Championing Social Media in America’s Heartland

Too much planning leads to analysis paralysis, a fatal error in an arena that morphs as continually and rapidly as social media. So a group of optimistic Kansas City social media enthusiasts—interestingly, not a media professional among them—gathered together for breakfast in the summer of 2008 and decided it was time to simply act.

They threw the spaghetti against the wall, and enough stuck to create the foundation of what is now a thriving social media club smack in the middle of America’s heartland.

Kansas City can claim that position with more justification than a lot of other Great Plains cities, being situated near both the population and geographic (48 contiguous states) centers of the United States. The city is variously called “the Paris of the plains” for its many boulevards, and the “city of fountains” for claiming more such water features than any city but Rome. More than two million people live in the greater metropolitan area, nearly half a million them within the Kansas City limits.

The seven chapter founders were using social media as a personal sideline, mostly for fun and relationship building. They began to hold monthly breakfasts that were soon attracting about 30 people, and used Ning to establish an online presence. The nascent club grew organically and started to snowball.

During this first year, the club got three local media agencies and a local software company to sponsor special events. Barkley, Inc. hosted Kansas City’s first TweetUp. Soon after, Perceptive Software donated time and space for a general meetup and discussion of social media concepts and trends. Next, Nicholson Kovac hosted a panel discussion about using social media for corporate and personal branding. A fourth event at Jennings Social Media Marketing [then Jennings PR] featured three breakout groups, for corporate, small business, and personal branding. Each event pulled in about 100 participants.


Adding some structure

By the summer of 2009, the member list had grown to 700, and the club could no longer be managed by an informal leadership. The original seven founders and a few additions held an organizational meeting and established a more formal structure, with a board of directors in charge. Nominations were taken from the SMCKC community and voted on by the membership. The board is made of up a chairman, president, vice president, and treasurer, plus chairs in charge of technology, advocacy, events/awareness, ethics/standards and education/membership.

The founders decided to stagger the elections for these offices. People who accept one of the offices make an 18-month commitment, and every six months there is an election that replaces one third of the board.

“This arrangement ensures both continuity and an influx of fresh ideas,” says Lisa Qualls, the club’s president.

Additional continuity is enabled through the chairman position, which is not an elected office. Rather, the outgoing president becomes chairman. The chairman, who has no operational responsibilities, is charged with overseeing the entire organization and its direction, and playing devil’s advocate as needed.

Great breakfast deal

Social Media Club Kansas City got a restaurant in the heart of the downtown area, the Kansas City Café, to open up for breakfast just for the club meetings, which are the first Friday of each month from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Members get a full breakfast buffet for $6, plus $1 for coffee or other beverage.

“It’s a great value, and helps to encourage attendance,” says Qualls. “We are averaging about 80 people at the breakfasts.”

First, they attend to regular business: New members are welcomed, an officer makes any club announcements, and then members have an opportunity to make announcements. A presentation or training session follows. Topics have included case studies, best practices, and non-profits. The restaurant provides a WiFi connection, and the club live-streams meetings for people who can’t attend in person.

For more informal networking, Social Media Club Kansas City holds happy-hour gatherings most months, at varying venues around the city. The leaders opportunistically rope in special guests at these events; when they heard Jeff Pulver was going to be in town, they threw an impromptu mixer in his honor at a local casino.

Quarterly lunches provide more opportunities for development and networking. Each lunch has a theme—e.g., metrics, privacy, best practices, policies, ethics—and the facilitator assigns each table a topic relating to that theme. The table groups discuss their particular topics separately, and then present their ideas to the entire assembly.

Social Media Club Kansas City also organizes special events throughout the year. These evening events were sponsored by companies such as Blanc Burgers, Verizon and Barkley, Inc. Attendees received informative and best practice information from various mobile leaders, Groupon executives, Yelp, and Applebee’s.


Publicity: walking the walk

The club is publicized chiefly through the Ning-based site and the Social Media Club of Kansas City Facebook page, augmented by a Twitter account (@SMCKC) and a Social Media Club of Kansas City LinkedIn Group. At this time, no formal press releases are sent out. The membership list—1,552 at last count—receives meeting announcements and weekly newsletters via e-mail (thanks to the chapter’s sponsorship arrangement with Emfluence.

The weekly newsletters aren’t just about the Social Media Club of Kansas City. They include items of interest from other business organizations such as the Public Relations Society of America and the American Marketing Association that belong to KC Clubs United, a new umbrella business organization for the Kansas City area.

“We were killing each other with our events, because of all the overlap and conflicts,” explains Qualls. “KC Clubs United is a new umbrella organization that helps us cooperate and be inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s working well, and we held a joint holiday party this year.”

Qualls applauds this development. “I was born and raised in Kansas City, and I love my town,” she says. “I like to think that the Social Media Club of Kansas City, in addition to helping members make better use of social media, is bringing regional and national attention to the local community.”

The local community is certainly taking note: To thank the membership, Paramount Pictures and Allied Marketing on Dec. 11 turned an entire theater over to the club for a private screening of the new Matt Damon True Grit release.

Like many Social Media Club chapters, Kansas City is considering whether to charge dues. The chapter requires none at this point, although the club is currently conducting a survey to determine what the market might bear for admission to at least the special events. Social Media Club Kansas City uses EventBrite for event sign ups.

The club does encourage members to join the parent Social Media Club, and has enough paid members for Official Chapter status. Additionally, three local companies—H&R Block, Nicholson Kovac, and Emfluence—have joined Social Media Club as small business and corporate members.


Advice to other Social Media Club chapters

First, be clear about what you expect from your members. It’s a member-managed organization, and it will be only as good as what people put into it. Explain the benefits and responsibilities of club membership on the club web site or other online hub.

Second, leverage social media channels to the max. If you are going to call yourself a social media club, use social media to promote and run the organization. And use all the major channels, not just one of them.

Exploit Twitter as an information stream. For example, Social Media Club of Kansas City uses its @SMCKC Twitter account to retweet member information and any valuable social-media-related content the members generate. A weekly New Member Monday shout-out introduces new members.