I’m going to start this post with a confession: I really had no idea what to expect of tonight’s event put on by 9 of Charlotte’s advertising, marketing, PR and social media organizations, titled “Surviving and Thriving in 2011”.  I’m a newbie in this area: a part-time dabbler who’s looking for information and knowledge wherever I can find it.  So I figured it wasn’t a bad thing to be kind of clueless.  I saw an upcoming event on the SMCLT (@SMCLT) site and decided that the topic sounded like something I might be able to apply in a number of different areas, so I figured what the heck.  Nevermind the fact that it was on my husband’s birthday…

So I registered, checked the details and then showed up.

Disclaimer: As someone who has to organize events on a regular basis, I give folks a lot of credit when it comes to details –  both big and small.  It takes a lot to put on an event. So my criticisms are made knowing they will both torque off the people who organized the event but also hopefully make next year’s event better.

I knew it was at the epiCentre theatre, but had to ask a couple of folks where I was going. Signs would have been super. I walked in and found a table full of name tags and a stack of papers with the logos of each of the Marketing Groups on one side and the names and bios of the panelists on the other. That was nice. Once I had my name tag and sponsor sheet I didn’t know what else to do. Am I supposed to officially sign in? Do I get a drink ticket somewhere? It’s 5:00 and I’m starving – what’s the deal on food?

Okay, so after asking around I make my way to the bar, order a glass of wine, double-tip the waitress because I didn’t realize tip was included until I went to sign the credit card slip and had already stuff a dollar in the tip jar. (As a former food service employee I understand the joy of a double-tip but I feel robbed whenever it happens to me as a customer.)  Then I found a friendly looking group of folks to talk to and I stayed in one place for the remainder of the hour. As servers passed by with hours de’ vours plates I pounced on each and every one of them for a sampling of whatever they were offering.  Did I mention I was starving? Gradually the area got too crowded with bodies and the servers gave up trying to circulate. Or they ran out of food. Or they were avoiding the greedy lady who gave them the stink eye every time they walked near her general vicinity.

Eventually it was time to make our way to the theatre/auditorium so the mob started slowly oozing in that direction.  There may have been a formal announcement or a “hey you guys” but I never heard it over the din of the schmoozing. The theatre was dark (as they usually are) but we found seats and settled in with… pens and paper? Where are all of the iPads and Laptops?  Okay, I can’t judge as I sat there with the ubiquitous black and white composition book I grabbed two seconds before running out the door. If I’d been guaranteed a wi-fi connection I would have dragged my handy-dandy MacBook with me.

Introductions were made, but to be honest it was so poorly lit in there I’m not sure I could recognize the panelists in a dark alley.  Oh wait – maybe that’s the only place I would recognize them.  Some front-lighting would have been super though.

Mr. Greg Collard, who is the WFAE News Director, was the moderator and he kicked the discussion off with a few general comments and questions about the recession (Are we in one?  are we out? did anyone understand when I said the word “recession” or are you all asleep out there?) while the audience was asked to write questions on a sheet of paper and pass them to the poor soul (I didn’t catch her name during introductions) who was running around the room collecting them and passing them along to Mr. Collard.

The questions were all over the place.  Everything from what to outsource, how to deal with the media/press, use of social media tools, measurement of performance, reaching out to underrepresented communities, and marketing when you have no budget to market.  There were some good answers, a few great answers, a couple zingers, some company plugs and some sidestepped questions. Honestly not a lot of it was worth quoting verbatim so to sum it up my takeaways from the four panelists were as such:

Scott Pacer, Marketing Communications Director, Duke Energy: Engage your audience. Don’t just talk to them; talk with them.

Scott Provancher, President, Arts & Science Council: Know your Customers. Figure out who they are, what they want, and how to engage them.

Lauri Wilks, Sales & Marketing, NASCAR Hall of Fame: Be creative. Don’t settle for the status quo – find ways to stick out from the crowd.  (and just kidding on that comment about letting your interns do your social media!)

David Oakley, Owner, Boone Oakley: Look inside your own organizations for resources before paying someone else to do the work.  (And if it’s not there then hire our firm to do it for you.)

The panelist discussions were interesting to listen to, but should not have taken up two hours of the event.  I was disappointed that the event never covered the actual market aspect of things.  There were five bullet pointed objectives stated in the event invitation and they only successfully covered one of them.  The objective I was most interested in, the one listed first, “Gain an expert assessment of the Charlotte market’s economic health, focusing on issues such as employment, tax revenues, public services, and job creation.” Yeah… that didn’t get covered.  Along with three other bullets, but that was the one that drew me to the event.  That’s why I went.

But the event was put on, in part, by Social Media Charlotte and I’ve got some relevant  suggestions for next year that I hope will be taken into consideration.

  1. I love that someone communicated an event hashtag but it wasn’t until we sat down in the theatre that it was really communicated to the broader group.  They did try communicating it on the Facebook page created for the event (I’ll get to that in a moment) but given that only 17 people were fans of the page at the point it was posted, I’m guessing less than 17 people saw it there.  I do know a few plucky folks asked during the networking portion of the evening, so there was some chatter going on before-hand.
  2. Once people figured out the hashtag, you know what would have been great? If the organizers had set up a Tweet Feed so those of us in the audience could see what was going on during the event – rather than staring at our phones.  That giant movie screen that was above the panelists heads?  Yeah, let’s make that interactive versus just staring at the marketing groups’ logos.
  3. Speaking of interactivity, as I mentioned earlier the audience was asked to write questions on a sheet of paper and pass them along to Mr. Collard.  It would have been great to poll the attendees ahead of time for questions to ‘wet the pipe’ so to speak, and then keep up with additional questions via twitter, the facebook page, e-mail, whatever electronic means they felt was appropriate at the time.  I felt so bad for Mr. Collard as he squinted in the dark at bad handwriting to make out the questions.
  4. Networking opportunities seemed to be the biggest draw for folks attending the event.  Unless I grabbed a business card or wrote down a name as I was talking to someone, I wouldn’t know how to get in touch with people after the event.  I suppose I could go look them up name by name on the event page, but would it hurt to let folks include a twitter handle or website address when registering?  Lyell Peterson, @93Octane, was the only one smart enough to force it into his name field when registering. (Lyell, where were your tweets during the event, btw?)
  5. A facebook page was set up for the event.  I’m not sure who decided to set up a page for an event, but it was really not the best use of this particular electronic tool.  Much less the fact that the existence of the page was not communicated until the event.  A link from the eventbrite page would have been a super addition.

I’m not the type of person to list off a bunch of points of improvement and say “good luck with that next time.” So please, by all means, call me out and tell me you’d love to have my help with the next one.  Or any of the other (currently) 912 members of SMCLT. Especially those tweeting their negative reactions right now.  That is… if you’re engaged with them and reading those comments.


Update 1/13/2011: If you’re interested in reading the play-by-play Q&A details check out Corey Creed’s update on TheJungleMap.com.  He did a good job summarizing the details.