Boy, am I glad I shaved yesterday.
Last night, at the invitation of Jen Butson, I headed down (well, fifteen minutes uphill) to the Desmarais building at the University of Ottawa to attend a social media event at the Telfer School of Management.
Now, as far as business goes, I’m a notorious cynic, and with good reason: my childhood was spent listening to stories of the cascading failures of the T. Eaton Company that drove it from being a retail powerhouse to a mere historical reference. I grew up watching Woolco and K-Mart fail. My mother would bring home students’ final projects from her small business management course; I could see first-hand which students were bound for bankruptcy. When I worked at Nortel, I could see the dot-com bubble weakening at the seams; I picked up on signs that the company and the industry were doomed well before the obvious occurred. Michael Copeland and Jozef D. Strauss saw their empires fall into obscurity as I watched. I’ve attended more multi-level marketing seminars than I care to mention (it became a hobby at one point). In later years, I watched Sears make the mistakes that Eaton’s had made, and experienced first-hand the credit policies that led to the US banking crisis of recent years.
I have intimate familiarity with the steep downward dive of the line on a graph.
So, when I walk into a room filled with people gathered for the purpose of discussing business, whether it be a regular meeting of veteran corporate middle-management or an event full of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, well-dressed business students with entrepreneurial aspirations, I find myself hypersensitive to the potential for failure.
This pessimistic attitude permits me to fully appreciate the refreshing circumstance of being confronted with people who have their heads screwed on straight. I’m glad to say that that’s what I felt last night.
Having shown up on time (for once in my life) I got a chance to converse with Alex Barankevych, a later-year student who was there because he got a lot of value out of the last event.
We were joined shortly by fellow hardened cynic David Hicks (erstwhile progenitor of the hashtag #smdb), which was the signal to go to the bar. It’s a good thing we did, because we found out that the caterer was another business student, and we got into a great and mutually rewarding conversation about the practical aspects of social media.
The time came to take our seats. Rather than sit in the T-zone, David and I (and Randy Little) sat in the back row, in what I will call the iZone. The iZone is composed of people who, while raptly listening to the presenters, are yet bathed in the glow of their handheld devices (BlackBerry, iPhone, or otherwise) as they Twitter away their side-comments or relay well-thought-out points to the rest of the world. As disconcerting as it must be for a presenter to see a line of glowing heads at the back of the room, it has to be better than hearing whispers or the shuffling of paper.
Lisa Larter was first to present; my cynicism gave way to a feeling of relief that good old marketing know-how is not dead. She gave a great talk (and a non-eye-searing Powerpoint) on how she used social media to grow her business, and consistently linked back to the importance of using good common sense. The key points of knowing your customer and engaging in a relationship with them transcend the marketing medium; Lisa Larter understands this and conveys it clearly, in a way that holds your attention (which, after a decade of attending customer sales and service seminars, is a very slippery fish in my case) and keeps you interested.
After briefly moving the party downstairs to the parking lot of Desmarais, we headed back up when the all-clear was given. When we had settled in again, Kyle picked up from where his presentation left off without missing a beat. He spoke as a former student to current students, and although I’m about as far from being a student as you can get without forgetting how to read, I felt included. It’s obvious why Kyle’s successful when you hear him speak.
Thanks to tools like BackNoise, shy exhibitionists like myself are able to ask questions at these events. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of hands that went up when I asked how many people in the room actively used Twitter. This isn’t something we would have seen even six months ago, necessarily. Twitter’s practically my girlfriend, so I’m glad to see it gaining mainstream popularity. I hunger for the day when “you’re not on Twitter?” replaces “you’re on Twitter?” permanently.
What I took away, and what I hope most of these bright young minds took away, is that social media is not a magic carpet. Television wasn’t. Radio wasn’t. The people that are going to succeed in business are the people that are good at it, who can adapt to any medium. Yes, you will get left behind (i.e. in the Yellow Pages) if you don’t adopt new media; but trusting that it will give you an edge when you don’t have one to start with is just a quicker path to failure.
So, print business cards. Just make sure your Twitter name is on them.
Special thanks to UOMA for putting on a really wonderful event.