Monday, August 24, 2009

Sweet Home Alabama! - Social South recap

I have to admit that I was pretty damn excited about Social South. I knew with the speakers and program that Scott Schablow and his team were putting together that the event would be a success. But I think what happened over two days in Birmingham blew everyone away, from the attendees to the speakers, to the organizers. We had RichardatDell and LionelatDell together on stage for the first time ever, probably the most audience participation I've ever seen at a social media conference, and a woman from Bahrain move an entire conference to tears with her story of how she's using social media to help others.

Before getting further into the recap, I must stress what an AMAZING job Scott and the team at Provenance Digital Media did in planning and executing this event. Scott was literally working several hours a day on SoSo on TOP of his 'day job' at Provenance. I would often get up in the morning to see he had left me emails about SoSo sometimes as late as 3 and 4 am. He even had to cancel his session on Twitter during the event, because he simply didn't have enough time to finish preparing for it, while trying to run the event at the same time. Jason Hill and Stacey Hood also were wonderful about taking care of the speakers, they shuttled us all over the place, from and back to airports, to the event, to bars, everywhere. The speakers were taken better care of at this event than any I've ever spoken at. Easily.

Now as for the sessions themselves, the biggest problem I had was that there were too many good ones. At every time slot there were at least 2 sessions I really wanted to see, and usually 3. Before every slot I had to go around apologizing to speakers because I would have to miss their session. It was especially brutal in the Sat morning slots. On Friday, the crowd was honestly larger than I expected. The first session I attended was Beth Harte's session on Social Media Planning and Measurement, and it was standing room only. I think one of the biggest takeaways was that marketers have to prove their worth to their bosses, and this is especially true of anyone engaging in social media. Great session from Beth and I think this was exactly what many attendees wanted and needed to hear.

My session, What Rockstars Can Teach You About Kicking Ass With Social Media was next and I won't get into it here as I'll have a full recap of the session on later. In short, I was honestly surprised at how well the session was received, I think it's the most popular presentation I've ever given, based on feedback I got from the attendees. Beth's session gave me a great lead-in crowd. Next was Toby Bloomberg's session on Social Media, Southern Hospitality Style. I loved this session because SO many people make social media harder than it has to be. So much of being successful in social media is simply about being friendly and respectful and hospitable. Qualities that people in the Deep South have in spades. Loved Toby's analogy of the front porch conversation, and the corner grocery store.

Next came Friday's keynote, which saw RichardatDell and LionelatDell speaking together on stage, for the first time. I have to say that getting the honor to introduce Richard and Lionel as Social South's first keynote was one of the very highlights of the event for me. Richard and Lionel told a story that was probably familiar to many of the speakers (the ones that have been immersed in this space for as long as Dell has), but for the attendees, it was an invaluable look at how a huge company is using and integrating social media. And I thought what was really telling for everyone was not only what Dell has learned about social media, but what Dell has learned about their CUSTOMERS, thanks to social media. But the biggest lesson of all is, if a big online company like Dell can use social media as a way to develop individual relationships with their customers, your online company really has no excuse.

The Friday afternoon session saw us move to our 'Conversations' portion. If you've ever attended # blogchat on Twitter, then these sessions were structured as being 'live Twitter chats'. They were led by 2-3 speakers, who facilitated room-wide conversations around a particular topic. This is where the speakers at Social South really shined. The speakers had almost no coaching on this format (mainly because we didn't want it to be a presentation, we wanted it to be an open discussion), but they ran with it and made it come off flawlessly.

And this is also where I really discovered that we had some damn smart people attending Social South. Scott and Jason had told me that the audience was mostly past the Social Media 101 level, and they really were. They asked smart questions and left ME taking notes from them. This made the discussions even more rewarding for everyone.

Day Two opened with me apologizing to David Griner, Tom Martin, and Paul Chaney for having to miss their talks. Seriously, there were just too many amazing speakers and sessions at Social South. But one thing I loved about the Saturday program was that CK and Ike Pigott were set up as a nice 1-2 punch for overcoming fears and objections to social media, and selling your boss on social media. CK's session was on the Six Demons that make companies want to fear using social media, and how to overcome those fears. At one point CK was explaining how Dell uses Ideastorm to connect with customers, while Lionel was sitting in the front row. My first thought was that I hope that the Social South attendees appreciated how lucky they were to be seeing this. I think they did!

Next, Ike had his wonderful session on overcoming corporate objections to social media, based on Pac-Man. Wonderful analogy, and I'll just point you to the deck on Slide Share. To complete the triple-play, CK and Ike later hosted a Roundtable on Selling Your Boss on Social Media. I think this played perfectly off the sessions that Ike and CK had delivered, and was one of the last sessions of the event, which gave attendees the right information at the right time.

