Chapter puts travel destination Victoria on social media map

The Canadian city of Victoria, like many western outposts, has its roots in the gold rushes of the 19th century.  Today this Pacific gem and capital of British Columbia is mining digital riches, combining a strong tech industry with tourism, government, commercial fishing, shipbuilding, forestry, and agricultural research sectors.

Such diversity has cushioned the water-bound island community from the global recession somewhat, and provides a rich environment for a Social Media Club chapter.  In fact, Victoria was the first city to proclaim June 30 its own Social Media Day, in conjunction with Mashable’s global event of the same name.

The seeds for Social Media Club Victoria were planted when one of the metropolitan area’s 345,000 residents—web developer veteran Paul Holmes, president of IdeaZone—started following the social media phenomenon in its early days and became fascinated.

“I gave MySpace a pass, but when Twitter came along that was it,” recalls Holmes.  “I hunkered down for four to five months and built connections—particularly to local people.”  He started getting invitations to speak at various events, and in 2008 discovered the Social Media Club.  Holmes and social media specialist and blogger Catherine Novak decided Victoria was ripe for a local chapter, and Social Media Club Victoria held its first meeting at the University of Victoria on March 24, 2009.

“We put together a Twitter account (@SMCVictoria) and a Facebook page, and kind of ran the chapter ourselves for the first year or so,” says Holmes.  He was paying for the meeting spaces and coffee largely out of his own pocket.

Paying it forward

In sharp contrast to people who join chapter leadership teams expecting immediate new-business payoffs, Holmes has a patient, pay-it-forward philosophy.  His efforts on the part of Social Media Club Victoria have given him and his company considerable visibility, and there have been other spinoff benefits.  

Holmes runs WordPress’s local WordCamp—another activity that doesn’t make him any money directly, but has been “fantastic” for his business.

Holmes and a partner also developed a two-day Social Media Camp that is held annually in Victoria.  It has no formal relationship with Social Media Club Victoria, but the two organizations do some cross-promotion.  And the parent Social Media Club has been a partner on the last two camps.  “It’s turned into an awesome event, and Social Media Club Victoria sort of planted the seed for it,” says Holmes.

The connections from Victoria’s tech industry combined with its status as a premier vacation destination help attract big-name speakers as well as attendees from all over the continent.  People can schedule a vacation around the camp and write off the trip.  Camp attendance has been increasing each year, and Chris Brogan is the headliner next year.

Meeting local needs

Social Media Club Victoria’s meeting attendance was initially fueled by an insatiable appetite for this hot new phenomenon, and Holmes and Novak found that a growing audience was coming regardless of the speaker or topic.  Novak herself spoke at the first meeting; other speakers included a copyright expert and a security expert.  Attendance topped 100 at some of the events.

“But in the past year, our regular attendees started dropping off, and new attendees were being drawn in by a particular topic,” Holmes says.  “So this fall we are going to incorporate a networking component, and give Social Media Club members each 3 to 5 minutes to present themselves and their businesses.”  The networking is followed by a formal speaker or panel. 

Meanwhile Holmes and his team needed a rest, and put Social Media Club Victoria on hiatus for the summer.  They are re-launching on Sept. 19 with a “social media 101” event aimed at people who need help with the very basic fundamentals.  “We did one last year, it was our most popular meeting,” Holmes reports.

Regional differences mean that different chapters will have different needs.  While Victoria’s economy is diverse, it is fueled mostly by small businesses, which tend to be less social-media-savvy than large enterprises.  So, even though technology represents the region’s biggest industry sector, there is a continuing demand for basic information about social media.  “You have to match these local needs with what your volunteers are willing to do,” advises Holmes.

The biggest challenge is coming up with enough volunteers who bring the right skills, expertise, and contacts to the table.  “You can run something like this by yourself for a bit, but that can only go on for so long.  Fortunately, we have had some great people step up to the plate this year.”

More leaders and more structure

Holmes is now creating a more formal structure, building a team around the guidelines of the parent Social Media Club, and providing for some backup.  Offices include a president/promotions director; a vice president/programming director; a vice president/membership director; a secretary/partnerships director; a production/volunteers director; and a treasurer.  There are also some directors at large who can provide backup and be assigned specific tasks as the need arises; and two student liaisons representing Camosun College and the University of Victoria.

Social Media Club Victoria now meets on the third Monday of the month at the University of Victoria, after bouncing around among different venues for a couple of years.  The campus facility is equipped with audio/visual equipment and an Internet connection.  Meetings start at 6:45 p.m., which gives people a chance to eat dinner beforehand so the chapter doesn’t have to bother with refreshments.  “We did have a coffee sponsor last year, but we
don’t now, and people don’t seem to mind,” Holmes reports.

The meetings used to be free, but Social Media Club Victoria now charges $5 at the door to help defray expenses.  Pre-registering with Eventbrite isn’t really an option, because while the service is free for free meetings, it is proportionately very expensive for low-cost events.

The chapter’s first meeting was publicized almost entirely through Facebook and Twitter.  That raises the bar for potential attendees by filtering out people who aren’t even a little engaged already.  The chapter also added a blog and a LinkedIn group.  However, Facebook stopped doing event notifications last year, and attendance fell off a bit.  The chapter has now augmented its social media marketing with an e-mail database for sending out meeting announcements and reminders.

A couple of radio stations also provide free radio spots for meeting announcements, and the chapter takes advantage of the free calendar listings in the local newspaper.  But Holmes and his colleagues have noticed a diminishing effectiveness from these traditional media channels—presumably because people increasingly are using social media to find out about social media events.

All in all, “things are looking good,” sums up Holmes.  “We have more than enough directors, and some fresh blood with some new skills.  We now looking at video production—we might start live-streaming meetings, or at least making replays available.”  

Advice to other chapters:

  •  Try to build a community that reflects your local brick-and-mortar community.  Leverage what is already there—which will be different for each locale.
  • Assemble a leadership team big enough to achieve critical mass and take off and keep on going.  You want to be able to drop people who are just self-serving and not really contributing much.  Have a standard and hold people to it.
  • The world changed a lot since the first Social Media Club chapters were launched a few years ago.  The number of people who will show up for anything with “social media” on it has peaked.  Some markets are hitting saturation points, and if you are in a saturated market, you have to figure out what role a Social Media Club chapter can play in the local ecosystem of organizations and events.  Is it education?  Or a forum in which social media experts can exchange ideas and push each other?  Or what?
  • Work with other groups and individuals in the community; don’t compete with them.  Victoria has a Tweetup/Meetup group that attracts up to 200 people to its gatherings.  The region also has a WordPress user group and a Pecha Kucha group.  “Some really cool events are filling up people’s calendars,” Holmes says.  The challenge is to make them all more synergistic than competitive.