More is less: SMC Melbourne eschews organizational detail for a lean and spontaneous approach


An episode of the hit sitcom Frasier has the Daphne Moon character musing, “Oh, I love nature’s little aberrations:  warm days in winter, four-leaf clovers, Australians….”  They always seem to do things a bit differently down under, and Social Media Club Melbourne is no exception.

While many chapter team leaders I talk to extol the importance of organization, planning, and redundancy, the Melbourne folks are finding success with an approach most of us would regard as “winging it.”  They don’t have a regular monthly meeting date or location, they don’t plan meetings even one event ahead, events are often announced a mere week in advance, and the individuals on the five-member organizational committee don’t have specific roles.

The last meeting, on March 14, was organized in response to the availability of New York-based media guru Steve Rubel of Edelman, who was in town on other business.  Some 130 Melbournians turned out to see the global strategist for the world’s largest PR firm deliver a thought-provoking presentation on the future of media.  The next meeting is still up in the air.

“Our meetings are opportunistic, driven by the availability of good speakers,” explains SMC Melbourne committee member and co-founder Simon Small.  “One of our major challenges is that the big social media companies don’t have any feet on the ground in Australia, with the exception of salespeople.  So when people come to town, we grab them.

“Locally, we have a hit list of potential speakers that we are always pursuing.”

Meeting local needs 

The local potential-speaker pickings are pretty slim, because Australian businesses have been relatively slow to embrace social media.  While individual Australians have been eager early adopters, the businesses they work for or own have exhibited a complacency born of a lack of local competition and even some de facto monopolies.

However, Internet-driven globalization is now giving a lot of Australian businesses a wakeup call.

“Suddenly, companies we’ve been prodding for several years are coming to us for social media plans,” reports Small, national planning and insights director for digital creative agency Visual Jazz Isobar.

There isn’t much doubt that Melbourne—Australia’s second-largest city with 4 million people in the greater metropolitan area—will rise to the challenge. It is widely regarded as Australia’s cultural center and is at or near the top of global lists recognizing the world’s most livable cities, most innovative cities, and best university cities.  But meanwhile, there is a big need for the kind of forum SMC Melbourne is providing.

SMC Melbourne held its first meeting in November 2009, and the leaders tried a bit more organization at first.  But the organizational overhead was sapping everyone’s resources and patience, so they discarded it for a less-is-more philosophy.

Spontaneous order

Actually, this spontaneous approach—keeping things a little off balance and seeing what emerges—is uniquely suited to the social media arena, which continues to morph rapidly and often unpredictably.  Of course, it can also leave chapter leaders tearing their hair out.

“It’s often completely chaotic behind the scenes,” admits Small, “but we make it work.”  Once when an opportunity presented itself, Small pulled an entire event together in two hours.  This included recruiting a panel of speakers, finding a venue, writing up the summary for Eventbrite, and announcing the event on Twitter (@SMCMelb), Facebook, and the chapter’s website.  The event itself took place the next week.

“It’s amazing how easy it can be if you take this lean approach,” insists Small.

In a little over two years, the chapter’s mailing list has grown to a surprisingly diverse database of more than 1,700 people.  While the club’s target audience at the outset was marketing managers at large and medium sized businesses, SMC Melbourne is also finding traction with small businesses, sole proprietors, IT professionals, and government employees.

Every meeting is a sellout

The way things shake out, SMC Melbourne has a meeting every 6 weeks or so, typically in the evening from 6:30 to 9 p.m.  The setting is usually a bar or restaurant where attendees can get their own beverages and refreshments.  Attendance is limited by the capacity of the venue, and events usually “sell out” on Eventbrite within 24 to 48 hours of being posted.

“We don’t actually charge anything,” Small says.  “We’d like to, to reduce no-shows, but the administrative overhead of handling money is too much extra work.”  Attendee costs are being offset a bit now by SMC Melbourne’s first sponsor, Brandtology, a social monitoring company.

The chapter favors panels over individual speakers, with an MC making introductions and facilitating questions.  Some questions are prepared in advance, but most get culled from tweets (hashtag #SMCMelb) made by the audience.  The questions are aggregated and favorited, and the most popular and appropriate ones get passed on to the panel.

One of the most successful events featured visiting marketing executive Annalisa Bluhm from General Motors and local social media specialist Andrea Matthews from the company’s Australian GM Holden subsidiary.  “They provided a very practical discussion about their good experiences, their bad experiences, and how they would do things differently the next time,” recalls Small.

Another particularly remarkable event assembled a panel of very diverse power bloggers:  Darren Rowse, Duncan Riley, and Pip Lincolne.  They gave the audience tangible, practical examples of what works and what doesn’t in the blogging realm.

Some events do misfire.  One of the big social networks sent a representative whose very dry how-to presentation went over the heads of the newbies and was too basic for the pros, and half the audience walked out. 

The SMC Melbourne team leaders learn from such mistakes and keep a collective finger on the pulse of their ever-evolving audience.  A recent survey indicates that interests are shifting from pure social media to social media as a component of a broader digital media mix, including mobile technologies and gamification. 

Advice to other chapters:

  • Focus on your program content, which is dictated by who your audience is going to be.
  • Don’t fragment your energies.  Give your chapter a focused mission, and don’t go off on tangents.
  • Your team leaders need to be up front about their reasons for getting involved.  You can live with some self-promotion as a motive as long as it isn’t a hidden agenda. 
  • Don’t insist on 100% consensus.  We tried that the first year.  It took forever, and we couldn’t get things done. 
  • Keep the organization simple and lean; don’t complicate things with a lot of overhead.

Photo Credit: SMC Melbourne on FlickR and Facebook