“Keep Austin Weird” is the slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, so it is no surprise that the Texas state capital was quick to jump on the social media bandwagon. Applying some of the early social media platforms to business seemed weird, indeed.
The social media paradigm shift was embraced eagerly from the outset in this gateway city to the American Southwest, where rapid change is the norm. Austin’s population has been doubling every 20 years, fueled in recent decades by a technology boom.
The seeds of Social Media Club Austin were planted in Austin’s fertile soil in 2006, when public affairs consultant and lobbyist Mike Chapman and Connie Reese recognized the need for a social media forum. They were quickly joined by Cynthia Baker, Chris Leonard, and Conrad Hametner, and the group started to foregather in order to talk about social media.
“Social media is transforming the way we all collaborate, both professionally and personally,” said Kat Mandelstein, club Vice-President. “Social Media Club was the first global organization to recognize this change. The Austin chapter was one of the earliest professional chapters and is one of the largest chapters, tapping into this evolution of marketing communications and technology to achieve greater potential and results.”
“In the beginning, there wasn’t as much formal organization,” admits Vicki Flaugher, club secretary and relative newcomer who started helping to run the chapter about a year ago. “It started out as a social gathering of like-minded Austinites.
“Despite this more casual approach, or maybe even because of it, the founders did a successful job putting on great events and attracting high-caliber speakers. Those speakers shared what was working in social media, what was emerging, and what was dying, and really helped to highlight where education was needed.”
When asked who their biggest speaker has been, past president Mike Chapman said, “Hard for me to single out a certain speaker because we consider them all to be equally important. Since we consider it to be about a conversation, the speaker isn't the key, it's the participation by the group.” Some notable speakers and panel participants include representatives of Google; Chevy’s Fresh Mex; and Austin-based Gowalla, Whole Foods Market, and Apogee Results. The club particularly likes to invite people from the local community who were doing interesting things with social media, and favors using panels over individual speakers.
The panel format enables the club to involve a bigger cross section of the community and expose the membership to more varied social media experiences. Some of the panels are dedicated to a single vertical—such as the food industry, or academia, or health care.
“We like the meetings to be really interactive, and panels are more conducive to this than a single keynote speaker would be,” Flaugher explains. “We let people ask questions throughout.”
As Social Media Club Austin took on a more formal shape, the monthly meetings were standardized on the third Tuesday at 6 p.m. “We didn’t do that initially,” Flaugher comments. “I think having a consistent day and time and place really helps.”
Meetings start off with a formal meet-and-greet at the door, where everyone gets a name tag. The first 20 to 30 minutes are spent networking and enjoying the refreshments. Then there is a panel or speaker, followed by more networking. The entire meeting lasts about 2 hours, and is typically followed by an after-event at a local restaurant.
Walking the Walk
Some 200 people come to the meetings, which are now live-streamed via Ustream.tv so more can attend remotely. Social Media Club Austin has a diverse membership from all walks of life and professions. Flaugher estimates that about half the attendees are social media professionals; another 30 percent fall into the entrepreneur/small business category, and the remaining 20 percent are in education or non-profits.
To raise awareness of the chapter and get people to its meetings, Social Media Club Austin practices what it preaches. The chapter has a Facebook page, a LinkedIn group, a Twitter presence, Flickr and YouTube accounts, and recently launched a new website with the tagline, “part think tank, part curiosity, all new media.” There was a wiki for a while, too, but its use has faded in favor of more interactive and graphically rich options. The club uses email to connect with members and past participants as well, but social media drives most of their connections.
“Word of mouth and social media are what have driven attendance and membership,” reports Flaugher. “We invite people to come and meet some of the social media players in Austin and share some pizza and soda with them. The key to our success is providing a great opportunity to mix with other social-media-friendly people in a relaxed and fun environment.”
Sponsors, not dues
The only charge for these activities is some occasional sweat equity. Social Media Club Austin doesn’t charge dues or admission to events, relying instead on sponsors to provide meeting spaces and refreshments. They originally found backing for one meeting at a time, but now tend to get host sponsors to commit to an entire year.
