A positive view of rural: My problem with statewide events

Cities and towns, urban and rural, face a lot of the same challenges. We share the same basic issues in trying to build prosperity: support businesses, maintain infrastructure, provide basic services, improve the quality of life, build a sense of place, support the arts, promote health, and all the other to-do items you can think of. 

But there is a huge difference: scale. What works for a town of 2.5 million or 250,000 will not work in the same way for a town of 2,500 or 250. And that’s a challenge for any organization that puts on events or conferences serving large statewide or large areas. 

Every session at your conference that you haven’t tailor-made to include rural is urban biased by default. Rural attendees are left trying to figure out how to scale those huge ideas down, or decide whether they might work at all in a small town. 

State-wide events need to include rural content every year. Every single year. 

Why give all this attention to rural? You may not realize just how many rural people live and work in your service area. In Oklahoma, 35% of our population is rural. If a third of the people in your service area are rural, it really doesn’t make sense to offer zero sessions tailored to their needs at a state-wide event. 

Besides the fact that rural people exist in your service territory, small towns are critical to society in at least three key areas: 

  1. agriculture and food production  
  2. production of natural resources  
  3. conservation and recreation in natural places  

Each year, we need to eat, need to produce natural resources to work with, and want to have protected natural places to enjoy, so each year, we need rural people supporting society. Each year, organizations with wide service territories need to address rural topics. 

You can’t “do rural” one year, and then go back to all big-city topics. Rural people aren’t going away. 

It’s possible some groups don’t want to do too many rural topics for fear of turning off their urban people. In fact, your urban attendees will enjoy most rural topics, too, because many apply perfectly to the neighborhoods and smaller communities that make up the big city. With the increasing focus on community building and urban neighborhoods, you’d actually be smart to offer more small-town topics because they’ll help both rural and urban participants. 

Not offering rural topics every year leads to a vicious cycle: you provide lots of big city-oriented topics because those are the people you know best and can get to present, so big cities send the most attendees. Rural people look through your event’s urban-heavy agenda, and don’t see much reason to attend, so they mostly don’t attend. You look at the attendee list from last year and see mostly urban people, so you provide more city-oriented topics because that’s who’s attending. And on and on. 

What can you do to break this cycle? 

First, reach out to rural people. 
Ask your small town members what they need. Send special emails just to rural people to ask about their struggles. Call small town leaders personally to learn their ideas. 

Then, create special rural content and sessions to address rural topics.  
Here are five ideas for creating rural content, from easiest to more effort. 

1. Hold rural round tables and cohort groups. These are easy to do at your existing event. Reserve a room, provide a moderator, and let rural people have the floor. Go listen and take notes for future session topics. (You can do an urban round table at the same time, and you’ll get lots of good ideas there, too.) 

2. Include rural speakers on existing panels and topics. This is pretty easy. You’re planning a panel on a topic. Find a small town that is working on that topic, maybe on a smaller scale. Invite them to join the panel. They’ll help the rural audience adapt the ideas. 

3. Include breakouts or workshops on specifically rural topics. This takes a little more work. You have to find out the best small-town topics to cover and recruit the right people to deliver them. Just like you want to do for all your sessions. 

4. Every year, increase the number of rural sessions you offer until you match the proportion of rural population in your state. Now that you know the percentage of rural population, you can set better goals to serve all your people. I can’t tell you how excited I would be to see an Oklahoma conference offering a third of the sessions on rural topics!  

5. Offer a rural-themed keynote for everyone. It will increase understanding between rural and urban, and urban people can still adapt the lessons for their neighborhoods and communities. And it’s a great signal to rural people that you value them. 

Finally, promote the rural topics straight to rural people. 
Call back those same people you asked for input. Show them how you’ve taken their advice. Encourage them to attend themselves and to spread the word. 

Send emails promoting just the rural focus and rural topics. Target these to your rural and small town members. 

Now stick it out. You’re doing a long-term project of addressing rural needs. It will take time to rebuild your rural members’ confidence and gain their attendance. Keep at it, and don’t give up. 

Your homework assignment is: 
Bring up this problem with an organization you belong to. Open the dialog about better serving the needs of rural people every year. 

Here’s to a prosperous 2015 for all our towns and communities. 

Keep making your small town better,


PS – As you work to grow more entrepreneurship, pass around lots of copies of The New Rules of Entrepreneurship, as set out by Cory Miller. It’s a short, powerful ebook at no charge here 
When you read it, I think you’ll be able to see that Cory grew up in a small town.