Friday, September 26, 2008

Attention Social Media 'experts', we need to stop pontificating, and start teaching

Back in March, I attended my first South by Southwest, and honestly loved the conference. The main reason why I loved the event was because I got to meet so many people that I had connected with in the blogosphere and other social circles. I was warned beforehand that 'you don't go to SXSW for the panels, you go for the people', and that assessment was spot-on. There were hundreds of panels, and I could really only find 10 or so that seemed even slightly interesting. And the panels themselves seemed to be little more than a group of social media 'rockstars' giving their opinions on a topic in a very large room, then after an hour it ends, everyone moves outside, where the 'rockstars' hob-knob with each other, and the rest of us mingle.

But a month later, I attended the first SBMU. And the difference in the two events couldn't be more glaring. Speakers actually attempted to TEACH attendees how to use marketing and social media tools. Speakers actually interacted with attendees. Speakers didn't use the event as a way to promote themselves, they used their time to educate and inform. When sessions ended, the hallways were lined with speakers firing up their laptops and working with attendees to help them with their website/social media/branding issues. Meeting a Chris Brogan or Pistachio is (and was!) great, but that look of sincere appreciation in the eyes of a small business owner when they say 'Thank you for taking the time to explain this to me!' is priceless.

And it caused me to change the way I think about which conferences I will be attending and speaking at, moving forward. It's no coincidence that the three conferences I'll be speaking at this fall, are all heavy on teaching. I specifically wanted to speak at SBMU-Columbus, the Marketing Profs Digital Marketing Mixer, and Learn About Web, because all three events are run by people that understand that it's not about putting 'rockstars' on stage, it's about teaching people how to use these tools to grow their businesses. It's about creating the session topics first, then picking the speakers. Not bringing in 'rockstars' and telling them they can speak about whatever they want, if that's what it takes to get them to agree to come.

Remember guys, it's not about us, it's about everyone else. We talk about how social media is all about sharing and connecting, so do we really mean that? Do we spend our time teaching, or do we spend it trying to be 'seen' with the 'right people'? I fear that many companies are getting the impression that the best way to use social media, is to use these tools in the exact same way that Scoble and Jeremiah Owyang do. That everyone is a bleeding-edge early adopter, and that they have to know every new social site/tool immediately. That's partly our fault, because instead of investing time to actually TEACH these companies how to use these tools, many of us are busy following around the A-Listers as well. Not every business should be blogging and on Twitter. But every business SHOULD know enough about these tools to decide for themselves which ones, if any, they should be using. We should be spending more time educating these businesses on what these tools are, and how to use them properly as a channel to communicate and connect with their customers.

Let's stop being 'broadcasters' and stop worrying about being 'rockstars', and spend more time sharing our knowledge and helping others that want to use these tools. Many of us are doing this already, but as a whole, I think we can, and should be doing more.

What do you think? When you go to marketing/social media conferences, do you go to learn, or to meet your favorite bloggers? Let me know what you think, I've only been to a few conferences, but this is the impression I have gotten from the ones I have been to, and from talking to others that have attended other events.

I think social media conferences should be focusing more on teaching and sharing knowledge, and less on 'rockstars' and chasing A-Listers. Agree or disagree?

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for a TON of great comments, like this one from Geoff Livingston: "Besides expertise is best honed by teaching others. Frankly, you learn more that way." Exactly.


Ike said...

Mack, you nailed it here.

The emphasis goes even beyond "teaching," it extends to Listening.

If you go to make a 45-minute presentation and you have 45-minutes of material, then you are not Listening to your audience. They need to be able to ask about specifics of application, because as you so rightly point out, we all don't use the tools the way the A-Listers do.

We're beyond talking about Why and Theory. It's now a matter of sharing real ideas about how you use these things to solve real problems and overcome real hurdles.

That takes guts from a presenter's point of view, because it opens the door for someone to ask a question you hadn't considered.

I Can't Keep Up said...

Thanks for this Mack. Learning is key to me. Having a forum to meet rock-stars, well....I have never been an star worshipper. If there are other folks there learning too- then there is the networking forum and I think we all gain a lot that way.

I am glad you promoted the three conferences you will be teaching at, but are there any that you won't be at that you think are worth a try? I am thinking that if I have any scheduling conflicts, I would like to know what other options are out there.

And, thanks again. Several people have asked me about the best conferences to attend. Now I can send them this post.

