by Emily Hines
The Southern C Summit: From an Online Blogging Community to a Sold-Out Summit
Ever have the crazy idea of hosting your own conference for your business, industry, or online community? Maybe it’s not so crazy… In just six whirlwind years, Georgia-based entrepreneurs Cheri Leavy and Whitney Long transformed their Southern lifestyle blog, The Southern C, into an online resource for the entrepreneurial South. Their annual Southern C Summit is the high point of their efforts, drawing 300 impassioned individuals from businesses of all types and selling out in just a few weeks.
Cheri and Whitney initially created The Southern Coterie blog as a way to share their love for the South in the digital sphere. Realizing the reality of “blogger burnout,” the duo searched for guest contributors and grew their content. Writers from all over the country joined in to share their love of the South with recipes, travel stories, memories, and cultural nostalgia. As the site matured, social media practices, marketing, and influential business leaders found their way into the mix, along with small-business owners and entrepreneurs.
The blog quickly evolved into a membership-based model, similar to Facebook and free for people to join. With members openly sharing content on the platform, people immediately connected with other like-minded individuals, and a true community was born. By 2012, the network had expanded and the team fielded numerous requests to host a gathering where members could meet and engage in person. The Southern C Summit was born!
The Power Behind the Event
Recognizing the need for an organized digital and social media strategy, Cheri and Whitney enlisted Digital Media Director Dominique Paye to help power up the process. Together, they put their economic smarts to work. “We knew we had to deliver major value to our followers to justify the cost of the ticket and the time spent away from their businesses,” says Paye. “Three key elements create a successful summit: host city and venue, presenters, and networking opportunities. We had to deliver on all three and communicate that value to our followers.”
The leaders monitored and joined in on conversations, questions, and information shared on the blog forum. The art of “social listening” became the key to understanding members’ struggles, concerns, and successes. As a result, The Southern C team was able to glean a list of potential presenters and topics from the conversations, and one by one, they secured national speakers in creative industries, including magazine editors, content creators, and social media experts.
Now in its fourth year, in February, the Summit hosted speakers at The Cloister hotel in Sea Island, Georgia, with media and marketing experts from high-profile organizations such as Coastal Living, Traditional Home, Pinterest, and One Kings Lane, to name a few. Presenters shared inspiring success stories pulled from the pages of their own work, while offering reality checks and tips on how businesses can leverage everything from influencer and advocate marketing to social media marketing.
Networking continues to be a significant part of the Summit experience. “We have to make sure people understand the networking aspect of the Summit, too,” says Paye. “With three days of events and a smaller group of people, you have more opportunities for connection points,” she continues. “Conversations are longer and deeper with the people you meet at our summit, including the presenters. Our goal is to create intimate and meaningful involvement, unlike the traditional larger conference experience.”
Why a Limited Head Count?
By limiting attendance to 300, The Southern C enables Summit attendees, partners, and presenters to dive in and embrace authenticity. “Transparency among our group is huge. Everyone is willing to share stories and resources, and this authenticity is incredibly important to our attendees. It truly is a hallmark of the Summit and, as we curate our presenter list, we keep this in mind,” says Whitney Long. “At this year’s Summit, presenters willingly gave out their email addresses on stage and shared their own resources, while editors eagerly invited entrepreneurs to send them pitches of their products.”
There is an earnest sense of camaraderie at the Summit fostered by the culture and atmosphere of sharing. New attendees are welcomed into the fold quickly, and returning alums are thrilled to reconnect. Leavy says, “In some ways, each Summit is like a class reunion. That’s why we use the word ‘alumni.’ Once you participate, you want to stay involved, which, of course, helps with ticket sales year after year.”
Despite the dominance of an online world, the leadership team attributes the overall success of
the Summit to word-of-mouth referrals. The energy of the experience spills over into social media, drawing in both newbies and repeat attendees, and referrals spread like wildfire. “Search #tscsummit or #ConnectCollaborateCreate on Instagram or Twitter and you’ll see,” says Cheri Leavy.
The volume of social media created during the Summit continues to grow year over year, according to Paye. Preliminary stats captured during the week of the 2017 Summit revealed that the presenters posting about the Summit on their Instagram accounts resulted in 63,426 total likes and an average engagement rate of 3.11 percent, while posts on The Southern C Instagram account reflected 7,611 likes, representing a significant increase over previous years. Organic earned media in digital and print outlets, as well as influencer coverage, is also an important piece of the promotional strategy to help drive Summit momentum throughout the year. “In terms of PR, we can’t rest on what’s worked in years past. It’s important to know your audience and where and how they consume media,” says Libba Osborne, Principal at Leapfrog PR, which is based in Charleston and The Southern C’s partner agency. “We work with presenters, influencers, and media outlets in The Southern C’s target pillars to garner endorsements leading up to the Summit. After the Summit, we focus on post coverage, recapping the educational takeaways and highlighting the signature Summit lifestyle events. This strategy helps propel promotion and keep momentum leading up to subsequent Summits.”
Event App Technology
To give attendees yet another return on their investment, The Southern C founders created a custom event app through Attendify. The app not only connects attendees during the event with live activity and social streaming, it also includes gamification and push notifications for news and updates. The app remains active after the Summit ends to allow attendees to search out other attendees, read profiles, and continue to connect and communicate.
The Southern C team realizes that they need to keep up the momentum, excitement, and sharing through continued storytelling after the event. #ISpyTSCSummitAlums is a series curated in social media posts and email-newsletter mentions that show off alumni collaborations made from connections at the Summit. The ‘I Spy’ series is a celebration, but it’s also a set of powerful case studies,” says Leavy.