Marketing a State – Online Reputation Management for West Virginia

Fans of the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon will remember when they told you to tune in next week. They would always end “Don’t miss tomorrow’s exciting episode…[Bullwinkle’s Ride or Goodbye, Dollink].” Always two titles. The alternative title for this post would be “Growing Young Professional Class in WV…Now How do We Let Folks Know about It?”

First a little background – Jeff James of Mythology and I have been discussing for sometime about how we could attack negative stereotypes about West Virginia on a national and global basis. Actually part of it would just be creating a stereotype for West Virginia period. While we West Virginians worry that everyone thinks we’re just a bunch of dumb hillbillies (and some do certainly), the reality is that more people don’t recognize that we exist. We Mountaineers that have traveled will all be able to regale you with the same anecdote:

New Person: Where are you from?
West Virginian: West Virginia.
NP: I had a buddy from college that was from Norfolk.
WV: That’s Virginia. I’m from West Virginia.
NP: Western Virginia?
WV: No West Virginia. There was this thing called the Civil War – I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. We became our own state during that whole process. It’s kind of neat. We have our own capital (Charleston), state bird (cardinal), and everything.
NP: Oh.

While we were discussing what our next steps should be, a mutual friend came up with a pretty neat idea that he put into action. As part of West Virginia day, which celebrates our statehood, Jason Keeling of ABetterWestVirginia.com, decided to reach out to bloggers in the Mountain State. He has long written highlighted West Virginia’s good aspects and started discussions about what we can do to improve the state. Now he’s enlisting fellow bloggers to create and propagate new stereotypes for West Virginia. It’s all going on today, so I highly encourage you to check it out.

Now for my part.

Where the Young People Are

 

Let me start with my personal story because I think it is completely and utterly typical. I was born and raised in Wheeling, WV and went to college at Vanderbilt University. At that point, I had a choice to make – come back to West Virginia or go somewhere else. Actually, I made up my mind several years before, probably in high school. I heard there were no jobs so I never planned on living here after college, although I think I always hoped I could move back. So off I went to Los Angeles.

When my wife became pregnant for the second time in a very short span, we decided to get out of LA. We spent a good bit of time researching and visited several cities across the United States, including Denver, CO, Nashville, TN, and Raleigh, NC. We liked all of them, but decided to move to West Virginia with family considerations being the biggest driver (my folks still live here as do my brother, cousin, aunt, and uncle, with another aunt and uncle right across the border).

OVConnect: Young Professionals in the Upper Ohio Valley

When I moved back, it was important for my wife to meet people as she’s from California and had no previous ties to the area. The next year – now 2007 – a few of us got together and thought it would be nice if there were a young professionals group in the area. After a couple preliminary meetings we held an informal launch / get together with a minimum of publicity and a little bit of word-of-mouth.

70 people showed up to that first gathering. That number may not sound like a lot if you live in a larger metropolitan area, but if you’ve lived in a town / state that’s been in decline for 75 years and heard nothing but how all the young people have left because we have no jobs here (I’ll start debunking that myth next week after a major announcement on Tuesday), you’d be blown away. Many of us just kept walking around with that deer in headlights look muttering, “I never knew there were so many other young people like me in town,” to ourselves.

OVConnect was born.

Let me tell you some stories about people I’ve met or became reacquainted with through our young professionals group; last names withheld since I haven’t spoken about them regarding this post. Keep in mind that OVConnect has been putting on events for less than a year. Just off the top of my head:

  • Bob. A young business person from Wheeling who was excited to finally have a way to meet people his age with similar interests. He’s never left the area.
  • John and Nina. A young married couple with no connection to the area. Nina moved here for a job as an architect and John found work as a computer programmer in Wheeling. And even though they had no prior connection to here, I don’t know anyone that raves about Wheeling, WV more. Sometimes it takes someone with a history of living other places to recognize the good things that long-time residents may overlook.
  • Sandy. A young attorney in town that moved here from Pittsburgh with her husband for work.
  • Jason and Sarah. Jason’s from Wheeling; Sarah is from New York. They moved here from California with their young child. He took a job with a college in Ohio County and she’s able to telecommute for a job with the employer she had in the Bay Area.
  • Matt and Sarah. Matt’s from St. Clairsville, OH and Sarah’s from Oregon. They moved to the Ohio Valley from Chicago. He’s working in a family business and she teaches at a high school.