Mack Collier said...

Ike I lost count on how many times I heard 'I really appreciate you taking the time to explain this to me', or 'I know you are too busy for this, thank you for spending some time with me!'. And I heard this at the first SBMU as well, and it really worries me, because these people paid good money to come to a conference, and then they are overjoyed if you actually take the time to talk to them.

It's really sad that attendees get excited because a speaker is willing to take some time to help them with their unique situation. Funny, I thought that's why we speakers were supposed to be there in the first place?

Chelpixie said...

Podcamp Boston focused on the conversation in the hallways because a lot of folks said the best stuff they learned happened when sitting down, chatting and getting advice from others.

Instead of presentations, I prefer to explain what we're attempting to do in a session and opening the floor for questions model. Learning from one person or a panel is great if they have something new to teach us.

With all of the different ways of using tools and a good number of us knowing how they work, it's our turn to teach others. Helping others is where the fun really begins.

Jane Chin said...

I've not followed the evolution of how one became an "A-lister" but I wonder if at the beginning, the A-lister precursor (A-Lister grasshopper?) started out using social media the desirable way... engaging in conversations, learning about what others want from products and services.

... and then they write a book or become speakers on this topic and become the victim of their own success.

Now they have speaking engagements to promote, books to sell, marketing tours of duty to make.

Hey Mack, I'll be looking to you to keep me in line down the road! ;-)

David Burn said...

When I first went to South By there was discovery in the panels. That's where I met the authors of "Digital Aboriginal." But it seems to have changed since. So much so, I doubt I'll attend in '09.

As for the rockstar effect, and the need for self-promotion, I don't think there's a way to rid ourselves of it. It's human nature that we form a pack and select leaders.

Marc said...

Wow Mack, I'm so glad you wrote this. I've written 2 maybe 3 posts on this exact subject; and maybe my 400-500 readers arn't A-listy enough to get it because I'm not considered "a voice" but I certainly know exactly where you're coming from.

I noticed the A-list phenomenon about a year and a half ago and saw it in full view when I went to Web 2.0 expo. i.e. Ok I've spent 44minutes talking now lets open up the last minute for questions...before I run out and hang with my remora like friends and worshippers.

As Ike said, The A-listers are using the tools differently; they're all about egos, appearances, breaking news, and new and shiny web 2.0 apps. Whereas everyone else is asking what Twitter is.

We need to get away from the echo and we need to get away from the worshipping and get down to utilizing social media quickly. Now more than ever, your post resonates. Thankyou.

Sonny Gill said...

Great points here Mack.

I appreciate the smaller conferences as they are typically more tight nit and personal. You better connect with people, not at parties, but on an educational level during the conference tracks. You're taking things back to the desk to research or implement.

When you attend a larger conference that does that, you know they got it right. Its great to hear how MarketingProfs sets up their speaking gigs and should really show in the quality of the event next month.

Robert said...

I think you make great points, Mack. As excited as I am about social media, I'm still pretty new to it, which I think is true of most people, given that SM is a new industry. And like many relatively new industries, it seems that there is a bit of a mentality of trying to sit at the cool kids table in the cafeteria. I suppose building communities are at least partially about who is in and who is not - otherwise, the communities would not be defined or cohesive. But, to your point, it would be good to be able to give others the tools to define their own communities without a subculture of celebrity creeping in. There's enough of that in our culture already.

Thanks for the post!

An Bui said...

Hi Mack,

I found your blog through Craig Sutton, and I'm glad I did. I'm of the same mind - that teaching/learning to empower people about available resources is a HUGE part of interpersonal connections.

There's a startup in Seattle called TeachStreet, which connects students to local teachers, tutors, classes, and schools to encourage life-long learning. They're an organization that values knowledge exchange, which makes them a great resource for find others who are interested in teaching and learning. Be it social media, startups/entrepreneurship, or piano, finding others who have the same values is a challenge.

I'm always looking to meet others who value learning as much as I do, so thank you for letting us know about the learning-centric conferences. I hope I've given you thoughts about another possible resource to explore. :)

Mack Collier said...

Chel and Sonny, I agree, I think you get more of that learning aspect at the smaller events. I think the larger ones try to attract bigger crowds by having bigger name speakers, and many times they just want to swoop in, speak for an hour, grab a check, and get out. Doesn't really do much for the audience, IMO.

