How digital tech and smart PR connected a town to the modern age

Webster City, Iowa doesn’t quite have the ring of a must-see vacation destination, and that’s just fine with residents. They’re not looking to become the Midwestern version of Orlando or Las Vegas. They just want to be a quaint, attractive town that takes good care of the folks who live there. The kind of burg where people want to be.

And it’s a place where Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, loves to be. Dorsey, whose company has come under fire all year for failing in its duty to protect its users from malicious and harassing content, is heading a grassroots, wear-out-the-shoe-leather movement to reconnect with customers. Speaking to CNN, Dorsey said:

“We have to be connected with who we serve… Otherwise, we’re not going to serve them in the right way. And that only comes through conversation and talking with people…”

The people in Webster City are looking for someone to talk to… and all the hope they can find. The town lost its major employer when appliance manufacturer Electrolux transferred its factory south of the border to Mexico. Thousands of jobs gone… just like that. Many residents up and left. Those that stayed called the shift “devastating.”

But they grabbed their bootstraps and refused to give up. Using social media, apps and other digital age tools, Webster City became the place to stop, even if you were just passing through. One of the biggest shifts, they turned to smartphone apps that allowed even the smallest shop owners to take credit cards or PayPal without exorbitant fees or transaction quotas.

This might sound like an obvious approach until you think about what it’s like to travel, especially when stopping in small towns along the route. In many cases, small businesses would have “cash only” signs on the front windows, turning away many modern travelers who just don’t like carrying cash on the road.

Making that small shift, according to many Webster City business owners, made a huge difference in the future for their businesses and their town. Speaking to CNN, Kay Ross, who owns the Seneca Street Saloon, said:

“People would come in who were traveling through town, and they wouldn’t carry cash… I was very concerned that we would miss out on return business… The fact that we are able to take debit and credit cards now is huge.”

While that sounds like a no-brainer to many, it’s a watershed moment for vendors and small-town retailers to have tech like the Square smartphone attachment, which allows people like Ross, as well as artisans at fairs and vendors at farmer’s markets to cater to a consumer market that, more and more, just doesn’t carry cash.

Sometimes, it’s the small shifts, like making it easier for people to buy, that make a huge difference. It’s a lesson and a fact that Webster City is taking full advantage of to move from “devastation” to rebirth.

Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of the New York based public relations firm 5WPR: one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.
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