Baltimore and social media: A perfect fit

By the spring of 2010, social media enthusiast and Baltimore resident Amy Phillips was tired of driving all the way to Washington, D.C. when she wanted to attend a Social Media Club meeting.  Baltimore was certainly big enough and digitally savvy enough to support its own chapter, so Phillips—by day a SharePoint developer for Booz Allen Hamilton—linked up with PR professional Daniel Waldman and started building one.

Actually, the City of Baltimore and social media are a perfect fit.  Like many former industrial centers, Baltimore is rebranding itself as a service economy.  But unlike most of them, “The Charm City” has a lot of non-virtual material to work with.

Founded in 1729, Baltimore is located along the Chesapeake Bay—actually the largest estuary in the U.S.—and is the closest Atlantic seaport to major Midwest markets.  After the collapse of its industrial base in the mid-20th century, the city regrouped and in the late 1970s set a standard for urban renewal with the redevelopment of its Inner Harbor.

Now a scenic waterfront retail magnet renowned for its seafood, the Inner Harbor is joined by numerous historic neighborhoods that give the modern metropolis a provincial feel.  Visitors are constantly reminded of the major role Baltimore has played in U.S. history; a sentimental favorite is the Battle of Baltimore, a turnaround American victory in the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Start with a meet-and-greet

A city’s brand is really an aggregate of the brands of its constituent enterprises, which is where Social Media Club Baltimore comes in.   Phillips and Waldman—who has a wealth of local business contacts through his Evolve Communications PR firm—assembled a board of eight fellow social media enthusiasts and kicked things off with a happy hour meet-and-greet event in July of 2010.  

By this time Phillips, a blogger who does professional blog design through her Social Pollen consulting business, set up a web presence and Twitter account (@SMCBalt) for the chapter.  The chapter leaders did not establish regular monthly meetings, opting instead for a more flexible ad hoc approach.

“Meetings depend on when key presenters are available, and when event managers can organize them,” explains Phillips.  “Also, if you always meet on the same day each month, you are going to miss a whole segment of potential attendees.”

The meetings with formal presentations are generally breakfast events held at restaurants, starting at 8:30 a.m. and running about 90 minutes.  Attendees register via Eventbrite, and pay $10 to cover the cost of the meal.  Less frequently, the chapter holds purely social happy-hour events at the end of the work day, starting at 5:30 p.m.  

The meetings attract 20 to 40 people, with digital media professionals predominating.  There is a core group of a dozen or so, and the rest vary depending on the meeting topic.

Panels are preferred

“For program content, we prefer panels over individual presenters,” Phillips says.  “The panel format helps to foster lively discussions and avoid sales pitches.”

The most recent meeting, on August 11, featured a panel of bloggers headlined by Jill Smokler of Scary Mommy fame.  It set a new attendance record, and also attracted the sponsorship of Gramophone, which provided the venue and refreshments.

Previous panel topics include:

  •  Social media and crisis communications
  •  How social media is transforming the hospitality industry
  •  Women in social media
  •  Exploring the mobile social web

Social Media Club Baltimore uses Blue Sky Factory’s Publicaster e-mail marketing software as a key part of its promotion efforts.  An e-mail newsletter lets people know of upcoming events, and the e-mail list is sometimes used as part of a sponsorship package.  Events are also promoted via the chapter’s Facebook page and @SMCBalt Twitter account, which has some 1,200 followers.

The chapter leaders have occasional board meetings—either in person or via teleconference—and also use Google Groups.  Some of the board members rotate as event managers for the meetings.  Offices covered by the rest of the board include promotions, sponsorships, finances, and web presence.    

Keeping these offices filled is the biggest challenge Phillips and Waldman see going forward.  As all of us who run Social Media Club chapters—or any other volunteer-staffed organizations—have learned, board members who are committed, enthusiastic and self-motivated are worth their weight in gold.

Advice to chapters

  • Put together a strong board that can commit to the time.  Don’t just take warm bodies to fill out the roster.  And choose people who know a lot of people.
  • Let your community know you are there—a local resource that can help businesses exploit social media.  Reach out to local technology reporters, technology companies, and social media professionals.  Get on lists of local events, and coordinate with Tweetups and other social-media-oriented groups.   
  • Forge a relationship with your local newspaper early on.  You need each other.  The Baltimore Sun was an early supporter of Social Media Club Baltimore, which proved to be very beneficial.