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A short history of marketing, courtesy of Brian Cross, a founding partner in the St. Louis public relations firm Elasticity:
First marketers walked around in sandwich boards, but nobody stopped to look. So they started plugging products house to house, but nobody answered the door.
Eventually email arrived—but tech whizzes made sure promos were flushed down the spam hole. The Internet offered popups, but geeks created software to block it.
“Every time marketers came up with something new,” Cross says, “there was another technology to stop that, because we do not want to be marketed to.”
So what’s a Mississippi River municipality to do if it wants improve its image as flyover-ville? Create a movement that draws on the powers of crowdsourcing through Rally St. Louis, a Kickstarter-like site that helps citizens find ways to improve their hometown.
Not only did it engender good will (along with proposals to send a beer trolley around town and string up a zip-line across the Mississippi River to Illinois), it also reaped a PR bonanza for the city, Cross says in a brief case-study video, “Get in the Game: Create a crowdsourcing movement—and score major media.”
This video clip is excerpted from the session, “Get in the Game: Create a crowdsourcing movement—and score major media.“
The New York Times takes note
Among a multitude of media successes was a New York Times piece titled “‘Tweet Me in St. Louis’ Is This Web Site’s Goal.”
The website enables citizens of the Gateway to the West to propose changes to their town; then people vote on them, Cross says. Ordinary Joes and Janes can pose questions along the lines of: Wouldn’t it be awesome if we:
- Had a beer trolley driving around St. Louis?
- Hung swings everywhere, so that you could take a break from your hectic lifestyle and sit there lifting your legs up and down, up and down?
- Decorated every underpass in St. Louis with a colored light display?
- Strung up a zip-line across the Mississippi River, so people could swoosh across to the home state of Ragan Communications?
Cross says fellow Elasticity partner Aaron Perlut got the ball rolling with an article in Forbes, somewhat defensively titled, “St. Louis Doesn’t Suck.” The article complained that efforts to galvanize public opinion have been limited by infighting and a silo approach.
In courting journalists, Rally St. Louis had the advantage of being a living campaign, not just billboards and brochures. Instead of waiting for the mayor or Chamber of Commerce to take action, the plan encouraged citizens to jump onboard and do something. Everyone in the media knows (but publicists sometimes forget) that when something’s actually happening, it’s much more likely to draw journalists’ interest. And Rally St. Louis was dynamic.
“You need to be real time with it,” Cross says. “You don’t set in motion a marketing plan in motion and do nothing and watch it for the next 12 months. You constantly need to evolve and move with it.”
Rally St. Louis challenged citizens to think beyond going to their city council to beg for urban improvements.
“Why don’t you come up with your own ideas?” Cross says. “And then, why don’t you fund your own damn ideas? And you can get it done. No one can stop you then.”
Folks in St. Louis liked the idea. They created a nonprofit, so that donations to Rally St. Louis are tax deductible, and raised $250,000 to get the initiative off the ground, much of that going to advertising to boost the site’s awareness, the Times reported.
Once citizens propose an idea, it goes to a committee that will consider it in detail, Cross says. Well, how much money would it cost to have a zip-line to the Land of Lincoln? Does Illinois have to be part of this? (Our best guess: Might be a good idea, unless you plan to string your zip-line all the way to Indiana.)
If the committee approves an idea, Rally tells backers how much cash they must raise, saying, “Hey, St. Louis, you voted for this. Put your money where your mouth is. You put money into it, we’ll do it,” Cross says.
The campaign has had 60 media hits from around the world, and it has drawn 12.8 million impressions. Some 6,000 people have registered for the site, and hundreds of ideas have been submitted.
Best of all, people in other cities are writing articles saying, “Look what St. Louis is doing. We should be doing something more like this.” Some of those are coastal cities, where the tone sounds a little miffed that St. Louis thought of this first.
What’s being funded? A nonprofit proposed creating urban farms on rooftops, and raised $33,649 on Rally St. Louis. Others voted and contributed $23,170 toward painting a giant old building on the waterfront. A student saw empty parking lots in bad parts of town and proposed erecting basketball hoops on them. He raised $10,330 to erect one as a pilot project.
For a PR guy like Cross, one of the most satisfying moments was when the movement was highlighted as one of 10 outstanding marketing campaigns internationally.
Chuckles Cross: “As much as I love to go, ‘Ha-ha, the coasts think we’re cool, now I can say, ‘Ha-ha! France thinks we’re cool.'”