But this recap would be woefully incomplete if I did not mention Esra'a Al Shafei's Saturday keynote. Esra'a was originally slated to deliver her keynote at the event, but days before Social South, she learned that the US had denied her visa to the country. So Scott and his team had to scramble to come up with an alternative, and decided to go ahead and have Esra'a do the keynote, but via Skype video.

So here we are looking at a young woman up on the screen with her headset on starting her keynote in what appears to be her room, halfway across the world. I think 'this is pretty cool!', and snap a picture on my cellphone to post on Twitter. Almost as soon as I take the pic, Scott rather forcefully interrupts Esra'a and asks the crowd to please NOT take pictures of Esra'a or take video of her presentation. He explains that Esra'a goes to great lengths to ensure that there are no pictures of her online, because many people would like to discover her true identity to stop her from doing what she is doing. Possibly even by killing her. When you suddenly realize that a person is possibly putting their life in danger to talk to you, it gets your attention.

But Esra'a's cause is one that she believes that strongly in. She detailed for the next hour or so the efforts of Mideast Youth to use social media to draw attention to the plights and persecution of people in the Mideast and Africa that are having their human rights violated. People that are being jailed and even killed for simply questioning their government, or not practicing a 'government-approved' religion. In short, people that are being persecuted for attempting to engage in a level of freedom that we in the United States mostly take for granted. At least I know I often do. But Esra'a's story was so amazingly compelling. When she calmly stated that she knew she was putting her life in danger by speaking out and drawing attention to what certain governments were doing, and that she was not afraid and ready to die for a cause she believed in, it truly made me appreciate the power of social media. It made me appreciate how Esra'a is not only using these tools to help others, but how these tools made it possible to hear Esra'a's story, even though people and even governments were trying to stop her voice from being heard. Tears streamed down my face and everyone else's in attendance as we gave Esra'a the standing ovation she so richly deserved. Jason Falls has an excellent recap of her keynote, and here's where you can learn more about what Mideast Youth is doing, and here's where you can follow Esra'a on Twitter.

Seriously, Social South was an amazing event. If you missed #SoSo, stop kicking yourself and start planning for attending it next year. Thankfully, the response blew everyone away, and I think that's ensured there will be a Social South 2010. So to everyone I met at Social South, the speakers and attendees I reconnected with, thank you ALL for creating an amazing 2-day experience!

Pic of the Daily Fix Crew via @treypennington


Unknown said...

Could not agree more with your post.

The roundtable discussions that were had was absolutely awesome! I learned more from them then anything else (even the one I lead).

Looking/Hoping to more conferences adopting this style of roundtable break out sessions in the future.

Unknown said...

Mack, Thanks for comprehensive recap. Something that I've been thinking about is how SoSo seemed to have the collaborative aspects of a BarCamp with the structure of a more traditional conference. Thanks for bringing me out!

Bill Powell said...

I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived at social south. I was hoping the discussions wouldn't revolve around technical aspects of using the tools. I felt pretty comfortable with those, but I was really overwhelmed by the relevance of every discussion I attended.

It was also great meeting other people with similar interests. I look forward to attending next year.

Unknown said...

Bill, the technical aspects of using the tools... what do you mean by that, exactly?

Some of the user interaction / experience paradigms are interesting to unpack because of larger relevance to the types of online interactions that result. This then impacts virality / message spreading, which can have significant business impact. Or at the very least, influences which technologies to use to execute a strategy.

That said, you have to be willing to deconstruct the technical features to have these kinds of talks, and only the geekiest of the geeks really love that. [/tongue in cheek] Also, I've found that some social networks aren't into sharing their feature sets at the granularity I'm looking for.

Ike said...


Certainly there are fundamental elements of online behavior that are dictated on an aggregate fashion by the very nature of the user interface and the permissions allowed to registered account-holders.

It's vital to approach any online social venture with the openness to critically analyze the peculiarities of the networks involved, as the most populous social networks might lack a critical component needed to reach your target audience (e.g. - mobile uploading); or create a barrier to adoption, such as the mutual agreement to allow cross-subscribing of RSS-enabled content.

Hey everybody!

Didn't we have FUN!?!?

Unknown said...

Hi Ike! Yes - Soso was an INCREDIBLE time - nice, collaborative, smart people, doing interesting things... those who missed it, missed out.

You also raise a great point - that /users/ and the user base should be part of the analysis when selecting a social tool / app / dohickey.


CB Whittemore said...

Mack, thanks for this recap. I'm hoping I can participate in what from every account was an engaging, thought-provoking, relationship-building, one-of-a-kind event.