service in favor of mobile phones. This has changed how people find merchants and services, choose a vacation destination, and purchase goods. They don't have a phone book anymore; instead they are using the Internet — often on GPS-equipped smartphones — to search for businesses and services.

We've been working in these communities for nine months now, offering workshops and meeting with individual businesses, so the word is out about the importance of the Internet to a business's success. We're also seeing priorities shift, and as a result, our workshops are in high demand.

Internet use might be contagious

We have seen some evidence that once one business jumps on the Internet bandwagon, more follow. For example, following one of our educator's workshops in Cook County, more than two dozen businesses got themselves correctly located on Google, Bing, and Yahoo maps. As noted, being easily found on the web by customers — whether they use a desktop PC, a portable tablet computer, or a GPS-equipped smartphone — can make the difference between financial success and failure.

Community readiness is critical to engagement

The last issue of Vital Connections discussed community readiness, noting that communities with strong social capital and high leadership energy have a greater ability and capacity to move forward with initiatives. (Social capital is the "glue" that holds a community together — the connections and relationships among people, both formal and informal. Leadership energy is demonstrated when community leaders are open to new ideas, new people and change.)

Through our work in the MIRC initiative, we have found that community readiness spurs Internet adoption. People help each other figure out how to use the Internet, and they understand its benefits both to individual businesses and the community as a whole. Leaders and organizations are highly involved in the effort, and they start to think more strategically as they envision a future for their town that includes technology.

In essence, these communities know how to grab the baton from outside initiatives like MIRC and collaborate with external partners in order to move forward. It's been exciting to see so many communities in this project mobilize to seize the opportunity of technology.

Internet a silver bullet? That depends

Many of us believe broadband technology has the best potential since rural electrification to have a positive impact on rural America. But are broadband and the Internet the "silver bullets" for rural Minnesota's economic challenges? That depends.

So far it appears the mere availability of high-speed broadband is not enough to spur action by local businesses or communities. What is often missing is an understanding of the importance of the Internet and the skill to use it.

These knowledge gaps are why education offered by Extension through the MIRC program is so critical to rural businesses and communities. Knowing how to use the Internet and understanding its benefits will enable businesses to bolster their business plans, expand their marketing and sales efforts beyond local communities, and more effectively serve their customers.

Likewise, communities can attract more visitors and even residents through effective use of the Internet. In this way, both communities and businesses will gain a competitive advantage that will make a difference to the vitality of rural Minnesota.

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