Social Media Club Chicago takes Windy City by storm
My first reaction when I interviewed Jeff Willinger about the Social Media Club Chicago was, “That’s what I want my little fledgling club to be like when it grows up.”
But Willinger’s Social Media Club chapter is working with some enviable resources that chapter leaders elsewhere don’t have. Chicago is the third-largest city in the U.S. (nearly 3 million within the city limits), has way more than a full complement of savvy media agencies and professionals, and is home to a broad mix of businesses of all sizes and kinds.
The chapter got started in October 2008 when co-founders Willinger and Barbara Rozgonyi announced an organizational meetup in a local bar. About 100 people showed up. That’s more than double what a lot of chapters can boast for their biggest meetings after a year of operations.
Clearly, plenty of people in the Chicago area “are thirsty to find out more about social media, especially if they can get some free information,” explains Willinger.
Ensuring quality, not quantity
There are no chapter membership dues, although members are urged to join the parent Social Media Club as individuals. The meetings were initially free, too, and started pulling in 300 to 400 people. The club then started charging $10, using Evite.com for online registration, to eliminate casual attendees who were attracted mainly by the free food.
The club also secures sponsors for a lot of the meetings, charging them $2,500 for the privilege. Past sponsors include the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Domino’s Pizza, social media monitoring company Radian 6, and local restaurant chains Burrito Beach and Wow Bao. Public relations giant Weber Shandwick also sponsored a meeting, using the occasion to feature client Oscar Meyer and its products.
As the club’s reputation spreads, Willinger says, it is getting easier and easier to find speakers, sponsors, and venues. “People are now approaching me—but that took a while.”
Typical monthly meetings now attract 150 to 300 people, and the mailing list has grown to some 4,500. The active members can be categorized roughly as follows: 50% corporate (including media agencies), 40% entrepreneurs, and 10% job seekers. About half are social media professionals who have social media marketing as part of their job description.
The chapter doesn’t employ a user group format at the meetings, with individual members asking the entire group for help with various issues. The gatherings are too big, and sound is too much of a challenge. However, the 2-hour meetings provide plenty of opportunities for member interaction. They begin and end with networking, and in between feature a presentation by a headliner that lasts 45 minutes to an hour.
The organizational structure evolved gradually, after some trial and error.
There is now a board of directors, including President Jeff Willinger, Founder Barbara Rozgonyi, Director of Communications Tim McDonald, and Director of Volunteers Amy Ravit Korin. The parent Social Media Club’s community manager, Jessica Murray, rounds out the 5-member board as a director at large.
The communications director promotes Social Media Club Chicago and its meetings via four major channels: Twitter (@smcchicago), Facebook, LinkedIn, and email. The director of volunteers is responsible for recruiting club members to help with various duties at the events, including check-ins, nametags, and cleanup.
All board members and the membership in general are charged with looking out for potential speakers, sponsors, and venues, but Willinger as president is ultimately responsible for securing them. The club also likes to piggyback on big third-party events that come to the Chicago area.
Leveraging other organizations
There is no other Social Media Club chapter in the greater Chicago area. However, the region sees an abundance of activities by organizations representing advertising, marketing, and public relations professionals—some of which offer social media education at their events.
“Tim and Barbara are particularly good at finding other associations and conventions to partner with,” reports Willinger. “We throw a 'pre-party' where we mingle with their speakers, and they give us a couple of passes to their event. It’s a win-win arrangement.”
Such Social Media Club Chicago partnerships in 2011 include SOBCon, which is holding its next annual conference in Chicago Apr. 29 - May 1.
Advice: Be patient
Social Media Club Chicago’s successes are enviable, but Willinger cautions leaders of emerging chapters to be patient.
“The biggest challenge is getting venues and great content,” he says. Willinger also recommends a lot of inter-chapter cross-pollination and support . He himself has spoken to other chapters located as much as two to three hours away by car.
“The bigger the whole international Social Media Club is, the better for all of us,” he concludes.