At this point in his career, Toby Daniels‘ biggest challenge is keeping up with his own creation. Two years ago, the fast-talking Brit launched Social Media Week as a small New York conference featuring forty events. He was the founder, CEO and sole employee.
By the next year, the conference had expanded to three staffers and six cities with over 200 events. This year a full time staff of six will coordinate Social Media Week in nine cities across four continents, and even Daniels doesn’t know how many events will take place. “It’s not about growing this thing,” he says with a grin. “It’s about holding it all together.”
Daniels, 34, is surfing atop a sea change in the way companies do business online. Social media has replaced search as the dominant paradigm on the web, and Daniels wanted to create a conference that operated on these new principles.
After running an interactive agency in London, Daniels came to the states in 2006 as a rep for social design firm Mint Digital. “I spent my first two years in America traveling the country going to conferences, so I really grew to hate them,”says Daniels. “A schedule set in stone, expensive full conference pass, demo booths at the Javits Center, I mean, just shoot me.”
With Social Media Week, Daniels created what he likes to call the “distributed” conference. Anyone can create and manage an event and the entire affair is free of charge. There are curated event spaces, like the ones hosted this year by Google, Hearst Magazines and JWT, but the majority of what happens is organized and executed by the conference participants. “I would say probably a third we touch in some way, a third is done by our partners and the last third just happens organically,” says Daniels.
There is a certain level of skepticism around this structure. “Some people do wonder how we ensure quality or if the events are just self-promotion,” says Daniels. “But this isn’t a top down thing. We’re not dictating the conversation, we’re opening it up so anyone, in any industry, can participate.”
Like the brief articles on Huffington Post that generate thousands of extended reader comments, Social Media Week is more about fomenting conversation than defining the discussion. And big brands are eager to join in. When Daniels started the conference, which is funded entirely by corporate sponsorships, his backers were small social media organizations, ad firms and web services. This year global giants Nokia and PepsiCo are sharing the bill as lead sponsors.
“When you look at a conference like SXSW, they are tied to Austin, and limited by that physical space,” says Daniels. In place of that worn-out model, Social Media Week embraces a crowdsourced alternative to what a conference can be.Our Italian partners rented a train from Milan to Rome to kick the week off by hosting a traveling discussion. And once they got to Rome, they hosted a panel on social engagement at the Vatican,” says Daniels, beaming. “The Vatican, I never would have thought of that!”
bpopper [at] observer.com | @benpopper