I had an incredible experience last week that had quite an impact on me.

I founded and helped host (along with Social Media Club Knoxville) a social media conference called Social Slam with more than 400 attendees from 17 states and Canada.  It is probably the biggest social-media-related experience of my life so I wanted to share some lessons learned.  (And here is fun and lively round-up of the event from Journalist Jack Lail).

Ship it. Seth Godin writes a lot about just “shipping the product.” That was definitely the approach we took on this event. We didn’t it have it all thought out from the beginning. We had a vision for a world-class conference that was affordable and inclusive, and we just went for it.   This was a bit out of my box — putting my brand on the line with such public risk.

Although the event had sold out weeks in advance, and the planning was smooth, I really could not conceptualize what was about to happen until I walked into the convention center hall and saw a room filled with 430 chairs. Here is what I said out loud: “Holy shit.”  What if this sucked?  Suddenly I felt the weight of 430 house guests — many of them close friends — on my shoulders.  All it would take was one messed-up wi-fi connection, one last-minute speaker illness, or a million different possibilities that were out of my control to turn anticipation into angst … or even disaster.  It was a scary feeling.  But as Seth says, sometimes you just have to start and push fear aside.  In this case, it worked.

When things go wrong. – Of course things went wrong. There were plenty of last minute kinks to our plans but as long as we could keep the kinks under the covers it all looked perfect to participants. When you get down to the wire, you just have to overcome and get it done. There was huge value in being able to make decisions on-the-spot without having to get approval from a company or committee.

An event of this size took hundreds of hours of volunteer work to handle everything from logistics to stuffing 400 gift bags!

Empowering others. The logistics and planning for an event like this is daunting. Thankfully we had an outstanding team of volunteers led by the awesome Nicole Denton and Brenna DeLeo of the Knoxville Social Media Club. From my corporate days I learned to delegate and empower but of course it’s a little riskier in a volunteer situation.  Surrounding yourself with reliable and trust-worthy partners is essential in a venture like this.

Social giveth and social taketh – People flew in from all over the country based solely on word of mouth from the social web. Our advertising budget was zero. So in that respect, social media was very generous. As you would expect, people were tweeting like mad all day but a few characters who were not even attending the event hijacked the conference hashtag for their own “comedic” agenda.  Who knows why? A sad and strange way to get attention I guess?  It hurt because dozens of people had sacrificed countless hours to make this event shine for our city. But it was a good experience for me because I caught a glimpse of what companies must go through when they have to watch helplessly as somebody terrorizes their brand and their hard work.  But it only lasted briefly and the tweets from the people actually attending the event were awesome. From this, I have a better appreciation of the peril of having no control of your brand on the social web.

The emotion of connection. This event was a celebration on many levels but it was also a homecoming for the {grow} community. Dozens of people who are loyal readers — and who I have never previously met — came to enjoy the event. If you have read this blog for awhile, you may remember a post I wrote about Jenn Whinnem, one of my first Twitter friends. Jenn flew in from Connecticut and when I first saw her walk through the door, there were tears in my eyes. This scene was repeated many times as friend after friend came into town to join the celebration.  I was surprised at how emotional this was for me. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t build real relationships through the social web. For most people, the networking was just as valuable as the conference content.

Author, blogger and consultant Jay Baer was a keynote speaker for the inaugural Social Slam.

The power of passion. Every speaker, panelist, moderator and worker volunteered their time and even paid their own way to present because they believed in what we were trying to accomplish — create an inclusive showcase for diverse and fresh perspectives on social media marketing. I cannot even describe how humbled I feel and indebted to these good and generous people. Yes, there is a lot of crap on the social web. But you also have the choice to surround yourself with bright lights. Here are some of the lights in my tribe that made Social Slam rock:

Was it a success? We’re still collecting feedback, but many people commented that it was the best social media conference they have attended anywhere.  We had many out of town guests who were impressed with our beautiful city of Knoxville.  I’m proud that I was able to highlight deserving speakers and successfully lead this inaugural event — my primary goal.  On a personal level, it was extremely rewarding to achieve something like this.  It will take some time to assess what this meant for my career.

What’s next? Well, we got this ball rolling now!  We’ve announced the next event for April 27, 2012 so if you missed it, mark you calendars for a truly amazing and inspirational event. And if you attended this year … well, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

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