Saturday, November 7, 2009

Traveling at the Speed of Social Media

I expect to have a lot more to say about what to do--and what not to do--as a blogger after next week. That's because this Thursday and Friday are Tech Field Day, a new experiment in social media organizing. Sponsored by online publication Gestalt IT, the event brings together influential tech bloggers from around the world for two days of talking, blogging, tweeting and hands-on demonstrations at storage, networking and virtualization companies in Silicon Valley.

The event has been the talk of town among storage and virtualization bloggers. On Twitter, the hashtag #TechFieldDay has been active for weeks. In many ways, it's looking to be a model for how to do a viral campaign. Let the participants themselves talk about it, adding in their own thoughts and questions in whatever ways they see fit. And this is exactly how it's been going. Everyone involved is talking about it on Twitter--not to mention their own blogs. This in turn leads to even more chatter and interest. It's a positive upward spiral.

Perhaps most astounding: the event took just over five weeks' time to plan and execute--a lesson in how fast-moving the social web can allow one to operate. But boy has this been an intense month.

The powerhouse behind this is Stephen Foskett, publisher of Gestalt IT. In early October, he had recently returned from HP Tech Day in Colorado Springs and was determined to do something about it. The event in Colorado had electrified the storage blogging community--a select group of whom were brought in for a day and half of demos, tours, and talks about the company's latest and greatest storage offerings.

Until then, many of them thought HP was all over the place when it came to storage. As one skeptical invitee, Nigel Poulton of Ruptured Monkey put it, he arrived believing that HP just didn't "get" storage. He viewed their storage portfolio as "bloated" and "chaotic."

It could've been a disaster, but then again HP really had nowhere to go but up with these guys. And HP had its act together. It recognized that generating a whole lot of marketing "buzz" with slick presentations and PR wasn't going to wash with these hard-nosed, skeptical bloggers. So instead, the participants were given what looked to be carte blanche to poke around the HP site. They gathered around terminals and tried out HP LeftHand, setting up the cluster and getting a chance to see what happened if a cable was pulled out. In short, the crew at HP let them to do what geeks love to do--mess around with stuff in an attempt to break it.

They were allowed to video whatever they liked, including a tour through the data center, where there was much drooling over the newest EVAs. These videos then popped up on their blogs. Great advertising for HP. All through the two days, many of us were glued to the #HPTechDay hashtag on Twitter, watching the photos and comments pop up in real time. In the end, even the curmudgeonly Nigel wrote that he'd decided HP "do get storage." High cotton.

A week or so later, Stephen was effusing on the phone to me about the potential of such an event for all manner of tech companies. He suggested I talk to some of my clients about bringing bloggers in and hosting them for something similar. "Hey," he suddenly asked. "What about having one single event, where several smaller companies could pool their resources and bring the bloggers into town together? What do you think?"

What did I think? I thought it was one of the best ideas I'd ever heard. At that moment, we both realized he had hit on a winner. If he could pull it off--and from what I knew of him, I was certain he could--it could be a chance for a whole lot of smaller companies to get the kind of exposure and understanding of their technology that I as a blogger and social media consultant was yearning for them to achieve. We both began to hoot and holler at once. "Yes. You really ought to do this!" I shouted. "I think I will. This really could work!" he answered. After we got off the phone, I half wondered if he would really make it happen. So many great brainstorming conversations go nowhere.

I found out just a few days later when tuning into the weekly VMWorld community podcast. The host, John Troyer said he had Stephen on the line with an announcement to make. Gestalt IT would be sponsoring and hosting something Stephen had dubbed Tech Field Day-- an "open blogger day" where influential people would come to San Francisco and learn about new products in storage, virtualization, security and networking. The date of the event? November 12-13. This was just over a month away. I gulped. Had it been me, I would've picked, I dunno, December. Maybe even January. Hell, February. Was he sure about that? I asked him when I got him on the phone. He was. "I work best on tight deadlines. And everyone can make it on those dates."

This was one heck of a chance to take, because at the time he announced it, he didn't actually have any companies signed up to sponsor the event. Without sponsors, there would be nothing to show the attendees. And the presenting companies were also going to have to foot the bill for the bloggers' travel expenses--costs that would run into the tens of thousands in all.

I knew that if anyone could pull the rabbit out of the hat on this, he could. What for most of us would be a recipe for ulcers and sleepless nights seems to have the opposite effect on Stephen Foskett. Ideas were pouring out of him.  It would be a "field day" like they have in schools. Three-legged races. Prizes. Contests. A sense of fun.

But would it come together? As a member of what had now become an ad hoc volunteer committee for the event, I was feeling the stress. He had commitments from three companies. But we needed at least five and ideally more like seven or eight to make it work. He confessed that he was experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. One moment he was sure there would be no problem getting the sponsors. The next he was panicked that the whole thing would fall through.

The event was less than a month away, and despite immense interest from several more potential sponsors, only a handful had signed on the dotted line. I reassured him as best I could that it would all work out, but in the back of my mind, I couldn't help but fear the worst. What if, when push came to shove, not enough companies were willing to pony up the money? This is a recession, after all.

In the end, he signed up seven sponsors: Xsigo, MDS Micro, Ocarina, Data Robotics, 3Par, Nirvanix and Symantec Storage. The beauty was that most of these companies were already in some kind of partnership, and so there were natural pairings that allowed companies to share sessions. In practical terms, this means that the bloggers will only have to be taken around to four locations--a morning and afternoon session on each of the two days.

As we were to find out, there would be many more ups and downs in the ensuing weeks. As of this writing, many details are still in process. We need name plate holders. Who will pick up the attendees from the airport as they arrive from Australia, London, Boston, Ohio and the many other far-flung locations this Wednesday? Two of my clients are presenting sponsors, Xsigo and Ocarina. Next week I'll be there to watch each one do a dry run of their tech demo--the success of which will make or break them in the eyes of the participants.

Still, it's hard not to be caught up in the euphoria as the day nears. Whatever happens, this is going to be a social media experiment for the history books. Throughout what has been something of an ordeal, Stephen has kept up the energy in all kinds of creative ways.

For the past week, Gestalt IT has been running a contest, "Do You Know..." that tests people's knowledge of the companies that are presenting at the event. The winner will receive an iPod nano with video. (How I wish I could enter that contest!)

The time between our first conversation about it and the actual event date? A mere 35 days. This, my friends, is the speed of our new social world. To me, this shows that there is a world of opportunity out there, recession or no recession. What will you do with it?

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