Social Slam recap: Lessons from 430 house guests

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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  • I heard so much good buzz about this event online, Mark, so I’d say you hit a homerun.

    I hope I can make it next year. 4/27. Yes indeed 🙂

  • I heard from Justin Brackett that the conference was incredible! I hope to make it next year 🙂

  • Gloria2727

    It sounded better than the front runner to social media and that was Networking Events. where you met shared your business cards and conversations. Meeting those on social media, making friends and then meeting them face to face for the first time sounds exciting. Listening and watching those people you followed on twitter in action makes the whole process real.

  • Would love tyo have you attend and get to know you better! We had a very cool after party where there was great networking and a lot of relaxed fun!

  • Thanks, Margie! Look forward to that!!!

  • That’s a very interesting point. One thing about social media — it helps you “pre-populate” business relationships. So at a meeting like this, there really were no strnagers — pretty much everybody knew SOMEBODY there from Twitter or another social platform. So it was a great meeting of friends and created new bonds through the face to face interaction! Love your point Gloria.

  • Congratulations Mark! Reading this I felt like I was going through it all with you! Sounds like a great (roller coaster) ride! Isn’t it great when things all come together like this.

  • It was an emotional roller coaster in some ways, but the planning and execution from the many volunteers of the Social Media Club were superb. They were a true joy to work with. Can’t say enough about these wonderful professionals!

  • Congratulations Mark on your “slam dunk” ; ) Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the event!

  • Ha!!! Hardly a slam dunk but the key is that it LOOKED that way!!! : )

  • This was a wonderful event. So much information, fun and good food too! It was especially nice to meet Jenn Whinnem; I had been talking with her on Twitter and it’s great she was able to make the trip.

    Can’t wait for the next one!

  • Mark, I’m sure you know how very much I enjoyed Social Slam, but let me just say it again: I LOVED it! I thoroughly enjoyed meeting you and so many others in person and was enriched by the added dimension (much like your reference about Jenn- another favorite IRL meeting) gained by having that human connection beyond our avatars, comments and tweets. That, by far, was one of most beneficial outcomes of Social Slam. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all downplaying the outstanding panelists and their lively talks – CK has me pumped up on mobile marketing now for sure! I’m just echoing your sentiment re: the value of the human connection.

    Thanks again, Mark. Wonderful job! I’m there for sure next year!

  • Mark, if things went wrong you guys did keep it under wraps because the day appeared to flow seamlessly. I learned a lot from the panel discussions as well as the gentlemen sitting next to me who were nice enough to answer several questions I had. I can’t wait for next year!!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Great to have you there Brad! Thanks for the comment.

  • Mark,

    I think we need to have a social slam conference here in Costa Rica :). Hopefully I’ll get to make it out next year. Looking forward to seeing some of the videos and presos from this when they’re online.

  • Mark W Schaefer

    It was great meeting you in real life Erica. Nothing can replace that special connection that occurs. It was overwhelming to meet these folks!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    That’s so cool. I think a challenge is to take that networking to an even greater level, connecting like minds, newbies and experts, etc. It happened randomly but we need to find a way to make it more efficient and productive. Thanks for the insight!

  • Mark,

    I can’t say enough about how great a conference you and the SMC Knox crew put together. Here at Ackermann PR, Cathy set aside the first half of our weekly staff meeting for me to give the team a recap of Social Slam, to discuss what I learned and how we might implement those ideas into our work process.

    I took home valuable ideas inspired by the experience and thoughts shared by the speakers and panelists. I was delighted by how open and accessible all of the participants were with the attendees.

    Thank you, also, for allowing me to play some small part in it. I am flattered you included me in your list of thank yous and hope that you will allow me to take on a more proactive role in helping in assisting you with Social Slam 2012.

    Thank you, Mark, for your work.

  • Congrats, Mark! It was clear a lot of work and passion was put into making the event a success. Job well done! I look forward to next year – I’m sure it will be even better!

    As much as I liked the content of the conference, it was really the networking that made it a successful conference for me. Jenn Whinnem is truly a gem and I was thrilled to meet her. And there were so many others that I got to meet for the first time that I had already developed relationships with online. That was the true magic of the conference. I think the only way to make it better is to allow more time for people tor really cultivate those relationships.

    Again, job well done! I’m already looking forward to next year. 🙂

  • Anonymous


    It was such an honor and delight to be invited to Social Slam 2011. Our team from MLT enjoyed every minute and it was a pleasure to meet so many social media enthusiasts and fellow professionals in person.

    Srinivas, I don’t think Mark has enough on his plate. I volunteer the services of MLT Creative to help you lure him into helping launch an International Social Media Summit in Costa Rica (naming it will be half the fun). Are you familiar with in Jaco? It’s my nephew Zach McDuffie’s business ( blogs at ). So we have a strong connections to C.R. and are always looking for good reasons to go there.

    Video of Mark on a surfboard will be worth it. Youtube gold!

  • Anonymous


    Tremendous event! Well done.

  • Congrats Mark! Thanks for sharing. Inspiring! Followed the event via the soslam hashtag for a bit. Hope to make it in 2012

  • I’m available … especially in the winter!!!

  • Glad it worked out for you. Thanks for all your help! You rocked.

  • I loved the post you did on this idea Laura. For the rest of our readers, here it is:

  • I definitely think me on a surfboard would go viral. I’ve got mad moves. Not.

