Marketing a county is a lot like dating: There's a fine balance between aggressively promoting yourself and sending out subtle signals so prospects will notice you.

The effect of the hard sell, said Larry Rosenstrauch, director of Loudoun County's Department of Economic Development, is a little "like working too hard on a first date to impress someone."

Since Rosenstrauch came to the department 2 1/2 years ago, he and his 11 employees have relied heavily on buzz rather than salesmanship to recruit companies.

That is a big change from the department's early days, said J. Randall Minchew, former head of the county's Economic Development Commission, which reports to the department and to the county Board of Supervisors.

During the early 1990s, "we were doing cold calls," Minchew said. When a building on the Steeplechase property on Route 28 became vacant, for example, board and department representatives called high-tech companies to tell them about the available space. Orbital Sciences Corp. bit and is still there.

Businesses looking for a new location rely primarily on word of mouth, Rosenstrauch said, citing a recent survey of 300 corporate decision makers by the Greater Washington Initiative, a regional marketing organization. Then they look to the media. When Newsweek magazine sent a reporter to the Center for Innovative Technology, a think tank on the border of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, Rosenstrauch sent a staff member -- loaded with statistical reports about Loudoun -- to intercept the writer. Some of the data appeared in Newsweek's "Hottest Tech Cities" edition in November 1998.

The department's marketing challenge, then, is to make sure the buzz does not die.

Considering that it represents the third fastest-growing county in the country, the department has a relatively small budget with which to do the job. The department's budget is about $1 million, compared with $6 million for the Economic Development Authority in Fairfax County, which has more than twice as much commercial space available.

With only about $300,000 in discretionary funds to spend on all of its promotional activities, Loudoun has to be creative.

Most traditional advertising is all but out, Rosenstrauch said. For one thing, advertising is expensive (the department spent $4898.30 and $4187.25, respectively, for full-page ads in two recent special issues of the Washington Business Journal). And as with money spent on political ads, he said, "it's hard to measure the effect. . . . Half of the money is wasted, and you don't know which half."

So Rosenstrauch and his team spend a lot of their time simply getting information out -- via the department's site on the World Wide Web, for example. This week, the department will launch an updated version of its site that will give companies electronic access to the information they want. Documents such as the 1998 growth summary, which lists statistics on population, housing developments, home sales and household incomes, will be available. Companies also will be able to download information on new commercial buildings going up in the area.

Until recently, the department has not used the Web to the fullest, Rosenstrauch acknowledged. "We have a nice-looking site," he said, "but that's irrelevant."

Among his goals is to reach beyond the mid-Atlantic region. "We are too dependent on our neighbors to incubate businesses," he said, referring to businesses that come from elsewhere in Northern Virginia as they seek expansion space and cheaper rents and leases.

"We're spending a lot of time reacting to what's happening," said Robyn Bailey, economic development specialist for the department, "but we would like to be out of the office more."

Gerald Gordon, director of the Fairfax Economic Development Authority, said he spends about one-fourth of his time traveling. He recently returned from Germany where he was scouting locations for another Fairfax County office. Fairfax now has offices in Tokyo and London.

"At any given time, someone [on our staff] is traveling, either nationally or internationally," Gordon said.

Rosenstrauch is just beginning to travel throughout the country. Recently, he and Bailey visited Boston, where their mission was to spread the word about Loudoun. But instead of targeting businesses, they went after potential workers.

They spent a day at Harvard University meeting with department heads to determine the ground rules for recruiting. Most schools allow only companies, not an entire county, to recruit on campus. The Arts and Sciences Department said Rosenstrauch's department would be welcome to rent a hotel suite during job fairs, however, and ask students to meet with them there.

Working with regional groups will be key in bringing more workers to the area, although that kind of cooperation is rare when it comes to recruiting companies.

"It's a very competitive business because only one of us is going to get the tax revenue," Gordon said. He said there have been several occasions when Loudoun and Fairfax have worked together, but only when the alternative would have meant losing the company to another part of the country.

For example, when Loudoun was working with WorldCom (now MCI WorldCom) to finalize plans for the long-distance company to build a campus in the county, the Fairfax Economic Development Authority stepped in during negotiations when the political situation got "dicey," Rosenstrauch said.

When some state officials began to balk at having the company come to Loudoun, WorldCom executives began to voice concerns about the state of Virginia, Rosenstrauch said. The Fairfax Economic Development Authority Commission, which serves as a sort of board of directors for the authority, passed a formal resolution in support of WorldCom coming to Loudoun and worked to smooth over tensions.

"It wouldn't help Fairfax in any way if [WorldCom] left Loudoun," Gordon said, noting that many Fairfax residents could end up working for the company.

Rosenstrauch recruits workers by pitching Loudoun as a nice place to live, and it helps that for the first time, all of the department's employees live in Loudoun. Residency is not a requirement, though, and the situation could change as two new positions are filled.

Paradoxically, the main threat to the positive buzz about Loudoun is the very growth the department has helped foster.

Already, Bailey said, some prospects have expressed concern about the county's direction. For several days after supervisors Chairman Dale Polen Myers (R-At Large) was defeated in the Republican primary last month, Bailey received calls from companies that were moving to Loudoun and were worried that a new "no-growth" mentality would threaten to slow their projects.

Myers, who has since reentered the race as an independent, cites recruiting businesses as one of the main accomplishments of her tenure and calls for recruiting more businesses to help pay for residential growth. Her chief opponent, Supervisor Scott K. York (R-Sterling), has called for a variety of measures to slow residential growth.

Bailey said the calls come less frequently now, and the answer she gives is still the same: "We really have to wait [and see]."

CAPTION: Larry Rosenstrauch, back row at left, director of Loudoun County's Department of Economic Development, and his staff stand in front of the County Government Center. For the first time, all of the department's employees live in the county.