I had the opportunity to present at South-by-Southwest Interactive this year for the first time. I shared the stage with three friends and former colleagues for “Lurkers: Your Most Valuable Community Members.” We offered up this description:
Your lurkers are a vital and necessary part of your community and they often make up a majority of your membership but are dismissed as valueless members of the community. Treating your lurkers as if they have no value could be a fatal mistake in managing your community. Many community managers discount the value of lurkers when in fact, they are usually the cornerstone of your community. The panelists will help you understand the measurements you need to use to both understand the value of your community lurkers and how to translate that value back to the business. We will also share ideas on how to keep lurkers engaged and coming back to the community and how they can turn from lurkers into contributors. In this panel, you will learn why your community lurkers are valuable and how to measure their value by understanding how they are contributing to your community, what they are learning from your community, and how they are providing value back to the business. This will be a moderator-lead discussion with plenty of time for Q&A. Learn from a panel with a combined 32 years of community building and management experience.
To say it was an excellent experience is an understatement. From the moment we were accepted, Mike, Mark, Heather ** and I took our obligation to the audience seriously. We met every other week for an hour, starting in early January. We also utilized a private Facebook group to share links, debate ideas and follow up with one another on action items. I think we were all a bit terrified of falling short of the audience’s expectations.
We were conflicted when we found out we were speaking at the Hyatt at 5pm on Saturday. Late afternoon is typically a better slot than the morning, but being out of the flow of the “main tent” in the Austin Convention Center meant people might not make the extra effort to take in our session. Saturday afternoon is certainly better than Tuesday afternoon. As the schedule of parties started to hit, I became even more pessimistic since a lot of them were scheduled to start at 5pm. The thought of having to circle 10-20 chairs in the rooms and holding an informal q&a crossed my mind.
As I walked over to the Hyatt on Saturday afternoon I was surprised to see all the activity in and around the hotel. It was supposed to be the hub for the “Social Graph” track and it seemed to have a great group of people sticking around to take in sessions. My enthusiasm balloon was punctured when we went to the green room and found we were speaking against Drew Olanoff and another panel called “Zombies Must Eat: How Genre Communities Make Money.” Sandwiched between the guy that started the #BlameDrewsCancer meme and Zombies… damn, that’s some tough competition.
In the end we didn’t have to circle the chairs. We didn’t cancel the session because no one showed up. Instead we had fun, shared some stories and (I think) proved that lurkers are a really important part of every community. The room was close to capacity (100+) and we had a lot of interaction and questions from the audience. I had more than a couple people come up to me later in the week to tell me it was the best panel they’d attended so far. That feels pretty good.
My takeaways on my first SXSW panel experience?
- Your preparation doesn’t end when you submit your panel proposal. Sure the panel submission process is pretty thorough, but it’s just the beginning. The panels that fell flat for me seemed like a bunch of individuals who didn’t really know each other and what they brought to the panel. You may be brilliant, but if you’re on a panel you owe it to the audience to get to know your fellow panelists. Getting together the night before for dinner *might* work, but I *know* connecting with your panelists multiple times beforehand will help you hit it out of the park.
- Respect your audience and the other panelists. I was thrilled to see all the people in the seats when we got started. I must have thanked them five times for choosing us vs. a short nap or early party. Even though you’ll probably have the opportunity (SXSW parties are all day long), don’t drink alcohol ahead of your panel. Sure you can wing it, but you’re not as sharp if you do. Support your fellow panelists and don’t dominate the microphone. Following #1 will help you build a relationship with them in advance and make this a lot easier.
- Have fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. I hope this one pretty much speaks for itself.
I hope you get chosen to do a session/panel at SXSW next year. I’m sure you’ll kill it!
What have you learned in speaking at SXSW (or any other conference)? What would your top tips be for new presenters? The comments are yours.
** Three of the best friends and fellow panelists a guy could ask for. Thanks guys!