It’s time to stop investing in Edmonton Stories

Nearly three years ago the City of Edmonton launched Edmonton Stories, a new approach to marketing Edmonton. The project will be discussed by Executive Committee tomorrow, and at least one Councillor has been quite vocal about his desire to shut it down. Councillor Diotte wrote about the issue yesterday on his blog:

I argue we have no performance measures for the website. Social media gurus tell me the costs surrounding Edmontonstories are astronomically high and we can’t even gauge if it alone has drawn a single person to come live in this city.

I don’t always agree with Councillor Diotte, but in this case I think he’s right – it is time to very seriously ask if continuing to put resources into Edmonton Stories is the right thing to do. I first raised questions about the value we’re getting back in September 2009, and followed up with then Communications Branch Manager Mary Pat Barry in February 2010. My conclusion at the time was that while the cost was high, the site was starting to deliver results. The case study that was created in conjunction with the Edmonton Police Service was a really positive step.

Now, two years later, where are we? Not much further ahead. Here’s the sad reality:

  • In its first four months, EdmontonStories.ca attracted 113,979 total visits. Five months later, that number had grown to 203,685. And in the two years since, it has attracted just 358,691 more visits, bringing the total to 558,376. Most of the growth took place in the first year! Since a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s a graph to show you what the growth curve looks like (linear and logarithmic):

edmonton stories traffic

  • And remember that those numbers are total visits. There’s no word on how many are uniques. The number of people visiting from outside Edmonton is even less, especially when you consider that when an Edmontonian’s story goes up they likely share it with friends and family in the city.
  • The number of stories on the site likewise has grown very slowly. The total now sits at 339 compared to 272 in February 2010.
  • The same case study that was held up in defense of the site two years ago is the one Administration is using now (the EPS one). The report mentions just six organizations that have joined the Recruitment Campaign Partnership. Six! Out of all the organizations in Edmonton!
  • And yes, the budget is a concern. Incredibly, the report does not make it clear how much has been spent on the project. It does state that $1.5 million was allocated in the first year and that a consultant’s estimate of the “right” investment amount was about $5 million. Councillor Diotte says that with this year’s $600,000 budget factored in, a total of $3.5 million will have been spent on the site since it launched.
  • Worse than the overall budget however is the breakdown. UPDATE: The numbers have now been posted at EdmontonStories.ca. Here’s the split identified for the 2012 budget:

So, let me get this straight:

  • $180,000 is being spent to advertise the website to extend its reach, yet we know that the growth rate has declined significantly over time.
  • $144,000 is being spent on the recruitment program, which has attracted just seven partner organizations in the last two years.
  • $126,000 is being spent on “managing, maintaining, monitoring and engaging target audiences of various social media platforms.” You know, the stuff you and I do every day for free.
  • $54,000 is being spent on “research, planning & development.” I’m not exactly sure what this would refer to in the third year of a program like this.
  • $54,000 is being spent on “website development & maintenance.” I pay $90 per month total to host this site and at least half a dozen others on Amazon EC2. And I can confirm that it more than handles the kind of traffic EdmontonStories.ca has.
  • $30,000 is being spent to extend the brand into trade shows and other events.
  • $12,000 is being spent to help people write new stories, yet just 67 new stories have been posted in the last two years.

Clearly the cost is a concern. But perhaps the biggest problem is that the site’s champion is no longer driving the site forward. I don’t think it is a coincidence that after Mary Pat left the City the site received less attention. Reading the report from Administration, it certainly feels like there’s a gap from 2010 until now. It’s hard to look after someone else’s baby.

I recognize that you don’t get results over night and that developing a successful program can often take time. But three years should be enough time to decide whether or not to pull the plug. That’s an eternity in the online world! Incredibly, Administration thinks we should do the opposite by reaching out to more organizations, recruiting student partners, and enhancing the site with things like Google Maps.

I think there’s value in what has been created at EdmontonStories.ca and I believe there are ways to continue to leverage that (perhaps via EEDC, which always did seem like a more suitable home for it), but I don’t think the City should be investing any more into the project.

What’s next for Edmonton Stories?

The last time I wrote about Edmonton Stories, I questioned the value of the initiative. Here’s what I wrote back in September:

I think Edmonton Stories is a great concept, and I’m glad to see that Edmontonians are contributing stories. The project was created to help market the city elsewhere though, and I don’t think it is accomplishing that yet.

I didn’t see any connection between the fantastic collection of stories that Edmontonians had contributed to the site and the marketing of Edmonton to others. Based on the reaction to that post, I don’t think I was alone in wondering what the next step was for Edmonton Stories.

Last week I sat down with Mary Pat Barry, Communications Branch Manager at the City of Edmonton, to try to get an answer to that question. We talked for about an hour in her office at City Hall, looking at the website itself, statistics, a case study, and marketing materials. The fact that I had been critical of the project in the past didn’t seem to bother Mary Pat. Not because she didn’t care, but because she was so excited to convince me of the value of Edmonton Stories. She could see the bigger picture, and she wanted me to see it too.

