This Guy Promotes an Entire Town Online

promote a town

Charles Town, W. Va., didn’t have much of an online presence before Van Applegate showed up. Now the town and all of its local merchants have found a way to truly benefit from technology, promoting their town online.

Applegate is a photojournalist for ABC News who commutes from Charles Town to his job in Washington, D.C. He originally started Charles Town Now because he wanted a way to feel more connected to his town. He said in a phone interview with Small Business Trends:

“I wanted to make this place more of a home. I thought about starting a small business, but I just didn’t feel like I had that kind of savvy. So I thought maybe I could take some of my social media skills and lend them to a town that didn’t have much of an online presence.”

promote a town

He started out with a simple Twitter account aimed at promoting Charles Town to potential visitors. Applegate mainly used Twitter’s search features to find users who were visiting or planning to visit Charles Town so he could interact with them one-on-one. He said:

“I think social media is most effective when you use it to create personal connections. We mainly talk to people one-on-one instead of sending mass messages. Lots of people out there are already looking for whatever it is you have to offer, but you have to seek them out instead of waiting for them to come to you.”

He eventually built a following and then signed up for Facebook and Instagram accounts as well. He even built a website for the project using tools from GoDaddy.

promote a town

And more recently, Charles Town Now merged with local non-profit Discover Downtown Charles Town to further promote the town and its businesses.

But while he was doing all of this for the Charles Town Now brand, he also was working to help individual small business owners in the community. He tried to demonstrate how each one could benefit from social media. At first, this was met with some resistance, particularly from businesses that had been there for years and had always done well without it. But he was able to open some eyes.

In particular, he recalled one instance where he was demonstrating Twitter’s advanced search feature to a local locksmith. He entered the town’s zip code along with a few search terms including “lock,” “car,” and “Charles Town.” He uncovered a recent tweet from a local resident who had locked his keys in his car at the Charles Town Walmart.

promote a town

Applegate sent a tweet that included the locksmith’s name and phone number to the man. Almost immediately, the locksmith’s phone rang. It worked so well that he thought Applegate had set the whole thing up himself.

There have been plenty of opportunities for Applegate to show off the power of social media to local business owners. He said that over the last year the community has really learned to embrace it as a useful tool. They don’t just use it to promote their own businesses, but also neighboring businesses and the town as a whole.

promote a town

The local businesses have even banded together to host “third Thursday” events downtown each month. Charles Town Now and local businesses promote the events on social media and then host a street fair type of happening each month in the downtown area. Applegate explained:

“It’s all about personal connections. Social media gives you the opportunity to find people and connect with them. And then we have these events and those online connections become personal connections. It’s been a really great thing to see.”


Annie Pilon Annie Pilon is a Senior Staff Writer for Small Business Trends, covering entrepreneur profiles, interviews, feature stories, community news and in-depth, expert-based guides. When she’s not writing she can be found exploring all that her home state of Michigan has to offer.

26 Reactions
  1. Van Applegate is a creative person. He is also generous. Giving back to his community is just one of his valuable assets. I am proud to know him and to have watched his growth in the past few years. Ted Nesbitt

    • That is so great – and that certainly seems to be the case! Thanks so much for reading and for your input!

  2. I really want to do something like this for my hometown. There are many locations that could use some exposure. Usually, it is the locals that know the place well. And with so many people traveling, showcasing the best spots is a good way to guide them to enjoy your hometown.

  3. How big / small is Charles Town? Interesting to see how one individual could make a difference. Has CNN covered this story? 😉

    • Martin, A little over 6k in the city. But we really focus our energy on attracting outsiders. It truly isn’t just one person. I’m working with a group of volunteers, small business owners, and city employees to promote the city on every social media platform possible. We have built a sort of tapestry that reaches all corners of our demo. And as for CNN… No. They are a little busy these days. 😉

      • Van Applegate,

        Thanks for your comment! From the pictures, it looks like a nice place.

        Have you talked with Becky McCray about your work with putting Charles Town on the map?

        I interviewed her on my podcast on September 5, 2010, on BlogTalkRadio.

        I was pulling your leg a bit. I saw your cap! 😉 CNN and the rest of mainstream media is busy with keeping themselves up to date…

      • It is really great to see so many people work together on a project like this though! It just goes to show how one person can start something and get others involved so that it can grow even further. And maybe CNN will cover this one day – you never know!

  4. Great story. It’s exactly what I am doing with my website: Newburgh Restoration.

    • That is so awesome! Good luck to you and I hope this post could be helpful/inspiring in some way.

    • Very Cool. Since this article, I’ve really enjoyed hearing the success stories. And look forward to building a network of sorts to share each others successes and study best practices. Kudos to Newburgh Restoration

  5. This is great! I am doing the same thing where I live.

    I have been building an online presence since January 2014 and now looking at ways to expand and encompass more of the local businesses and the community! Brilliant and well done Van, here’s hoping I can do as well as you!

    • Thank You Andrea. To expand, look for volunteers with the same goals and passion for your town. They can be local business owners, elected officials, or just folks like me who are interested in making the town a more desirable place.

      Engage in all that is being said online about Blackheath. Scour twitter, facebook, and instagram for mentions of Blackheath, it’s businesses and attractions. Promoting the place you live is as simple as it sounds. But you can’t do it all by yourself. Encouraging everyone to be active is the hard part.


  6. The web is being reconstructed. This article was right down my alley. I promote my town, Middlesboro, KY with a magazine called Southern Life. I live in Calif., but my roots and family ties are in that 10,000 town. This article gives me me another direction to take as well. I am working on a venture: Appalachian God, which involves peoples stories to air on public TV or ????? …also, this should help in ad sales in the magazine. Thanks for an interesting article.

    • Sorry…that should have been Gold…..certainly not God.

    • Sounds very interesting! Thanks for sharing. Charles Town Now would love to hear about your progress. We are always looking for ideas and best practices. Best of luck with your new venture, and continued success!


    • This sounds like a great project! Good luck and I’m glad this story could provide some inspiration.

  7. Thank you for your amazing efforts. You have a kindred spirit in young Alec Davis. We were a military family who lived all over and Charles Town is the best.

    Alec is an ambassador of sorts for Jefferson County in that he volunteers for local businesses like Lou Ann Spaar’s Remax, Studio M Salon, Southern Charm and two volunteer Fire Companies, Independent and Citizens, along with the local EMS Agency every week, rain or shine, snow or sleet, emptying their trash.

    He has cerebral palsy, ASD or autism, and a bunch of other labels that don’t describe his committment to contributing to his community. If he can, everyone can.

    These local service providers and businesses quietlly show their generosity and support for people with disabilities throughout the year. If they can, everyone can.

    If you know of any other ways Alec can be involved, let him know at

  8. I went to good ol’ west lib with van! I knew he was talented and that one day we would see him on t.v. So happy for you! Its so nice to see!!!:)) keep up the good work!