San Francisco chapter celebrates 5th anniversary

Social Media Club San Francisco is five years old this month, and to those of us in relative backwaters it seems to be sitting pretty.  Its namesake city is loaded with cutting-edge digital media agencies and professionals, and the surrounding region is studded with the headquarters of countless high tech and social media trend setters, including Facebook, Google, and Apple.

However, operating in this fertile environment is a double-edged sword, because it generates a lot of organizations with overlapping missions and meeting content.  Social Media Club San Francisco’s leadership team has to navigate through this ever-shifting landscape, and come up with programs that stand out.
It’s a far cry from the early days, when social media was a novelty and the world had yet to hear of Facebook and Twitter.

“When we started the club in 2006, it was all about blogs and their comment threads,” recalls Kristie Wells, co-founder and President of the parent Social Media Club, and interim leader of its San Francisco chapter.  Now we see platforms and tools proliferating rapidly as social technologies permeate every aspect of business.  Sifting through it all is a big challenge, and chapters around the world look to San Francisco for guidance.

“As the flagship Social Media Club chapter, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to set an example,” acknowledges Wells.

Social Media Club founded
The original idea for Social Media Club originated in the Fall of 2005 following the first Barcamp meeting. Wells and then fiancee, Chris Heuer, subsequently created BrainJams, a non-profit that promoted the idea of unconferences and ad-hoc collaboration to a broader audience of non-geeks.  BrainJams connected them to people all over the world andas a result of thousands of conversations sinceWells and Heuer realized their passion for social media was the real reason for what they were doing.  They launched Social Media Club to host the the social media conversation.

“In the Valley, ‘Web 2.0’ was the talk of the town, but it felt like the focus was solely on the tools, not the best practices or more importantly, the people using them,” explains Wells. “Heuer and I were blogging and using new technologies to share content—like photos and videos—easily with family and friends.  But we quickly realized there were many people who needed help understanding this new digital world, so we decided to take the Brainjams concept and rework it with a focus on what Chris Shipley had coined ‘social media.’ Heuer and I wanted to make an impact—not just in our local community, but to help expand digital media literacy around the world, so we regrouped and launched the Social Media Club.”

The first meeting, on August 16, 2006, was basically a brain-storming session about social media—how it was being used by businesses; where it was headed; and how adopting new standards, like the Social Media Press Release, could aid the entire community.  Interplast (now ReSurge International) in Mountain View donated a meeting space, and 16 people came together to share their ideas.  They closed the meeting by making a commitment to spread the word about social media and help others to implement it.

Heuer was dispatched on a 5-city tour—visiting London, New York, Miami, Orlando, and Los Angeles—to discover how others viewed ‘social media’ and get their input on establishing a formal organization to support it.  Local clubs started forming in the wake of these visits, and the global Social Media Club was off and running.

Regular meeting dates: A local requirement
Back in San Francisco the original chapter continued to meet, although somewhat sporadically at first.  Meeting dates were dictated by the availability of a venue and experts who could discuss a particular topic.  

“We continued with this approach for the first couple of years, but eventually decided on a set time and date,” said Wells. “In the San Francisco area there are numerous events taking place on any given night, so there is a lot of competition for people’s schedules. The date consistency helped our members plan ahead, and also informed organizers of other events so we could avoid scheduling on top of one another whenever possible.”

Regularly recurring meetings also help team leaders plan and implement events.  They always know what their target dates are and when they will hit hard deadlines.  

Consequently, Social Media Club San Francisco now meets in the evening on the third Tuesday of the month, drawing a typical attendance of 50-75 people.  The chapter also takes a Summer hiatus from educational events, and instead organizes purely social activities in July and August.

The initial group consisted mostly of agency types and journalists, and marketing and communications professionals still dominate the chapter’s demographics.  But attendance has expanded over the years to include people from other fields, including government, health care, the auto industry, and the music business.  And they increasingly represent roles outside of marketing, such as engineers and CEOs.

Attendees pay $10 if they pre-register, or $20 at the door.  “We always provide food and beverages, so $10 is a real steal for a chance to learn something new, meet other business professionals and get a meal,” Wells points out.  

For the first four years, team leaders would go to Costco for food platters and to Safeway for cold drinks—a very labor-intensive process.  A caterer now delivers the food, but Safeway’s cold-drinks prices are still too good to pass up.

The $10 meeting fee pays for the refreshments, but no more than that.  To cover other expenses, Social Media Club San Francisco offers sponsorships that range from $250 (logo and link
) to $1,250 (exclusive sponsor for a meeting that includes a small speaking opportunity).  The meeting venues are generally in-kind donations from businesses with appropriate meeting spaces.

The content challenge
After some initial experimentation, Social Media Club San Francisco settled on a meeting format that typically has a single topic addressed by a panel of three to five people.

“We have invited single speakers on occasion, but the panel format seems to work better and engage the audience more,” reports Wells.  “And while our initial open-discussion meeting was very productive when there were only 15 of us, it isn’t a very manageable format for larger groups, and makes meetings
difficult to market.”

After five years, Social Media Club San Francisco works hard to find interesting topics that aren’t being covered by other local organizations.  It is difficult—and yet more imperative—to bring in new voices and new topics.  The chapter is also seeing a demand for more niche topics, and for program content that is more advanced.

“Our audience is maturing, so we need to do more for them,” Wells states.

One of the most successful meetings, in late 2008, focused on ethics.  More recently, the chapter returned to basics and put together a panel that looked at broad trends in social media, social business, and social commerce.  The topic at the upcoming September 20th meeting goes to the other extreme:  How social media is affecting the financial sector.

