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Rally on: Group works to better St. Louis' image from inside out

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 15, 2013 - For all the cool things happening in St. Louis, many people, including Aaron Perlut, have felt frustrated that more people don’t realize St. Louis doesn’t suck.

So Perlut, managing partner at Elasticity, a digital marketing and public relations agency, wrote an article for Forbes that went viral and got lots of reaction and agreement, including from his business partner.

The day the after the article came out, Brian Cross sent Perlut an e-mail, which set into motion a project that’s unfolding now.

“Everyone complains about how we don’t properly message St. Louis. They wait for the RCGA or CVC or whoever to foot the bill to create the campaign. What if we turned it around? What if we crowd-sourced the ideas for the campaigns to St. Louis and St. Louis ex-pats? Then we use crowd-funding techniques to raise the money for some of the costs... Whatdayathink?”

Perlut thought yes, and about one year later, Rally St. Louis began. The nonprofit’s working to take Perlut’s message and Cross’ methods wide, using crowd-sourcing for ideas and crowd-funding for capital to market greater St. Louis.

 

“What we saw from my Forbes pieces was a collective agreement from a very broad and diverse group of St. Louisians that they were tired of the way St. Louis had been framed,” Perlut says. “And I think we saw it as an opportunity to harness that frustration and give people an outlet to say, I have an idea.”

So far, about 300 of those ideas have come in. But, for the most part, they weren’t about marketing St. Louis and all the reasons the city doesn’t suck. At least not directly.

“It’s really been about community improvement; 99 percent of the ideas have been about community improvement,” says Perlut.

This month, the top five vote getters from December were announced. As of Jan. 9, more than 24,000 people voted. Next, on to budgeting, then crowd-funding campaigns to see if the people who agreed with Perlut will, in fact, rally.

Social-ized

Mary Ostafi heard about Rally St. Louis from friends, “and then it just started popping up all over social media,” she says. 

Ostafi, founding director of Urban Harvest STL, was getting ready to start a Kickstarter campaign for a big project. When she learned about Rally, though, she thought, “OK, this is much better.”

To date, the Food Roof was the No. 1 vote-getting project in December. The next steps for Ostafi and the other four top vote-getters from December are to meet with people from Rally to work out a realistic budget. In February, the crowd-funding process will start. Ostafi isn’t ready to announce how much they’re hoping to raise in their efforts to build a community rooftop farm downtown, but she’s excited for the process and about what their top spot says about St. Louis.

“I think it says that St. Louis is really interested in sustainability and health and the local food movement.”

The other vote getters from December are pretty diverse and speak, in their own ways, about St. Louis, too. Cotton Belt -- Mississippi Mondo Intervention would create a welcome sign on the Cotton Belt building as well as an art installation; it got the second most votes. No. 3 would bring the National Soccer Hall of Fame back to St. Louis. Project Blacktop, No. 4, would work to beautify urban areas and add functional basketball courts, and No. 5, St. Louis Pick-Up Soccer, would create a centrally located, well-lit place for kicking the old onion bag around year round.

Each month, the top five vote getters will be chosen to move to a funding phase. 

The budget for the top vote-getters each month is worked out with the people who proposed the idea and a team of marketers from different companies, including people from Nestle Purina, the St. Louis Zoo and Anheuser-Bush InBev, Perlut says.

And if you send in money and the project doesn’t get fully funded, you’ll get your money back. Perlut is trying to be realistic, he says, and would be thrilled to see three projects get fully funded in the next year. He thinks that’s a reasonable goal, but this is all a first, he says.

“Nothing like this has ever been done, especially here.”

Not your mama's marketing

Rally St. Louis isn’t really a grass roots project, and it’s not an old-fashioned, top-down, civic leader led initiative, either.

It exists, instead, in the middle.

Perlut started his agency with the belief that you can’t market the way you used to, “and that holds true for a region,” he says. “When you’re talking about economic development, tourism, building the brand of a region, you can’t do that the way you did 10 years ago because technology has changed and consumers have changed.”

In the early stages of the idea, Perlut met with a cross section of leaders throughout the community, from county executives to business leaders to people in tourism and the arts. Everyone added ideas and helped contribute to the concept, and in the process, they bought into the idea.

As a result, the names behind Rally include leaders from the St. Louis County Economic Council, the Regional Commerce and Growth Association and the Convention and Visitors Commission to Kennelwood Pet Resorts and Coolfire Media.

Rally wanted to socialize their concept, Perlut says, and he told the civic leaders that while their participation was wanted, once the ideas were submitted and people started voting, they wouldn’t have control. 

“To my great surprise,” Perlut says, “everyone was OK with that.”

Perlut thinks of the folks behind Rally as curators, now, working on a social experiment to bring out great ideas for St. Louis.

Those include planting wildflowers in vacant lots and painting murals at the entrances to the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

Rally St. Louis isn’t soliciting support from big companies, but Perlut says they’re open to it and would be thrilled with the prospect of organizations embracing projects. But that’s not what they’re asking for.

“This is meant to be a community project,” he says. “Hopefully we can make it work.”

Rally St. Louis is one of a number of new ways people are working to raise money through crowd-funding for civic projects in St. Louis, though certainly in their own very different ways.

Karl Guenther, a co-founder of InveSTL, thinks Rally has a number of positives.

“It’s a good avenue for people to dream and to think about things and incite action,” he says.

“I think anything that raises the collective awareness of a community and gets people off the couch and engaged is a good thing,” agrees Travis Sheridan, co-founder of OverFundIt

And while the original purpose of Rally was marketing St. Louis, both think improving the city through civic projects could end up being its own kind of marketing. 

The more St. Louis improves its assets, the better places there are to go here and the more things there are to do, Guenther says, the easier it gets to tell people about St. Louis.

Ostafi agrees.

If St. Louis is innovative and progressive, “that’s gonna market itself.”

The possibilities

Michael Powers’ idea for Rally St. Louis came in sixth in December voting. Lighten Up St. Louis would work to “to improve neighborhood safety by installing sidewalk-facing pedestrian lights to the existing cobra head street lights on major thoroughfares,” according to its proposal. 

Overall, the process of competing in Rally has been very competitive, says Powers, a neighborhood improvement specialist for Ward 21 of St. Louis. Many of the successful ideas were well organized and had existing networks to call on for support. Powers worked hard reaching out to neighborhood associations, e-mailing, meeting with people and getting the word out through social media.

Though his idea hasn’t gotten through yet, the process has helped Powers share his concept with lots of other people.

“They allow you a platform to do direct marketing and to reach people you would not reach on your own with your own resources,” he says.

And because voting continues each month, new projects have the chance of making the top five and moving to budgeting and crowd-funding throughout the year.

Perlut’s seen something else from the process that’s been unexpected. “I’ve seen a marked change in the level of collaboration in this city through this,” he says. “And it’s been really nice. Everyone we’ve talked to about this has been interested in playing a role, in helping out.”

And that, ultimately, may be what’s most significant about the process. 

Ken Harrington is the managing director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Washington University, and he’s seen a growth in crowd-funding methods spread. 

None of them really provides enough money to establish a business or to make a social enterprise successful on its own, he says. 

But what crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding projects are doing is creating a social fabric that’s collaborative, one where people meet other like-minded people they can work with, one where ideas get tested and make it or not.

People often focus too much on raising money, not on building a collaborative environment, he says. 

But when you create an environment for innovation, those innovations will occur. And when those innovations occur, he says, “then resources flow to the better ideas, and things can get started.”

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