MARSHALL -?A business adage says that the three keys to success are location, location, and location. These days that location is increasingly in cyberspace, but many businesses in rural Minnesota have yet to discover the advantages to an online presence.
"Businesses' use of the Internet in small communities hasn't risen with availability," said Neil Linscheid, an educator in community economics at the University of Minnesota Extension office in Marshall. "Two years ago in Madison, Minnesota we looked online at the Chamber of Commerce listing to see how many businesses we could find using a search engine. We found seven."
Linscheid has conducted 56 classes in the past two years around southwest Minnesota on behalf of the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities project.
The project is funded by a two-year federal grant administered through the Blandin Foundation. The goal is to work with non-adopters to get them online.
According to Linscheid, web presence is not only important to individual businesses, but may determine whether their community thrives or declines.
"If you're looking at this place and thinking to move here, you look online to see what's here," Linscheid said. "There are thousands of places where any one business or other institution can tell the story of their place and make it look great."
Linscheid pointed to Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and Explore Minnesota as examples.
"Two years ago we looked at Luverne," Linscheid said. "People asked, 'What shows up?' We found online videos by storm chasers and some kids who built a trebuchet (a medieval stone-throwing machine)."
Locally the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce is having seminars for the MIRC program. Last Monday the seminar theme was "Marketing your Website."
"We're hoping to set up three seminars in April and June," said Erin Raveling, marketing coordinator for the Marshall Chamber.
Janna Milbradt, owner of the Purple Iris Yarn Shop, said she is only barely computer literate and attended last Monday's seminar to better understand how to use the Internet.
"I've got a long ways to go, but I was excited to learn we have a program," Milbradt said. "I didn't know we have that kind of help.
Milbradt said she was looking at the possibility of an online store to increase sales.
Linscheid stressed the availability of tools to help everyone build a website by themselves, or if they choose to hire a professional, get one they can maintain and add to themselves.
"I seldom run into a business where it's appropriate to hire a programmer to make a website from scratch," Linscheid said. "Those days of having excuses, 'it's too expensive, too hard,' are over. If you can open up Microsoft Word, you have the skills necessary to manage a website."