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Open for (Data) Business

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Sharing lessons learned from launching and marketing an Open Data portal, and pondering the similarities with struggles when I opened a business.


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Disclaimer: All of the ideas expressed in this article are my personal statements and opinions, and do not reflect the opinions/statements of the City of Urbana.
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When we launched our Open Data site on February 23, I was hopeful that it would grab our citizens’ attention and that usage would launch like a rocket.

Well that didn’t happen.

Instead, I found out that launching our Open Data site was only an incremental milestone for a larger effort.   This is not “Field of Dreams”… if you build it, they don’t automatically come.
For me, this was a familiar feeling.  In 2009 I made a career shift and pursued a passion – I took over the operation of our local one-screen Art House movie theater.  Months of intense planning and preparation led up to my opening day on January 1, 2010.  On that morning, I put out the lobby ropes and nicely arranged the hundreds of bags of flavored popcorn I’d ordered.    Alas, the twenty people who showed up didn’t need the ropes - and didn’t buy the food.  It was then I realized that it was going to be more work than I thought.

So with Open Data, as with business, opening your doors is when the marketing and outreach efforts begin

With the movie theater, I experimented with many types of advertising.  The effectiveness of any medium is definitely related to what your message is, and who you’re trying to reach.  Advertising a movie theater, which has a smaller number of frequent customers, is different from a car dealership, with a larger pool of one-time customers.

Over time, I learned that marketing an Art House theater to the general public for new customers was mostly a waste of money – I was better off communicating with my existing customers and using “word of mouth” as a way to get new people.  This was a slow process, but it was also cheap; thanks to social media and e-mail lists, I could do this at the cost of a few hundred dollars (but also a few hundred hours!!!)   On the other hand, car dealerships?  Well, you know what they do.  Anything to get your attention and get you to walk on the lot.

So how do you advertise Open Data?  Well, it’s not much different from any other kind of advertising.  First you need to figure out a few things:

Who is your customer?

In our case, our primary target for Open Data is our own City employees.  Department and division managers who want insight into their finances or their data.  Public users are a secondary, but also important group.  But “the public” is too broad of a category, so I sub-divide it mentally as “Council Members”, “FOIA requesters”, “Active Community members”, “Students doing research”, etc.  (FYI - When I advertised the movie theater, I had similar categories in my mind for my marketing: “Hipsters,” “Seniors,” and “Boomers with grown kids”.)  Each group has different desires, and responds differently to various modes of communication.

What is your message?

People have short attention spans.  You need a message that punches through and grabs them – especially for something as esoteric as Open Data.  We’re still refining our messages, and we have different ones for different audiences.  For example “You can know how much many you have left in your budget lines” (for City employees) and “You can analyze police activity and quantify the results” (for “Active Community Members”).  Don’t be afraid to tweak your message over time.  My early movie theater ads used phrases like “Movies you’ll talk about”.  (Ugh!)   Later we tried “The true independent theater for movie lovers” and eventually we settled on “A classic movie experience”.    As needed, we also used tag lines like “Did we mention we serve beer?”

How will you convey your message to your customers? 

This is probably the hardest of all.  In business, you have lots of (costly) options: TV, radio, print, web ads, etc.   Since our Open Data site has no marketing budget, we have undertaken every kind of free publicity we can get.  Social media, mainstream media (newspaper and TV news), TV shows, our web site, and anything else we can think of.   Making this more difficult is that different categories of customers may see only one of these or another.    To stereotype: Millennials rarely read printed newspapers or listen to talk radio, while seniors may not subscribe to Social Media feeds.  Figure out who you’re trying to reach – and know that you’re going to need to use multiple modes to reach them all!

The best, and hardest, way to do it

In the end, the most effective, but inefficient, method is still one-on-one selling.  Much like I used to be a 24x7 ambassador for my theater (ready to give my “what’s playing this week” speech to anyone I run into at the grocery store), I’ve become a pitchman for Open Data… if you ask me about work these days, you’re going to hear about it!  So get some converts on your side, and encourage them to spread the word.

Along this path, the most successful marketing we’ve done was with our City employees.  We offered 30-minute “training classes” on our Open Data site, separately for financial and police data.  This allowed us to give our pitch to up to 12 people at a time.  It works because we can have the Open Data site on the screen and just say to someone “Sue… what part of your budget would you like to know about?” … and then perform that inquiry right in from of them based exactly on what they say.   (As a former software demonstrator, I can tell you that this is the BEST kind of demo there is!)
What else has worked for you?  Please add comments – or ask questions – below!


Here are our website links...Open Data: https://data.urbanaillinois.us/

Open Expenditures: http://expenditures.urbanaillinois.us

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