“We have a small group of regular attendees, but most meetings pull in a new group of people attracted to the specific topic,” Wells says.  “The more targeted topics pull in smaller groups, but they can benefit almost anyone.  Topics that are new to you tend to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, by showing you things from a different perspective.”

Social Media Club San Francisco is now planning a meeting that will focus on a particularly hot social media topic: privacy.  As a leader of the parent organization, Wells is encouraging other chapters around the world to talk about this same topic in the same time frame.

“Getting a large percentage of our chapters (over 300 now) to discuss the same topic, at the same time, will allow us to curate all the results, pull out the ‘nuggets’ and publish a report showing what different regions and countries think about privacy. There is gold in that data, and I think this is where Social Media Club can really shine—being able to survey a global community of professionals and extract information to share back with the world. This is exciting to me.”

The parent Social Media Club would like to do a couple of these globally themed meetings each year, and is looking for sponsors to help fund the project.  

Marketing in a sea of tech buzz
“Social Media Club San Francisco is the longest-running Social Media Club chapter, but after five years, three-fourths of San Francisco still doesn’t know we exist,” rues Wells.  “In this town there is never a lack of things to do, and your attention is on demand 24/7.  There are 30 different calendars to get on, and they all use different automation tools. We have never ‘marketed’ the Club and exist solely on word of mouth.

“The bottom line is, people won’t find you here. You have to reach out and get their attention. We need to be better at getting the word out about who we are, what we do and why you want to attend one of our events.” &
nbsp;Two obvious targets in the San Francisco area are the techies and marketers, but that still leaves a huge pool of potential attendees untapped.

Social Media Club San Francisco partners and does some cross promotion with the local American Marketing Association chapter and SF New Tech, and will be working with SF Tech Dems as well.  However, the leadership team knows a lot more outreach is needed.  Organizations in their sights include the local Chambers of Commerce and Public Relations Society of America chapter.

“We’d also like to work with local universities and colleges,” Wells adds.  “We provide an opportunity to learn in a low-cost environment, and attendees who want more advanced education can move on to the certificate and degree programs these institutions offer.”

As noted above, the chapter meetings are promoted largely through word of mouth and social media.  Chapter leaders post information about events via the club’s Facebook page and Twitter account.  After the events, a scribe posts meeting notes on the chapter’s web site, where site visitors are encouraged to interact.

The club also has an e-mail list that now includes more than 1,000 people.  This list is automatically accumulated through the Eventbrite registration process.

“We have different places where people can initiate the sign-up process, but links ultimately take them to Eventbrite,” Wells explains.  “It is a great registration site that helps us capture their e-mail addresses so we can continue to keep in touch.”

Herding cats
Running an all-volunteer organization has been likened to herding cats, and Social Media Club San Francisco is no exception.

“We are the flagship chapter and people look to us to provide an example, but we struggle with this problem too.  Like other chapters we are run entirely by volunteers, who struggle with time and commitment issues.  Ours tend to be involved in startups, and living the crazy lives associated with such enterprises.”

There are currently nine people on Social Media Club San Francisco’s leadership team.  Four of them constitute the front line, with direct responsibilities, and the others provide support.  Responsibilities are split among programming, meeting logistics, refreshments, sponsorships, and social activities.  Wells herself is the “interim” chapter leader—a position she has been trying to step down from for two years.

“The Social Media Club started in San Francisco, so people think I need to be leading the San Francisco chapter. I think it is time for me to take a back seat locally and focus on the parent organization to ensure the .org fulfills its main goals. Also, my voice has been heard for five years now, and it is time for a change. Stepping in as chapter leader is a great opportunity to help drive the vision of Social Media Club San Francisco and make a direct impact on the local community.” And in fact, the two leadership roles—for the parent organization and the chapter—are completely different, and inherently conflict a bit.  

Wells would like to find a new team leader, and also expand the team a bit.  The chapter is looking for someone to pursue partnerships and sponsors, and someone to handle members and take the lead on an organized membership drive.  One big perk:  If you are a paid member of the parent Social Media Club, you can attend the San Francisco chapter meetings for free.

Meanwhile Social Media Club San Francisco encourages attendee participation in the meeting process.
“Even getting people to help set up or tear down the meeting space can help, and it also gets everyone to engage more and assume some ownership,” sums up Wells.  “Our message:  This is for your betterment, so you should find ways to give back.”

Advice to chapters:

  1. Build a local chapter leadership team of at least 3-5 people, as it is easier when you can distribute the tasks. Chapters can be run by one person, but we don’t recommend it as they tend to go dormant when the person gets busy with life/work/family. Ask for help.
  2. Charge a door fee [between $5-$15]. Events take time. Events take money to run. You are providing people an opportunity to learn and to meet other people within the community. You should not be afraid to charge a nominal fee for this to ensure you are not having to pay for the event out of your own pocket. Even if you get the venue for free and the food is covered, charge a door fee [even just $1]. You can always donate the funds to a worthy charity.
  3. Experiment. Experiment with the topics [101 to advanced, general to niche]. Experiment with the format [group discussion, single speaker, panel]. Experiment with the time you meet [breakfast, lunch, dinner or on weekends].
  4. Don’t be afraid to cover the same topic twice; just try to bring a different slant to it.
  5. Crowdsource strategy and tactics by surveying your community [quarterly works well]. Ask what topics they would like to see discussed, and at what level. Ask if the day of the week and/or time works for them. Ask if there are certain speakers they would like to hear from.  Ask what format they prefer. Ask them how you can do better. The last one is key.
  6. Ask your community to participate. Ask them to help you set up, clean up, promote, etc.
  7. Try to mix in a purely social activity now and then. Give your community opportunities to come together and ‘bond.’ It can be a photo walk, a trip to the zoo, visiting a museum, a baseball game, or a pub night. Regardless of the type, social activities are as good as the educational ones.