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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.
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:
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.
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:
*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:
This project taught us some very important lessons that we want to share in case you are planning or implementing a similar program.
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.
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.
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.
This project was possible thanks to funding from USDA’s Rural Business Development Grant (CDFA #10.351)