Photo from 2011 courtesy Merrick Ales
I didn't get to go to Austin, Texas, for the SXSW Interactive conference, but Kendall Morris proved that it wasn't an endless stream of conference rooms and hotel lobbies. In fact, she got to play the game four-square with the online check-in service Foursquare's co-founder, Dennis Crowley.
Although the conference was once a small offshoot of the larger South by Southwest music festival, more than 20,000 people attended March's panel discussions and meetups geared toward social-media professionals and the brands they represent.
"For Create Digital," Morris says of her Glen Allen-based media company, "part of the motivation for us is to learn from the experts there and show our expertise."
This was the second year Morris attended, and although she was there to speak about how small Internet startups should respond to companies' requests for proposals (or RFPs), she ran into quite a few members of Richmond's social-media intelligentsia, from representatives of the Martin Agency to Richmondmom.com's Kate Hall (read about her adventures in this issue's Go West guide).
Paul Spicer, who's written stories for this magazine and recently became editor and co-publisher of Greater Richmond Grid magazine, also traveled to Austin. He says that the conference had more of a humanitarian bent this year, a focus on making the world a better place. To that end, Facebook funder and Napster founder Sean Parker interviewed Al Gore, and Spicer was in the front row.
Morris says that she benefited from the meetups, especially those that involved the brands she and other social-media professionals are employed to promote. A discussion about customer experience (Apple and Dell representatives were in the room) began with a 15-minute debate on what exactly "customer experience" is. To Morris, the moment she walks into a store or lands on a website is when her experience as a customer begins — not just when she's interacting with an employee, although some businesses' representatives argued at the meetup that customer service and customer experience were the same thing.
As a speaker, Morris says she received good feedback from her audience because she and co-panelist Beth Mulhern of Verizon included concrete steps on how to win bids for work. "There's a hunger for valuable content that's actionable," Morris says.
I think Richmond's reaching that point as well. There has been a lot of talk at Chamber of Commerce, RVA Create gatherings and other meetups about promoting an image of the city that's dynamic and creative, but at some point, we need to take action to achieve this goal. Here and there, we have activities like the RVA Street Art Festival and the efforts of the Social Media Club that give this image a push, but there are occasional setbacks like the controversy over Art 180's children's portraits on Monument Avenue.
A nationwide movement called GOOD Ideas for Cities, started by GOOD magazine, started here in February in preparation for a presentation April 24. Morris is part of the business and development team, which is working on how to make the James River a point of community and commerce. Other groups are tackling tourism, education and the local economy. It's encouraging that this is more than just another round of brainstorming; we need direction.
I think more ideas to brand Richmond as a creative city need to come offline, out of the conference rooms and into the daylight. Just as Morris says, there's a hunger for real-life action in Austin and here as well.
Note: Richmond magazine is one of the sponsors of the RVA Street Art Festival mentioned in this column.