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Small-town club builds impressive local profile

The seeds for Social Media Club Lincoln were planted in February of 2009 when two working mothers with backgrounds in communications and public relations decided to light out for Houston and check out the inaugural Mom 2.0 Summit.

By that time chapter co-founders Christy Nelson and Deb Averett had developed reputations as local social media mavens, and often found themselves sharing their expertise with friends for free.  The Mom 2.0 Summit galvanized them to start their own business—media and marketing agency Toolulu—so they could start getting paid for their services.

It was a first for Lincoln, Neb., a state capital and university town of some 250,000 on the eastern edge of the continent’s Great Plains.  The nearest community of social media professionals and enthusiasts at the time was Social Media Club Kansas City, almost 200 miles away.

“We knew social media was emerging, and we wanted to foster our own local community of practitioners,” recalls Nelson.  “So we met with the leaders of Social Media Club Kansas City and decided to start our own chapter in Lincoln.  Our first meeting was in June 2009, and we’ve been meeting every month since.”

The first meeting of Social Media Club Lincoln was quite informal, and more like a TweetUp.  Nelson and Averett e-mailed invitations to local business organizations, including a young professionals group and chapters of the American Marketing Association and the Public Relations Society of America.


Finding a home

Starting with its third meeting, the chapter formed an enduring relationship with a local nightclub called Red9.  The bar’s business is light mid-week, so the manager agreed to host the monthly club meetings—now on the second Thursday of each month. 


“They’ve been really great,” reports Nelson.  “They have a separate room with a stage and A/V equipment.  People can buy drinks and food if they like, so we don’t have to provide refreshments.”

Unlike most Social Media Club chapters with evening meetings, the Lincoln club gives the nine-to-fivers a break after work.  People don’t start gathering until 7 p.m., and the first 30 minutes is dedicated to networking.  The formal program starts at 7:30 and lasts about an hour, followed by more networking.


The hour-long formal program is divided in half, beginning with a user-group type of forum.  This first half-hour is kicked off by a report from one of the chapter leaders about the latest social media developments, and about specific implementations in Lincoln.  Then the attendees are given an opportunity to talk about what they are doing with social media, and ask the assembly for ideas or for help with problems.

A speaker has the floor for the second half of the hour.  These meeting headliners are drawn from the local community, and have ranged from photographers and videographers to developers and local business owners.

“We try to keep the topics pretty broad, so they will appeal to a wide range of people,” says Nelson.  “The speaker at our February meeting is a local business owner, and talked about leadership.”

The monthly meetings typically attract 20 to 40 attendees, and the majority are not social media professionals.  “There aren’t that many social media professionals in town,” says Nelson.  The bulk of the members have jobs that involve them only peripherally in social media, or are running small businesses.  There are also some graduate students, and some individuals who just want to use social media for fun, to enhance their personal lives.


Awesome Camp—an “un-conference”

In 2010 Social Media Club Lincoln initiated Awesome Camp, an “unconference” based largely on user-generated content.  During registration, people sign up to give talks, which are organized around three tracks:  entrepreneurship, technology, and creative.  The organizers evaluate the proposed talks, and choose the ones to actually schedule into the program.

“Topics ranged from how to get published, to using Twitter to support local causes, to wind energy,” reports Nelson.  “The event was quite successful, although a lot of the people didn’t really understand what an unconference is all about.  Going forward, more of them will.”

The second Awesome Camp is being held Feb. 25-26, and has a bit more structure.  The full-day event on Saturday is being augmented with a networking and registration event Friday night, and the tracks with the attendee presentations are being bracketed by opening and closing keynote speakers.  

Attendees pay $10, which includes lunch.  To cover everything else, the chapter relied on in-kind donations for the first Awesome Camp.  The faithful Red9 donated the conference venue, a facility that can accommodate up to 200 people.  Other sponsors provided snacks and other supplies and services.

For the second Awesome Camp, the chapter has been soliciting cash donations, and set up tiered sponsorships of $250, $500, and $1,000.  Social Media Club Lincoln doesn’t charge dues, and the chapter leaders are hoping to raise money not just for Awesome Camp, but also to support general club activities.

“We anticipate doing these throughout the year,” Nelson says.  “It’s a great way for more of the community to see what we’re doing as a club.”


Organizational challe

Nelson and Averett fill the president and vice president roles for Social Media Club Lincoln.  Because they are also business partners, the duties assigned to each have been pretty fluid.  But they continue to struggle with the “herding cats” conundrum of trying to run an organization with volunteers.

“We had someone else who was maintaining the web site and our social media presence, but then she had a baby,” Nelson says.  “We’ve had some volunteers since, but it’s been hard to get them to do things.  We are a small club in a small town, competing with a lot of other organizations for people’s time.”  

That’s the down side of being in a small town.  The upside is that, once you get a couple of well-connected people on board, word spreads quickly.


Spreading the word

“Lincoln is a really great community for nurturing entrepreneurship and business in general,” says Nelson.  It’s been great to have a lot of support from some of the bigger business leaders in the area.”  The University of Nebraska community has also been quite supportive, and a professor who teaches advertising had Nelson and Averett come and speak to her class.

Results of such outreach efforts include some coverage in the local newspaper, of both Social Media Club Lincoln and Awesome Camp.

The leaders make heavy use of Twitter to promote the chapter, and consequently draw “a lot of Twitter types” to meetings.  There is also a Facebook page with 300-plus fans, and an e-mail list of about 100, and meetings are listed in all the local calendars.  Additionally, club activities get some dedicated space in the newsletter Nelson and Averett put out for their company, Toolulu.


Advice for other Social Media Club chapters 

– Provide great content at your meetings

– Find trusted partners in the community

– Keep it fun and enjoyable for all involved