Katie Virnig is an independent writer and creator of St. Cloud Shines, an ongoing digital campaign to market the Greater St. Cloud region.

This month marks seven years since I moved to St. Cloud. I wish I could say I loved it from the start, but that wouldn’t be telling the truth. Yes, the person who created the St. Cloud Shines campaign didn’t always think St. Cloud shined, but let me explain myself.

Katie Virnig

I’ve always liked aspects of the community, namely the people and how easy it is to live here. And by easy, I mean we can generally get anywhere we need to go in the Greater St. Cloud area in 20 minutes or less. We can park our cars within a block of our final destination, but more often than not, we can snag a spot right outside the door. The parking spot is usually free or at most a few dollars for multiple hours. That, my friends, is easy. But, I digress.

However, upon moving here, my mindset was admittedly jaded after living in major cities like NYC, Paris and Minneapolis, where a deep well of culture and entertainment was always right outside my doorstep.

It took me six years to realize that Greater St. Cloud DOES have a deep well of culture and entertainment, I just wasn’t looking in the right places, nor was that information being proactively served up to me. But, I wasn’t alone. Based on the conversations I’ve had with hundreds of community members and the subsequent stories I’ve produced in the last 12 months, MOST people don’t know this side of our community. 

Why?

Because it gets overshadowed with negativity.

If I’ve learned anything in the past 18 months, it’s this:

  1. For every negative article published about our community, there are 10+ positive ones that are overlooked. Nothing illustrates this more than scrolling through the Facebook page of your favorite local media outlet. The negative headlines drum up the most engagement. They’re the ones getting automatically served up on the homepage because they’ve generated the most clicks.
  2. Most of the time, the thousands of people who don’t feel negatively about our community don’t want to get involved with the (insert explicit word of choice) feeding the system online. I get it. What’s the point, right? I agree, it’s a waste of energy. Those people would be unhappy anywhere.
  3. The people who are most connected in our community, and have proactively obtained information that allows them to see the bigger picture of what is happening now and what is in store for the future (it’s bright!), are the most satisfied with living here.

I believe this to be true in ANY community, not just Greater St. Cloud. If you are an optimistic person who gets involved in your community and contributes to its greater good, you will feel happier than someone who sits at home scrolling through negative news story after negative news story.

It’s both a blessing and a curse in today’s digital world that we can curate our news feeds. However, the marketer in me knew there was a way we could use this to our community’s advantage.

Whether you’re an optimist and already love Greater St. Cloud, or your feelings about living here are impartial, but you’re not opposed to getting on the ‘I love it here’ bandwagon, you need fuel for your fire. In the same way our wearable devices tell us to drink more water or move because we’ve been seated too long, we need constant reminders served up about our community, too. 

Savannah Pierson

This was the concept behind the St. Cloud Shines campaign, which I launched, with the help of photographer, Savannah Pierson, and the folks at the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation (GSDC) in early 2019. The goal: highlight the people, places, events, organizations and businesses who make our community a great place to be. Share their unique stories in a way that is memorable and meaningful. And share them often!

On an almost daily basis, I’ve curated, written and published these stories on our community’s Facebook and Instagram pages, further affirming that gathering positive content is a non-issue in Greater St. Cloud.

The results have been incredibly positive, motivating and, sometimes, downright heartwarming. I won’t bore you with all the metrics, but little by little, we’ve grown our community’s Facebook following from around 1,000 people to over 6,000 people in 12 months. We’ve grown our Instagram from 0 to almost 1,200 followers. This means thousands of people in our community have consciously chosen to see more positive stories about our community.

This is huge.

In the same way negativity is contagious, positivity is also contagious. The compound interest of sharing a positive story here and leaving a nice comment there is significant. An average consumer sees over 4,000 messages a day. If one of them about our community is powerful and interesting enough to catch their attention, we’re doing something right.

Many people have asked me why the campaign isn’t separated by city: Sartell Shines, Sauk Rapids Shines, Waite Park Shines, St. Joe Shines/St. Joseph Shines, St. Augusta Shines, Cold Spring Shines, Becker Shines.

If you’re a marketer, you’re laughing right now.

But, in all seriousness, this question has come up on multiple occasions: If this campaign is for the entire region, why can’t each entity that makes up the region have its own logo to hang its hat on?

My answer is a simple one: Because we are marketing a region. This is a unified, regional branding effort. St. Cloud is inarguably the centralized business district of Central Minnesota and has the largest population of the three-county area.

If Minneapolis-St. Paul is marketing the greater metro area, Plymouth or Brooklyn Park aren’t saying, ‘Wait, what about our city, shouldn’t we be on the logo?’ Furthermore, if I traveled to a place where my suburb wasn’t known, I’d likely tell people I’m from Minneapolis-St. Paul. It’s a pretty natural way to orient yourself. 

So, although St. Cloud Shines is technically the campaign name, it represents EVERYONE in Benton County, Sherburne County and Stearns County.

A rising tide lifts all ships. And I’m honored to be at the helm of a movement that an entire region is invited to support.

Thank you to all the people who’ve believed in the St. Cloud Shines initiative from the very start and have made my job incredibly easy. And thank you to the people who’ve wholeheartedly opted in along the way. As Margaret Wheatley once said, “There is no greater power than a community discovering what it cares about.”