Getting Down to Business About the Digital Ready Businesses Program
Written by Emily Del Real, Cheyanne Geideman and Roberto Gallardo
Earlier this year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Technology Engagement Center published a report commissioned by Amazon looking at the digital potential of rural businesses. What it found was shocking: if rural businesses were to unleash their digital potential, they would add more than 350,000 jobs over the next three years and have an economic impact of at least $46 billion per year.
So, what is holding these rural businesses back? The report identified three main culprits: 1) lack of adequate digital connectivity; 2) lack of a pipeline of employee candidates trained in digital skills; and 3) lack of adopting digital tools and strategies.
In order to help move the needle and unleash rural businesses’ digital potential, the Purdue Center for Regional Development (PCRD), in partnership with Purdue Extension Community Development (CD), secured funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Development Grant to expand the existing “Digital Ready Businesses (DRB)” program.
This program targets rural entrepreneurs and small business owners to help them start or strengthen their online presence. The curriculum is at a beginner level, reaching a niche that more intermediate or advanced training and resources typically overlook.
The following three counties in Indiana were selected based on specific economic and labor indicators, as requested by the USDA grant program: Fountain, Parke and Perry. In addition to the educational resources available through the DRB program, the grant also provided one-on-one technical assistance and financial incentives to the businesses participating.
What Did the Project Consist of?
With critical help from local economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, small business development centers and extension educators, a total of eleven entrepreneurs and small businesses participated over the course of one year. The first phase of the project consisted of offering interactive workshops to the participants based on their needs, type of business and interests. The majority of participants focused on building their websites and conducting email marketing campaigns.
The courses available to them included:
- Claiming Your Bubble
- Planning Your Website
- Introduction to Email Marketing
- Email Marketing Analytics
- Social Media Introduction & Platforms
- Social Media Plan & Content
- Social Media Analytics and Marketing
- Business Intelligence
The second phase of the project consisted of one-on-one technical assistance provided by the PCRD’s marketing and communications coordinator, through a series of phone calls or face-to-face meetings. This technical assistance focused on applying the workshops through developing plans and setting goals for their online presence. In addition, some businesses received technical assistance from the small business development centers with tools such as market segment analysis.
The third stage of the project consisted of businesses using the grant money available for them to implement strategies identified during the educational and technical assistance phase. Each business was given up to $1,000 with the majority of businesses using the funds for social media campaigns, search engine optimization, email marketing campaigns, advertisements for website and website design.
Ok, So What Happened?
As a result of the USDA funded DRB project (educational, technical assistance and financial incentives), participants reported that in less than a year 2.5 full-time jobs were created* and 1 full-time job retained**. Businesses also reported successes in other areas:
- 75% of businesses reported an increase in sales*
- 100% of businesses reported an expansion in their customer base**
- 100% of businesses reported improvement in products and services based on increased interaction and engagement with their customers***
*7 out of 11 businesses reporting
**5 out of 11 businesses reporting
***8 out of 11 businesses reporting
Below are some testimonials from the participants:
“I was able to get training through local resources on how to improve our digital marketing. The money received freed other money [for my business] to use elsewhere.”
“The Digital Ready workshops help put additional social media information in my hands that I didn't know were available before.”
“With the assistance, we were able to create a website that is easy for us to navigate. It's eye-catching and gives people a chance to see what [we] have to offer. We also hired a local marketing company to build and boost some social media content for us as well. The content reached several people and we had quite a few new members join or reach out about joining due to the content. The purchase of the Canva program has also been very beneficial to us as well. We use it weekly to create social media content.”
“This was a great series of workshops, especially for those just beginning their business.”
This project taught us some very important lessons that we want to share in case you are planning or implementing a similar program.
- Partnerships are everything! In addition to PCRD/CD, other key partners were needed to make this project a success: USDA, chambers of commerce, local economic development organizations and small business development centers. The project would not have gotten off the ground, not to mention the impacts generated, were it not for our partners. Also, meeting face-to-face with participants and local partners makes all the difference! Make sure you have potential partners identified and reach out to them prior to implementing a similar program.
- Recruitment and promotion are tough. Entrepreneurs and business owners are busy running their businesses. Asking them to participate in a program like this is really asking them to divert their valuable time and invest in this effort. For this reason, recruiting and promotion should be done by people and organizations these entrepreneurs and business owners trust. Technical assistance and/or financial incentives are examples of some “carrots” that can help in the recruiting effort; in the end, however, it is all about trusting who wants you to participate. For these reasons, a significant amount of thought and strategy must be focused on recruitment and promotion and not only on the educational component.
In addition, external factors (such as lack of digital connectivity) need to be factored in when recruiting and promoting the program. While most of the strategies taught do not require an ultra-fast internet connection, the reality is that some rural areas have very slow and/or unreliable connectivity making it hard for business owners to participate or worse, implement their strategies.
- Evaluation data is REALLY hard to get. Although it was made clear from the beginning of the project (through a sort of Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) reviewed during a face-to-face meeting) that this data was needed from the participants and was going to be released only in aggregated form, in the end gathering this data required a significant effort.
We speculate that reasons for this have to do with the participants not wanting to be perceived as an underperformer, lack of time and/or internal monitoring capacity, and/or not willing to share this data for fear of competitors getting ahold of it. While these reasons are valid, this does not eliminate the fact that securing the evaluation/impact data is hard to get and needs to be kept in mind when implementing similar projects.
- Do not focus solely on the business owners. We initially designed this program to focus almost exclusively on entrepreneurs and business owners. However, we quickly realized that they may have all the intentions to learn but may not have the time. Therefore, we also encouraged employees to participate, with the owner’s permission and support. This way, the business benefits in the end regardless of whether the owner or employee gained the knowledge, but more importantly, business owners realize that digital knowledge and skills among their employees are critical as well.
- The way knowledge is gained is changing. Entrepreneurs and business owners are busy running their businesses. Although they may understand that gaining this specific knowledge will help their business, rigid educational mechanisms (face-to-face interactive workshops) at pre-arranged times might limit their ability to participate.
For this reason, we are translating the DRB program into an online version designed around the “flipped classroom” model. This model provides videos and activities online for the participants to review and complete at their own time and pace. While face-to-face will always be important, especially when gaining trust or providing technical assistance, online mechanisms need to be incorporated to augment the effectiveness of similar programs.
The Digital Ready Businesses program has been improved based on the lessons learned and feedback given by participating businesses. This feedback allowed PCRD and CD to see the positive effects that the program has on small businesses and organizations by providing them a good opportunity to begin building community awareness and strengthening key partnerships.
Learn more about DRB
Contact Emily Del Real ( firstname.lastname@example.org) if you want to learn more.
This project was possible thanks to funding from USDA’s Rural Business Development Grant (CDFA #10.351)