Bazaarvoice was the club’s 2010 site host; the details for the 2011 location sponsor are being finalized now. The Capital Area Food Bank sponsored and hosted the club’s January meeting, including both a presentation by the Food Bank’s staff and a tour of the facility. In March, during South by Southwest Interactive, the chapter will forego the regular monthly meeting and instead host the SocialMediaClub.org’s first international meeting of Professional-level members.
The dues-versus-sponsors issue continues to be a topic of discussion.
“Some changes might be coming, reports Flaugher. “In the past, the general leadership consensus has been that the meetings should be provided free to the members. Honestly, too, the issue of managing and tracking the money has been a complication. Now, thanks to the structure being provided by our parent Social Media Club (which is now a member-owned 501c6 non-profit), we can look toward to some creative new options.”
A more formal structure
Social Media Club Austin’s organization has evolved from rather loosely defined committees with a leader to a formal structure with a team of officers: president, vice president, treasurer, and secretary. Three formal committee chairs were subsequently added to the leadership team to allow the club to do more and grow faster.
As their names imply, the Sponsors committee scouts for sponsorships, and the Speakers & Programs committee recruits speakers and develops program content for the meetings.
The third committee, Charitable Involvement, is a bit unusual; it is charged with identifying a local non-profit the chapter can sponsor for a 6- or 12-month period. The club has always focused on community outreach and uses its extensive network to do good for local charity groups.
For example, Social Media Club Austin has supported C.A.S.A. (Court Appointed Special Advocates for children) at their Superhero Fun Run; given blood at the Blood Center of Central Texas; and answered the phone lines at the KLRU public television fund drive. Chapter members take the Social Media Club slogan “If you get it, share it” seriously.
Going forward, the chapter leaders want to involve more members in club planning—partly to extend ownership and foster engagement, and partly because there is a lot to do. They are also moving to full-membership voting, as stated in the international Social Media Club bylaws. Up until now, the leadership group was making club decisions and appointing people who indicated an interest to the chapter’s offices and committee chairs.
Chapter members are encouraged to join the parent Social Media Club at least at the free level, and the number of members upgrading to the Professional level is growing. The chapter leadership is considering holding some special events that would only be open to paid members of the international Social Media Club.
“Basically, we have discussed offering local benefits for the paid membership in the international Social Media Club,” Flaugher says. “Our philosophy is that the general meeting has to be accessible to everyone at every level of social media background, from the just curious to people with years of experience.
“But we are seeing a growing need for another tier focused on more experienced professionals. It’s in the formative stages, so nothing’s decided yet, but it’s an idea on the table.” Meanwhile, Social Media Club Austin boasts more paid members than any other chapter, and Flaugher personally considers the dues well worth it.
“I’ve gotten a client from having my profile on SocialMediaClub.org,” she reports.
In conclusion, adds David J. Neff, current chapter president, “Social Media Club Austin is a success because we are able to deliver high quality, essential professional development events for Austin and the surrounding areas. We present a unique opportunity for area businesses and organizations to leverage a highly active demographic by sponsoring an event. They get unprecedented exposure online, through social media, and word of mouth from attendees.”
Advice to Chapter Leaders
First and foremost, advise the Social Media Club Austin leaders, just act! It’s okay if you don’t have all your ducks in a row up front. Put something it there, and welcome people, and see what emerges. More specifically:
- Speakers and formal program content are all very well, but a social media club’s most important role is to provide an open space for everyone to come and talk with peers and network and partner.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for sponsors. Just ask—you’d be surprised how often people say yes.
- Look for interesting and unlikely opportunities to demonstrate how social media is being used.
- Communication among the leadership members is key. Stay in touch, stay informed, and do your best to stay on top of your timeline.
- Have fun and be flexible. You probably won’t be doing it all the same way in 6 months, anyway.
- Some of the best meetings result when there are divergent viewpoints. Mix it up with some controversy.