Social Media Club D.C.: It’s All About Networking

If your Social Media Club chapter seems to be getting off to a slow start, take heart: Meetings of the Social Media Club D.C. were attracting just 10 to 20 people at the end of the chapter’s first year, and today the leadership team alone numbers about 40.

“Finding the right balance between consistency and variety—that was key,” says Social Media Club DC President Larissa Fair. That’s a fairly tall order in the diverse U.S. capital, which includes a huge public-sector contingent along with the usual mix of big corporations, small businesses, non-profits, and media companies and agencies.

First, Fair had to learn to ask for help. “If you don’t, people are quite willing to let you do everything—pretty much indefinitely.” (The author can personally bear witness to that!)

Fair was working at Livingston Communications (now CRT/tanaka) at the beginning of 2007 when her boss, Geoff Livingston, co-founded Social Media Club D.C. The first meeting was hosted by the local office of global PR giant Fleishman-Hillard, and attracted mostly technology types and social media professionals.

The chapter held meetings every other month or so, and the agenda typically featured a local social media success story. The highlight that first year was a presentation about the convergence of new and old media by video producer Jim Long of NBC News.

Adding some structure

The club was run largely out of the agency, and when Fair left in November of 2008, she took it with her and started holding consistent monthly meetings.

Fair ran the chapter almost single-handedly throughout 2008, while working full time. Something had to give, and she recruited 10 members to join her on a new management team that divided up responsibilities for events, marketing, membership and the like.

“We modeled it on what we saw other cities doing,” Fair reports. (Take note, chapter leaders: Don’t reinvent the wheel. R&D sometimes stands for Rip off & Duplicate!) “Having a great team working with me has made all the difference.”

Today Social Media Club D.C. has a six-member advisory board that oversees the activities of seven committees: Events D.C.; Events N. Virginia/Maryland; Social Media Breakfast; Sponsorship; Partnerships & Charitable Outreach; Membership & Community; and Marketing & Digital Content. To spread the chapter workload and ownership, each committee has co-chairs, and the entire team numbers about 40.

“Increasing the team size made some things easier, but raises problems of its own,” reports Fair. “The sheer size of the D.C. community is a challenge, as are the number of events going on. There are other professional organizations doing social-media-themed events locally. But we have been around a while, and continue to attract members.”

The Social Media Club D.C. evening meetings now typically attract 50 to 75 members, though as many as 90 sometimes attend. About half are marketing communications and PR professionals, from agencies or in-house. Small businesses and non-profits make up another 30 percent, and about 20 percent are government types.

Metro access and remote access

The meetings are generally on the third Wednesday of the month, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The venues—generally accessible from Washington’s Metro subway/train system—move around among the capital and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Maryland has separate Social Media Club chapters in Baltimore and Frederick, and there are discussions about a Northern Virginia chapter.

The first 30 minutes or so are devoted to networking while noshing on refreshments. Then there is a formal program, followed by more networking. The programs tend to feature panel discussions rather than individual speakers making formal presentations.

“We don’t do a lot of PowerPoint presentations,” says Fair. “We try to have an open format with lots of Q&A, and we find that the panel format is more interactive. We also use event hashtags (#smcdc), and have people tweeting from events so others can follow along, and then we write a follow-up blog post.”

When possible, the Social Media Club DC meetings are live-streamed so people can “attend” them remotely; the goal is to do this at every meeting.

The programs have various themes, such as reaching out to bloggers, mobile communications, crisis communications, health 2.0, and government 2.0. Rank beginners are rare; most attendees are familiar with at least one social media platform, and want to develop best practices and learn how to integrate social media with other marketing efforts.

“But the biggest factor is the networking,” Fair says. “We now have a lot of people who have gotten jobs or clients from coming to the meetings.”

For early birds, Social Media Club D.C. is affiliated with a breakfast series that meets on the second Tuesday of the month. Social Media Breakfast was started up independently in Boston in mid-2007 by Bryan Person, a self-described “morning person.”

There are now SMB franchises around the world; the D.C. breakfast is branded under the Social Media Club D.C., and shares the same member list. These breakfasts are a bit smaller than the regular meetings, and the focus is more on networking and professional development.

Sponsors, not dues

The Social Media Club D.C. encourages members to join the parent Social Media Club at the Professional level, and has enough paid members to qualify as an official chapter.

The chapter itself does not charge dues, and solicits sponsorships to cover at least the costs of the meetings. Ultimately, the club would like to get sponsor funds to cover premium online services, and to send members to key national events.

“Getting sponsors is a challenge, and we rely on our own networks of contacts for that,” says Fair.

The Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association, which stages the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every year, has been hosting CES-followup events that share CES highlights with club members. Other sponsors include the Marketwire newswire service, Discovery Communication, New Media Strategies, and Brunner Digital.

Mixing it up

Some of the events are as much entertainment as anything.

In 2009, the Social Media Club DC held an Iron Chef competition sponsored by the National Turkey Federation. Club members created various dishes containing turkey, which were judged by local food bloggers.

Last year the club staged a sports-and-social-media event that attracted sports bloggers and sports media people. The theme of the meeting was how the web and social media have changed the sports industry.

The chapter also started holding quarterly happy-hour meetings, at which nothing is on the agenda but casual networking.

“We come up with events that appeal to everyone, and each time we draw in new industries or individuals who haven’t attended our meetings before,” reports Fair.

Promoting the Chapter:

The initial promotional effort amounted to traditional outbound marketing: an e-mail list. The e-mail list—now up to 350 names—is still used, both for meeting announcements and a new monthly newsletter.

But e-mail has been augmented by inbound marketing via various social media channels: a WordPress blog, a Facebook page with more than 1,500 “likes,” a LinkedIn Group, and a Twitter account (@SMCDC). And, of course, the all-important word of mouth mode of communication.

“It got a bit easier as the social media field heated up and more people started getting interested,” recalls Fair. “Social media became a big buzzword, and was being used more and more for business, and there were more and more national events promoting it. Our leadership team has done a great job ensuring that the community looks to our club as a networking and educational forum for meeting this growing demand.”

Advice to Chapter Leaders

Now a seasoned veteran in Social Media Club chapter management, Fair shares some of the lessons she’s learned in the past four years.

First and foremost, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Look for people who can offer funding, venues, or some other resource, and avoid people who have hidden agendas (such as resume building with no real intention of participating).

Think outside the box. Chapter events don’t always have to be formally educational; consider an occasional field event. For example, Social Media Club D.C. got the International Spy Museum to host a digital scavenger hunt. Participants were given a list of museum items to locate and tweet about or photograph.

“And remember, your best resources are in your community,” sums up Fair. “That means networking is a huge part of this kind of organization.”