David I should clarify that I am planning on attending SXSW next year and very much looking forward to it. But I am going to reconnect with old friends, and to meet up with new ones. And of course 'everyone will be there'. But as far as learning goes, that's just not why I'll be there.

An, speaking of Craig Sutton, it looks like we will both be speaking at Learn About Web? Can't wait to hear more about TeachStreet, sounds like an interesting initiative!

Brad Mays said...

Well said, Mack. I'm going to start improving my posts with this perspective. Many times we get caught up in the theory behind what we do on a project that we forget that the value is in the moment we found the bridge between assumptions and hunches to the point of action.

As social media professionals, we should shine a light on how we connected the dots in our daily work to help others more easily connect those dots for themselves.

Amber Naslund said...

"We should be spending more time educating these businesses on what these tools are, and how to use them properly as a channel to communicate and connect with their customers."

Yes, yes, and more yes.

As you well know, I think we've gotten a little dazed by the idea of "social media" in general and all the bright, shiny things that it's supposed to be. But somewhere in there, we're forgetting what these things are supposed to DO - build brands, grow businesses, help people connect.

Thanks for reminding us that the HOW is every bit as important as the WHY, and everyone's HOW is going to be unique to them and their business.

Amber /@jerseymomma said...

Wow- I inspired Mack Collier?!

Super humbling ;)

Like I said at Small Business Marketing Unleashed, Blog World was GREAT for networking. I met some amazing people for which I have no regrets.

At the same time, I sat there as complete strangers wispered to me, "Are you hearing anything that you didn't already know?" and those same people physically got up and walked out of the room. A handful of people expressed their disappointment to me, and after doing both conferences back to back, I was able to see why.

I totally believe if you are a small business owner just starting out in social media or even a mommy blogger interested in monetization, BWE is not the place for you.

That is the sole reason our sparkplugging team created . Entrepeneurs, Solopreneurs and small business owners don't have a ton of money to learn this stuff and they need direction/skills FAST, rather than an A-lister talking at them from a stage.

Kudos to Jennifer Laycock of Search Engine Guide and the rest of her crew for creating a conference that meets the needs of us little guys out there ;)

Connie Reece said...

Mack, you preach such a good social media sermon that I want to shout "Amen!" and take up an offering. (And we'll use it to send someone to SBMU :)

As you know, EDC started doing hands-on workshops this summer because that's where we found a need. Big conferences teach so much theory that you eyes glaze over and attendees leave without the faintest idea of where to start in order to implement what they've learned.

A couple of months ago I spoke at SEM for SMB and the organizer asked the speakers to be available for 15-minute 1:1 sessions throughout the event. Some speakers weren't too keen on the idea, but I loved it and offered to take as many as appointments as possible. It was a chance to freely share with very receptive and appreciative people who were thrilled to be able to ask questions one on one. I think more conferences should do this.

Kathy Jacobs (CallKathy) said...

I think it also comes down to the conversation. The conversations I had at BWE were great. The sessions where the panel members talked with the audience were also great. The ones where the panel members were presenting to the audience, those weren't so great.

Craig said...

Mack, Great post.

I decided to start being more active in reading blogs, yours was the first i chose this AM, and it delivered a message that resonates with me. Whole reason I chose to run a conference was to educate people. I have business desires of course, but people with more information are more likely to be customers!

SBMU was great again. I have attended both and met a lot of interesting people, like yourself, who were more than willing to share what they know.

Sharing the knowledge will always come back to you in Spades.

Mack Collier said...

Amber I am with you on the networking aspect, there's so many 'big names' at the big conferences that there's always someone to connect with. But even then, I think the bloggers seek each other out, and the companies and businesses that need HELP from these people, are isolated from them a bit.

Connie you are exactly right, there's too much theory and not enough numbers, case studies, and tying this all back to how it can help businesses. That's when the learning happens. And your workshops are a great idea!

Craig, being at SBMU has gotten me even more excited for the MP DMM, and Learn About Web. It's great to reconnect with blogging friends at the bigger conferences, but it's really excited to connect with businesses that are trying to get started with blogging and social media, and help them get their efforts off to a good start. See you in November!

Geoff_Livingston said...

I couldn't agree more. I actually try to avoid inside the echo chamber events and speak at industry events, put on sessions to teach the profession, etc. I am even teaching a class at Georgetown next spring.

There is no time for chest beating. Besides expertise is best honed by teaching others. Frankly, you learn more that way.