First, here are the latest statistics (May 14, 2009 to January 31, 2010):

  • 272 stories posted
    • 176 user generated
    • 55 containing video
    • 5 containing audio
    • 6 non-English language stories
  • 515 comments posted (100 stories have comments)
  • Users in 3,929 cities from 162 countries have visited the site
  • Total Visits: 203,685
  • Total Unique Visitors: 162,313
  • Total Page Views: 542,488
  • Time on Site: 00:01:42
  • 59.3% of visitors came from outside Edmonton

The statistics have also been broken down into two phases: the contesting phase (May 14 to September 15) and the post-contesting phase (September 16 to January 31). The number of visits and page views have both declined from the first phase to the second, but after talking to Mary Pat, I’m not sure that matters much.

At its core, Edmonton Stories is all about labor and visitor attraction. It exists because the old or standard ways of attracting skilled labor or visitors to Edmonton either are not very effective, or are very expensive. It exists because the best people to share why Edmonton is a great city are Edmontonians themselves. With that in mind, I think it’s useful to think of Edmonton Stories as a two-stage project:

  1. Gather stories from Edmontonians
  2. Attract labor and visitors using those stories

Mary Pat said she was “awed” with regards to the first stage. That so many Edmontonians took the time to write and share their stories is not something to take lightly. The collection of stories is a great asset.

The second stage is the answer to what’s next. Instead of just explaining it to me, Mary Pat showed me a recruitment partnership case study with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS).

In the fall of 2009 EPS was set to launch a recruiting initiative in select locations in the United States (Seattle, Cleveland and New York City). Confident that the EPS Recruiting Unit could effectively extol the attractiveness of the police service and the work it demands, EPS turned to the City of Edmonton for advice on how they might promote Edmonton as a potential home for recruits and their families.

The City of Edmonton’s solution? Edmonton Stories. The idea was to use the content on EdmontonStories.ca, the personal, tangible experiences of real people, in a targeted way to help EPS recruit new members. I remember reading about the recruitment efforts, but the news articles never mentioned that Edmonton Stories was involved. Here’s what Edmonton Stories did to help:

  • Built a dedicated page featuring stories written by Edmonton police officers: http://www.edmontonstories.ca/eps
  • Created a guide for on-site recruits describing how best to use the dedicated page
  • Produced branded “conversation cards” to hand out at hiring fairs
  • Promoted the dedicated EPS page on Twitter, Facebook, and Google AdWords.

The experiment was a great success. Edmonton Stories had 6.7 times more visitors from Cleveland after the recruitment fair, and 8.1 times more visitors from New York City (the first city, Seattle, was sort of used to figure things out). According to candidate surveys, 74% had not considered Edmonton as a place to live before the recruitment fair, while after, 76% reported they would likely or very likely relocate to Edmonton, and 84% planned on submitting an application to EPS within the next six months. Most importantly, EPS received an “unprecedented” number of detailed applications from potential recruits met at the recruitment fairs. The total number is 6, but for an application process that can take 18 months, that’s seen as very successful.

It’s difficult, of course, to separate the effect Edmonton Stories had on the campaign from the rest of the EPS recruitment efforts, but those involved feel Edmonton Stories had a significant impact.

The City of Edmonton can now take what was developed for the EPS and apply it to other industries. They can provide specific industry stories, the recruiters guide, conversation cards, and much more to recruiters to help attract talent to Edmonton. The stories that Edmontonians have shared are finally being put to use.

I asked Mary Pat if the focus on helping recruiters would take away from maintaining the website itself. While she conceded that less effort has been put into attracting new stories, she said that the website certainly remains a focus. She highlighted two things – translations and a redesign. The team is working on 19 languages for 36 stories, with 10 languages available at launch. The translations take time, because Edmonton Stories works to get approval from each of the authors before posting. The redesign, live as of today, brings a fresh look, a news section, new ways of discovering stories, and tighter integration with social media services.

I think that asking whether or not Edmonton Stories is delivering a return on investment is still a fair question. However, it’s clear to me now that there’s direction and a way for the site to deliver on its core objective of attracting labor and visitors to Edmonton. I think the EPS case study is exciting, and demonstrates that Edmonton Stories can provide value.

How far beyond the city does Edmonton Stories reach?

The winners of the Edmonton Stories contest were announced by Mayor Stephen Mandel on Tuesday at City Hall during the lunch hour. About 50 people attended the public event, not including the large number of City employees who were present. Nearly all of the City Councillors were on hand as well, a strong show of support for the project. Congratulations to all of the contest winners and runners up!

