January 26, 2009

Missing a Conference? Find a Local Meetup Instead.

By Daniel J. Pritchett of Sharing at Work (FriendFeed/Twitter)

Which professional conferences are you planning to attend in 2009?

If your answer is none, don't worry too much because you're not alone. It's easy to feel left out when reading a sea of tweets about 2009 conference calendars: The big destination this week is the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Our own Louis Gray will soon be moderating a South by Southwest panel on content aggregation. Mark Hopkins is looking for a sponsor to send him (and a team of assistants!) to SXSW in Texas.

I won't try to tell you that these conferences aren't tremendously valuable for people in the right jobs at the right companies, but they aren't all going to make it into the budget. Of chief concern here is the fact that many social media enthusiasts aren't in marketing, purchasing, or recruiting positions. We're in jobs like programming, management, writing, tech support, and other careers. While our jobs are undeniably aided by social media it is difficult for us to defend a need for bleeding-edge updates and networking at the cost of a month's salary.

Plenty of companies took a look at their 2009 budgets and decided that conferences and other networking activities weren't going to be their top priority this year. It can be hard to justify spending $5000 or more to send one employee to a show for a week when the boss is trying to figure out how to avoid laying people off. Those conference bills add up if you start sending multiple teammates to a few conferences each year.

Fear not, there are inexpensive local events!Even though you might not have the money to make it to the national conference or tradeshow this year there are still plenty of ways for you to connect with like-minded professionals in your area. I've gathered a list of the networking events that have been the most useful for me in the last year. You might be lucky enough to have some of these in your area. If you can't find one local to you, you've got a great opportunity to start the local events you'd like to be attending!

The tweetup: as powerful as it is simple

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the idea of a "tweetup". Quite simply, a tweetup is a meetup organized and/or publicized on Twitter. This can be a purely entertaining trip to a movie, a professionally-oriented dinner, or even a few Twitter users deciding at the last minute to attend an already scheduled event as a group. The most intriguing tweetup concept I've seen lately was organized by blogger/analyst Jeremiah Owyang in the Silicon Valley area. Jeremiah hosted a mixer where recent re-entrants to the labor market could meet each other as well as some local hiring managers.

My first meetup? Social Media Breakfast

The Social Media Breakfast series was started by @BryanPerson in 2007 as "an event where social media experts and newbies alike come together to eat, meet, share, and learn." I've been enjoying these here in Memphis since last August, and the event keeps growing and growing thanks to positive feedback from the blogosphere and good writeups in the local press. The breakfast format provides a great opportunity for one-on-one conversations as well as some informative presentations and round-table discussions.

What's happening lately:

Mr. Person has recently taken his SMB leadership from Boston to Austin and continues to build a great community both locally and online. Just up the road from Memphis you'll find a similar event in the Nashville Geek Breakfast series. Our own Social Media Breakfast is breaking new ground and morphing into the Social Media Expedition. This Expedition branches out from its solid base in technology and networking to include cultural appreciation and community involvement.

No, not that kind of bar

The BarCamp concept has been a driver behind the "unconference" ideal since 2005. Formed as a more inclusive alternative to Tim O'Reilly's invite-only Foo Camps, a BarCamp is usually open to all comers and features a schedule driven by the participants. You'll typically find sessions on technology, new media, business, and general web interests. Everyone who attends is asked to offer a presentation or two on topics they are interested in. Attendees vote on the day of the event to determine which sessions will be given. On top of the fluid schedule, BarCampers are encouraged to come and go from sessions as they please in order to get the most out of their time. This format has proven to be so accessible that there are now hundreds of BarCamps every year.

What has been happening lately:

BarCamp spinoffs like WordCamp and PodCamp are gathering momentum. In my area we saw the first Memphis BarCamp last November. Unconferences of all kinds should be big in 2009 as an alternative to big-budget trade shows.

Social Media Club wants to start a monthly event in your area!

The Social Media Club has been on a mission since 2006 to "help people find all the relevant communities of interest in which they want to participate". While I haven't yet had the pleasure of attending an SMC-affiliate event they have a highly visible presence on Twitter and can boast nearly 40 chapters worldwide with thousands of participants.

What other events are out there for you?

If you're hoping for a local event with a bit of a different flavor from the ones listed above, head to some popular online meeting coordination services and see what you can find in your area. Meetup and Upcoming are both solid resources for listing and locating the events you might enjoy. Meetup's "waiting for a meetup" counters are a particularly good way to see how many other people are already interested in a new meeting concept you'd like to lead. I'd like to encourage our readers to share tips and success stories in the comments below: Which local events have been most meaningful to you? What are your ideas on finding or hosting interesting events?

Master marketer and blogger Seth Godin insists throughout his latest book Tribes that you too can lead your own movement thanks to the connecting powers of the web. You may not feel like a born organizer, but once you realize that others in your area are just waiting for someone to call them or tweet them with an invitation to an exciting new session you'll see what Godin's talking about. Whether you're smarting over a shortfall in your travel budget or you just want a way to connect with your community, the time to act is now!

Image by Rob Lee

Read more by Daniel at Sharing at Work.