Coming next weekend: “Suits on a Plane XVIII: Back to Israel.”
It’s a movie — OK, a Massachusetts trade mission — that stars Governor Charlie Baker, Akamai Technologies chief executive Tom Leighton, Brigham & Women’s Hospital president Betsy Nabel, and Athenahealth chief executive Jonathan Bush.
Government-sponsored trade missions are like Hollywood blockbusters: expensive, schmaltzy, and often pretty predictable. A planeload of executives and elected officials journey to a distant land, press the flesh, tour universities and companies, and emerge with a few trophy deals they can point to, like new airline routes or an agreement to plant a new US sales and marketing office of a large company back on home turf.
I wonder why we don’t have a YouTube strategy for marketing our state. Compared with $100 million movies, YouTube videos are inexpensive to make; they’re free to watch; they’re globally accessible and viewable 24/7 — even at times when your neighborhood cinema is closed. A YouTube strategy is about leveraging today’s technologies to convey information and build new connections, rather than forever following the traditional path.
I’m not philosophically opposed to trade missions. In our digital age, showing up in person can have a big effect. “There is no substitute for face-to-face conversations, and breaking bread, and getting to know somebody,” says Paul Sagan, the former chief executive of Akamai and an executive-in-residence at the Cambridge venture capital firm General Catalyst. Theresa Lynch, principal of the economic development consultancy Mass Economics, says “the signaling value of jumping on a plane shows respect, shows you’re serious, and signals to the other party that it’s worth investing in the relationship.”
But trade missions — which typically cost the state anywhere from $30,000 to $300,000 — force you to make choices. What country are you going to visit? What industries will be represented in the group? (This month’s mission will concentrate on digital health care and cybersecurity.) There’s a logistical limit on how many people you can bring and how many places you can visit. (This one includes 40 private sector folks and 12 state officials and support staffers.) They take place infrequently because they’re complex to organize: The last Massachusetts trade mission, also to Israel, happened in mid-2014.
And how do we choose the countries to visit? Often it’s not because a roomful of economic development staffers sat around and crunched data about companies from other parts of the world that have already been putting down roots in the state, or have been sending delegations here, or have the highest potential for relationships with us. Instead, it is at the behest of business groups like the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership or the New England-Israel Business Council.
I’d like to see the Baker administration make half as many overseas trips as the Patrick administration did (that number was 10, over eight years) but instead invest that time, energy, and money into coming up with a new approach to spurring more international activity. In other words, let’s make half as many blockbusters but start making some YouTube videos.
How would a digital trade mission work? We’d pick a few industries to test it with — areas where Massachusetts is already strong, like robotics, personalized medicine, or energy-related technologies. Build a website that maps out all of the resources we have, from academic research labs to startups to large companies. Include links to existing websites that outline state incentives for planting operations here, or vacant office spaces. But the centerpiece would be a monthly series of hour-long webcasts, with video or slides, featuring the kinds of folks who usually go along on trade missions, talking about what’s happening in Massachusetts in that industry sector.
A group of venture capitalists and angel investors would discuss the companies they’ve backed and how they decide what to invest in next — and take questions from entrepreneurs all around the world. In another webcast, state officials from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and staffers from the New England Clean Energy Council might offer an overview of clean-tech activity here and cite reasons to be part of the ecosystem. Massachusetts entrepreneurs could offer live video demos of new robotics products, and chief executives could offer video tours of their facilities, maybe with Governor Baker tagging along to ask questions.
All these videos and webcasts would be archived so that if you didn’t catch it live, you could watch it later. These industry-focused sites would include calendars of conferences and events happening in Massachusetts (with notes about which ones are live-streamed and thus globally accessible). Maybe we could even persuade iRobot to bring a couple of its Ava 500 videoconferencing robots to high-profile Boston events, like the Greentown Labs demo day for energy startups, or the Center for Connected Healthcare Symposium, so that people from anywhere in the world could log in and drive the robot, see what was happening, and schmooze with participants — whether they’re in Argentina or Armenia. Each website should also include a discussion board or Slack channel — a form of online messaging — where executives and entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world could post questions and get answers from locals.
By capturing a little bit of data from people who wanted to post questions or register for a webcast on these sites — where do you live, what industry are you in, what’s your e-mail address? — we could discover which countries seemed most interested in which growth industries.
That’d let us do two things: First, with some vetting, you could invite chief executives and founders of companies in a particular industry sector to come to Massachusetts for major events, and perhaps sit down for a meal with the governor, the secretary of Housing and Economic Development, and local chief executives while they’re in town.
But it’d also let us more intelligently pick the countries where we’d send future Suits on a Plane trade missions and help us to decide which industry representatives to bring along.
“Of course we should be using the tools of today to activate dialogues,” says entrepreneur and angel investor Dave Balter, who previously ran the Boston marketing startup BzzAgent. “It’s time to transform missions into movements. Why does it have to be a select few who engage in this type of activity?”
If we’re a forward-thinking, data-driven state, why not start experimenting with new ways of marketing Massachusetts to the rest of the world?Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.