I could literally spend the next several hours telling more stories like these. Of all the people above, the only person I knew previously was Jason. And with the exception of Bob, everyone else moved back here or moved here without a prior connection.

I eagerly await the next census to see the numbers for our area. From all the anecdotal evidence, it seems like we’re heading in the right direction. Now we’ll see what the numbers say.

Generation West Virginia: Young Professionals in the Mountain State

West Virginia’s a pretty tight-knit state of 1.8 million people. Around the time we were organizing, someone said we ought to get in touch with the folks at Generation West Virginia. This group, which officially launched a couple months ago in Morgantown, but has been functioning for over a year, serves as an umbrella organization for individual young professional groups in West Virginia.

What struck me in my first conversation with Paul Daugherty, the President of Generation WV, was that several other groups all formed the same way within a 2-year time frame all independently of one another. Folks just said, I’d like to meet and network with other people my age with similar interests. I know they have to be out there – now how do I find them?

Generation West Virginia is comprised of the following groups:

  • Generation Charleston
  • Generation Morgantown
  • OVConnect (Wheeling, WV – St. Clairsville, OH – Washington, PA)
  • Young Emerging Leaders of the Mid-Ohio Valley (Parkersburg, WV / Marietta, OH)
  • Young Professional Committee of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce
  • Young Professionals of the Eastern Panhandle (Martinsburg)

One of the best things about being associated with Generation West Virginia and its member groups is that we all seem to come from an abundance mentality as opposed to the scarcity mentality that seems prevalent among many other generations of West Virginia.

It is my sincerest hope that we all begin to realize that if we create more opportunities, the pie will get bigger and everyone’s slice, though perhaps a smaller percentage of the pie than before, will actually contain more delicious banana cream goodness.

PS – If you’re reading this from a different part of West Virginia and you’re interested in forming your own group, get in touch with Generation West Virginia for some tips on how you can make that happen.

Summary

In closing this Tolstoy-esque post, there are two important thoughts I would like to leave you with:

1. West Virginia is again becoming a place where young people are choosing to live. Sometimes that means moving back, other times it’s a relocation, and sometimes it just means staying put. Job opportunities are increasing (again, check back next week) while the quality of life remains as great as it always has been. Plus, telecommuting’s a more realistic option than ever before.

We as a statewide community need to recognize that we do have a young professional class here that’s growing and ease back on the negativity that comes partially from a 75-year decline. And please – when you meet someone that says they moved here, do NOT ask “Why would you do that?” Otherwise I’ll send my buddy John after you to lecture you for three hours about why so many of us choose to do that.

2. Changing perceptions can only come at the grass roots level and best happen when you can replace old stereotypes with new ones. This little experiment beginning with ABetterWestVirginia.com can be continued by all of us, with just a little knowledge about how social media and search engines work. You don’t need to write a blog to participate; just have a little passion and devote some time in an educated, focused manner.

Also, I recognize that we have readers from several different parts of the country. Everything we’re talking about here in terms of changing stereotypes and managing reputations applies to you, too. I’ve rarely been to any place that didn’t have some sort of chip on their shoulder about why they’re a great place to live, yet doing so while carrying and pushing more negative stereotypes about their town than anyone from the outside ever would.

Big note to Pittsburgh readers – you’re among the worst in this category. You have a great town, so relax. I’ve lived and visited a lot of places, and very rarely have I ever heard anything negative about the Burgh. Yet when I talk to Pittsburghers or read your writers, it’s often defensiveness and negativity full speed ahead. Dejean, you get a free pass on the negativity, but not the defensiveness.

3. Bonus important thought. Wheeling and the Northern Panhandle are part of West Virginia. I just had another West Virginian remind me yesterday (I won’t embarrass you, but you know who you are) that he doesn’t think of it as part of the state. Similarly, my father-in-law was doing a job in Iraq a couple years back. When the project manager said she was from West Virginia, he said his son-in-law was from Wheeling. She said, “That’s not West Virginia.”

Justin Seibert

About The Author

Justin Seibert is the President of Direct Online Marketing. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vanderbilt University. He contributes a wide range of online business-oriented topics, including the subject of exporting. His contributions can be found on publications such as the Pittsburgh Business Times, AdAge, SES Magazine, and La Voz del interior. Justin and his family enjoy learning about new cultures during their travels.

View Justin's full bio.
Get a free, no-obligation consultation with a digital marketing expert