Edmonton Stories Contest Announcement

Mayor Mandel’s speech started by highlighting some of the traffic statistics for EdmontonStories.ca. Here are some of the key numbers:

  • 242 stories have been posted, 44 of which include videos
  • 453 comments have been posted on 78 stories
  • Users in 2159 cities from 131 countries have visited the site
  • Total Visits: 113,979
  • Total Unique Visits: 87,049
  • Local Visits: 60,497
  • Total Page Views: 348,750

Those are pretty good numbers, though they are unverified. I think the “local visits” stat is interesting – over half of all visitors to the site have come from Edmonton. That makes sense at this stage, as Edmontonians are visiting to submit and vote on stories. Over time though, I would hope for that percentage to drop.

I’d love to see more stats on the non-local visits. For instance, I’d like to know the bounce rate for non-local visits. How many non-local visitors come to the website and then promptly leave? Referral statistics would be interesting to know as well – how did they get to the website?

As Edmonton Stories moves into its second phase, recruitment and visitor attraction, non-local visits will become increasingly important. There are a solid number of stories up on the site now, but if they aren’t shared with the rest of the world, how successful can the campaign be?

The City has repeatedly stressed that Edmonton Stories is unique because it focuses on social media and online marketing as opposed to traditional marketing. Most of the social media marketing I have seen thus far has been directed at Edmontonians though, not the rest of the world. I don’t think they’re doing enough to spread the word beyond Edmonton.

For a website marketed almost entirely online, I’d expect it to have a decent number of other web pages linking to it. I tallied the number of inbound links for some Edmonton websites, using Yahoo! Site Explorer:

Obviously the City of Edmonton site has the most inbound links, no surprise there. What jumped out at me about this graph is the number of inbound links for That’s Edmonton For You. Despite launching a month later than EdmontonStories.ca, and without a large budget to promote it, that site managed to accumulate over half the number of inbound links that EdmontonStories.ca has. I would anticipate that a majority of the inbound links for That’s Edmonton For You would be from other local sites, which doesn’t bode well for how far beyond the city EdmontonStories.ca is reaching.

The budget for promoting EdmontonStories.ca isn’t insignificant either, when you consider that it’s being spent on social media and online marketing, not traditional marketing:

The total budget for 2009 is $1.4 million dollars. City Council approved $1 million, and EEDC kicked in another $400,000. According to The Journal, project staff expect to ask for another $1 million in 2010. Should they get it? I’m leaning toward no.

I wonder how much of that $268,500 earmarked for social media marketing has been spent. Based on the number of inbound links above, I’d hope very little, but given that there are only three months left in 2009, I’m not so sure. If there’s a lot to spend still, I expect to see Edmonton Stories everywhere online for the next few months.

I think Edmonton Stories is a great concept, and I’m glad to see that Edmontonians are contributing stories. The project was created to help market the city elsewhere though, and I don’t think it is accomplishing that yet.

Edmonton Stories – The First Month

Back on May 14th the City of Edmonton launched its Edmonton Stories website which aims to gather real stories from real Edmontonians for use in marketing. The City did a good job of getting the site started with around 60 pre-sourced stories, giving it some momentum out of the gate. I wrote at the time that while I thought the idea was good, it wasn’t without challenges. I mentioned three: quantity of content, regularity of content, and quality of content.

Were they able to feed off that momentum to overcome those challenges throughout the first month? Let’s find out.

It took about a week after launch for the first story to appear – Sheila Edmonds’ story about adventures in Edmonton was posted on May 22nd. Stories have appeared somewhat regularly since then.

Here are the stats for the period May 14th through June 14th (word counts use the Microsoft Word algorithm):

Total # of stories posted: 42 (6 by staff)
Total # of words: 16328
Average # of words per story:  389
Total # of stories with video: 4
Total # of stories with photos: 12

The longest story was Marie Drake’s My First Time on the Mindbender at 1034 words, while the shortest was Lucien Levesque’s Festival for Kids in St. Albert at 59 words (plus a video).

Here a couple Twitter-related stats, since I have them:

# of tweets mentioning #yegstories: 106
# of tweets mentioning edmontonstories: 163

Here’s a Wordle of the first month’s stories:

As expected, words like “city” and “people” are quite common. After all, it’s the people that make Edmonton great, right? I’m happy to see “bus” is larger than “car” 🙂

Edmonton Stories has been quite active online in the first month or so. They’ve amassed 247 followers on Twitter (posting more than 200 tweets), and 72 fans on Facebook. More interesting than that, at least in my opinion, is that they’ve been commenting on blogs. Here’s one example on Sharon’s blog. I think that’s smart, as long as they are making comments that add value (otherwise the strategy could backfire).

So, the verdict:

  • Quantity: I think 42 stories posted in the first month is fantastic!
  • Regularity: Not bad, but there’s definitely room for improvement here. At least one story per day would be ideal.
  • Quality: This is subjective, but I’d say the quality is pretty good. The average length of stories is about right. Most user submitted stories have been in the Living category however, which means the Working category seems a little less genuine. I’d also prefer that each story had a one or two line bio about the author.

Overall I’d say Edmonton Stories had a good first month – kudos! I hope they can keep it up in the months ahead.

I’ll (finally) be submitting my story this week!