Social media strategist Lara Wellman talks about making the transition from casual online chatterer to social media guru — and what she has planned for this summer’s Social Capital Conference
By Drew Gough
LARA WELLMAN has more Facebook friends and Twitter followers than me. She also buys a more sensibly sized cup of coffee, has an iPad, has the new iPhone, and has made a career out of her passion. Obviously, and instantly, I’m jealous of her. We’re sitting in a coffee shop on Laurier Avenue. This Second Cup is the arena for our nerd-off; we spend the next few minutes seeing whose history runs deeper with the Internet. She wins that competition too.
The Internet has always been Wellman’s plaything. At a young age, she was a frenetic chatterer, logging on to bulletin board systems — a kind of precursor to most of today’s chat systems. When she lived in South Korea in the late ’90s, she downloaded ICQ — another early chat medium — onto computers at Internet cafés so that she could stay connected to people she knew. She even met her husband through an online dating site. (Of course she did.)
Now — seven years of marriage and three kids later — Wellman is one half of Wellman Wilson Consulting and the organizer of the Social Capital Conference, which she describes as a social media learnathon, that hits Ottawa on July 21. She spends her days coaching people on effective social media strategies or, in more than a few cases, on the correct verb to use when explaining that you’re about to post on Twitter. (For the record, you’re about to tweet.)
Her transition from casual online chatterer to social media guru came quickly, she says. It wasn’t until she saw how Twitter could create conversations that she understood its power. And it wasn’t until she was a mother of twins that she needed to take part in more conversations. “There’s a super-strong Ottawa social media community on Twitter,” Wellman explains. “But there’s also a really strong Ottawa mom community. That’s where I first really got into it. I had just had twins and I was home and that’s when I really connected to people.”
She talks about the local mom Twitter community as a support network. Moms — especially new moms — tweet when they’re lonely, when they’re nervous about something, or when they just need advice. Sometimes the only way out of the nursery is through the computer. Sometimes you just need to talk. “When I have a question about something, I often put it out there on Twitter before I ask anybody else,” Wellman says. “If I’m looking for a new chiropractor or to have my house painted or to have a fence done or to find a new restaurant, I always ask Twitter first.”
It’s not just an online thing, she insists. Twitter is the basis of the conversation, but the advice she gets and gives has turned into real-life, lasting friendships. That’s her lingering message: social media connects us, gets us talking, and keeps us together.
IF NECESSITY IS the mother of invention, then leave it to a parent blogger to invent the Social Capital Conference. The event was born because it needed to be born. In search of real-world support for the professional side of her social media activities, Wellman was always travelling out of town to conferences. Each time she did, she met more and more people from Ottawa. She was travelling with them. They formed caravans, braving the barren stretches of the 401 to meet up in Toronto, always remarking that they were all from Ottawa. Finally, people who largely connected in virtual space were connecting in the same geographical place. But it wasn’t happening in the right city. So Wellman took the reins (a result, she says, of her impulse to shout, “I’ll do it!”).
The conference, now in its second year, saves everyone gas money and hotel costs, sure, but it also provides a physical space — Algonquin College — for Ottawa’s social media community to come together and share ideas. It’s not specific to industry or government communications, either: it’s a place for social media folk with different backgrounds to educate one another. There are businesspeople and bloggers, media coaches and moms. “Social Capital is an opportunity for people from all different backgrounds who love social media,” says Wellman. “Everybody who wants to talk about social media comes together.”
The organization and planning of the event remain community driven. Wellman is proud of the success of last year’s sold-out inaugural event, both for its attendance and for the feedback she got from participants. That feedback is guiding this year’s event. The format hasn’t changed — the morning sees sessions led by social media experts, and the afternoon brings round-table discussions, with the whole event bookended by keynote speakers — but Wellman has worked to make the event more fluid.
The conference is moving away from its old session categories and toward broader-interest streams: personal, small business, professional, and a mix of government and not-for-profit. Its themes aren’t really themes at all, but topics of broad interest for super geeks. Speakers include such Ottawa social media celebrities as Joe Boughner, a social media and web strategist; Tanya Snook, who ran the social media for Movember Ottawa; and, of course, Wellman and her business partner, Karen Wilson. Analytics. Search-engine optimization. Case studies of social media campaigns. It’s all glitz and glamour, folks, wrapped in argyle and trendy oversized glasses.
As she stands up to say goodbye, Wellman proudly shows off her most geek-chic feature: a hashtag necklace. On it is engraved her personal motto: I Have an Idea. She’s outdone me again — I own no web-themed bling.
Wellman, you win.
For more information on this summer’s Social Capital Conference, see www.socialcapitalconference.ca.