One of Boston’s newest areas, the Innovation District was created in 2010 as a city initiative aimed at transforming the 1,000 acres of the South Boston Waterfront into an urban environment where young collaborators or start-up founders could meet. The District boasts five former factories and warehouses repurposed as casual workspaces that are either free to use or can be temporarily leased to up-and-coming entrepreneurs. These spaces range from quirky coffee shops to shared conference halls and traditional offices, but are all designed to increase teamwork and productivity.
As important as the buildings themselves are to making the Innovation District a premiere location for start-ups and budding businesses, the success of the initiative depends on the construction of an online presence that convincingly repaints the Boston Waterfront’s prior image. For a location that’s a bit out of the way for the average Bostonian, the area’s online content is crucial to garnering patrons. While a well-designed website might have satisfied this need just a few years ago, it is now only one feature of a comprehensive online persona created by the those spearheading the initiative. The Innovation District also has a very popular social media presence with more than 13,000 followers on its Twitter, @IDBoston.
An active social media presence is a staple of the Innovation Districts’s online campaign to convince entrepreneurs of its validity. With 13,000 accounts following its Twitter, @IDBoston, there is little doubt that the Innovation District has made a splash on the Internet. Administrators of the Twitter account not only use it as a way to advertise the area itself, but also to promote consumer participation through contests and free events. In August, they encouraged followers to submit their ideas for the new Roxbury Innovation Center to Mayor Walsh as he made decisions concerning the center’s future. The Innovation District even hosted its own Hackathon back in July, which was primarily advertised through Twitter and its website, www.innovationdistrict.org.
Besides advertising its own events, the Innovation District links its online followers to other events in Boston that could be helpful to young entrepreneurs. Many of these events take the form of community classes given at the Boston Public Library (@BPLBoston). Community classes have included “A Beginner’s Guide to Social Media for Business” and “An Introduction to Boston Start-ups.” By advertising events for the community, the Innovation District has fostered collaboration and communication between like-minded organizations in the greater Boston area—in effect, using online activities to boost offline interconnectivity.
The Innovation District’s strategy of online self-promotion boosts entrepreneurs’ willingness to accept its validity because it reflects the reality of today’s business world. In an age when one of the most frequent answers to a question is, “I dunno. Google it,” choosing to forgo an online identity is choosing to forgo hundreds, if not thousands of potential customers. A recent article from The Realty Times details the importance of having an official website, reminding small-business owners that the absence of an up-to-date online presence perpetuates an unprofessional reputation for potential customers. This sentiment is echoed by Professor Julie Dobrow, Director of the Communications and Media Studies Department, who highlights the need for a “well-maintained website with easy to find, updated information and working links.”
Not only does the Innovation District clearly meet consumer demands for an accurate and user-friendly online presence; its real life identity is just as sleek and modern as its website suggests. Located just minutes from South Station and Boston’s beautiful Financial District, the Innovation District is an expanding area. From sleek conferences rooms to quaint coffee shops, the area has developed a world-class infrastructure to support the needs of the entrepreneurs that decide to plant their businesses’ roots in the Innovation District. Although these buildings are still surrounded by construction, this continuous development effectively supports the District’s online identity as an organization that is continually adapting to the needs of the business world.
With a successful online presence and the offline infrastructure to match, it is no surprise that the Innovation District has attracted 200 new companies and 5,000 new jobs since its conception. Yet this outcome was not always expected. In 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek’s Venessa Wong noted the difficult endeavor of rebranding the area: “The area [hadn’t] completely shaken its reputation as a sh—… lackluster part of town” and “eagerly await[ed] more innovators.” Wong then acknowledged the impressive promotion spearheaded by city officials, noting that efforts of the city have created a “wave of development…that seem[ed] destined to change” the poor reputation of the Boston Waterfront.
Yet this success brings a new set of challenges to the Innovation District as it continues to grow. By January 2014, rent in the area had surged to the same levels as Back Bay, the traditional business district of Boston. At $52.92 per square foot, these costs are substantial enough to counteract the very image that the Innovation District is trying to promote as an area accessible to up-and-coming businesses with little capital at their disposal. With this challenge in mind, a question arises regarding the future of the Boston Waterfront—will the Innovation District successfully evolve its virtual persona and rebrand itself once again? Looking at its track record, all signs point to yes.