    Thanks for your help and support on this Billy!

  • Thanks for driving over Jim!

  • That would be awesome. It’s a short flight from Montreal. Would be great to connect with you if we don;t before then!

  • Hey congrats Mark..nicely done. I like that you approached it the way you did. Playing is safe is a risky business.

    I want to comment on your observation that delegating within a corporate setting is “easier” than delegating to a group of volunteers. Thats true of course but not always.

    Volunteers are often that because they want to be there (how many corporate employees can say that) and they believe in the missions and the message of the event (how many employees can say that).

    So delegating to that kind of volunteer might be even easier…yes?

  • I was floored at how well you all pulled it off. Nicole, Brenna, Alex Lavidge and I were talking about the idea of this becoming a South by Southeast of sorts. I really believe that this event has not only staying power, but the very real potential to grow.

  • I have found the opposite to be true. In a company, you are being paid to fulfill a task. The risk of flaking out on an assignment could be your job. As a volunteer, the risk of flaking out is nothing. I generally hate working with volunteer committees because so many time people are either unreliable as soon as the pressure mounts or have inadequate skillsets (ie they are volunteers — you take what you can get!). In the case of Social Slam, the volunteer team was exceptional — committed, passionate, talented and most of all — RELIABLE!!! They were lights-out.

  • Ryansauers

    Mark, great job once again and thanks to you, the city ok Knoxville, the great Social Media team and more– in putting this together. I have been to a number of seminars in my life– and they are not as good nor as organnized in their tenth year… let along year #1! Well done. Talk to you soon. Ryan

  • Undoubtedly it will grow but the key to doing it in a smart way is managing complexity for two reasons. First, when you add complexity, you add failure points. One failure point will create negative buzz and perhaps even overwhelm whatever success you achieved. Second, the key to this event’s success was that we offered superb content at a remarkable price. People could FLY to Knoxville and attend more cheaply than they could drive to bigger cities at normal conference prices. As you add complexity, you add cost. We are already facing that as we really taxed the volunteer structure with 430 attendees. Next year will be bigger and better but we can;t lose sight of the core reason we were successful. Thanks for being there!

  • Mark, great job once again and thanks to you, the city ok Knoxville, the great Social Media team and more– in putting this together. I have been to a number of seminars in my life– and they are not as good nor as organnized in their tenth year… let along year #1! Well done. Talk to you soon. Ryan

  • Thanks for the kind comment Ryan!

  • I agree 100%, and I wasn’t saying that it should be “SXSE” in 2012, at all. It was just a feeling I got from the general air of things there.

    Glad I was there, and I will be there again next year.

  • It looks like it was awesome. I plan to be there next year! Now you just have to tell me what flight to take from good old EWR!

    Really, seeing someone have a plan, and pull it off is always so inspirational to me. My own “inner Seth” has been screaming lately, and to that end this week has already been about just getting things done.

    Thank you for being a source of inspiration to me and to others Mark.

  • It looks like it was awesome. I plan to be there next year! Now you just have to tell me what flight to take from good old EWR!

    Really, seeing someone have a plan, and pull it off is always so inspirational to me. My own “inner Seth” has been screaming lately, and to that end this week has already been about just getting things done.

    Thank you for being a source of inspiration to me and to others Mark.

  • Thanks for the kind words, Mark. I appreciate you sharing my post.

  • Exciting things to consider. Lots of amazing possibilities. You should join the committee : )

  • I have marked the date and will attend. Willing to help too if needed.
    I don’t like ‘events’ as I have had 30 years of them… hmmmm! and they can suck the soul out of a person for mirad reasons. But this event… fresh oil for everyone.
    I’m in and looking forward to it, mostly on the strength of our connection.
    Best to you Mark

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Can’t wait to meet you Billy!

  • Anonymous

    You deserve it Mark! Well done and greetings from Switzerland;-)

  • Thank you Mark for inviting me and for the tremendous job your entire volunteer cadre did! From presenters, to sponsors, to delegation, to print materials, to attendee bags, to lunch, to behind the scenes media connections–it was an amazing day! I met lots of new people from new places and reconnected with “old friends” and colleagues! You could feel the energy in the room! Thanks!

  • Mark – Thank you for putting together such a great conference in Tennessee. I was really thankful for the fact that I could come back to work Thursday and share with my company how valuable this experience was. I am still culling through my notes and starting to put some of the things I learned into practice. Thanks again!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Thanks, Claude!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    I agree. You actually could feel the energy in the room. Very cool feeling. Thanks for everything!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    Great feedback Heather! That makes it all worthwhile!

  • Okay seriously? From the non-430 that couldn’t go, please stop rubbing salt in our wounds. 😉 Just kidding (for those that don’t know my thick, tongue in cheek personality).. can’t wait for next year.. already on my calendar and I am expecting no less than a 25% increase in attendance.
    Now.. when are you coming to NC?

  • Anonymous

    I will be sharing some of my takeaways this morning with my business partner, and have already been talking non-stop about the event since my return. To say it was a job well-done is an understatement. I agree with @ryansauers about events in their umpteenth years not being nearly so put together as this one was in its first. I also concur with @lauraclick about encouraging more networking at the conference next year. More engagement from the participants will only heighten the “user experience.”

    Thank you for being amazing and for being my friend.

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