Armed with the belief that “people prefer to do business with others with whom they share social experiences,” Cheryl T. Lawson — aka @PartyAficionado — left the corporate world, where she was a marketing manager who also planned the company’s meetings and events, and struck out on her own. As founder of Party Aficionado, Lawson specializes in events and what she likes to call social marketing. She also teaches social media marketing courses for U.C. Riverside, and meeting and event management for Devry and Riverside Community College. She splits her time between her hometown of Tulsa, Okla., Riverside, Calif., and wherever the work takes her. A self-professed “geek,” Lawson also developed the first Event Planning Tools mobile app for Android smartphones. I first connected with her via Twitter almost a year ago and was very excited to finally meet her in person at the BarkWorld Expo in Atlanta.
How did you get interested in social media?
I was planning a conference for a client whose attendees were 18-24 year old girls. In 2006, MySpace is where they lived. I created a profile for the conference, and began to engage with them and provide content, not only about the conference, but about topics that would concern them. Like many planners, I was very focused on my client events and their social media presence instead of my own. Once I began to use social media more for my own projects, I considered it a way to educate — educate people about my work, and to educate students on how to use social media. Eventually, my clients began to ask me to help them with their social media strategies.
What is it that you do now?
I like to call it social marketing. I do events, but mostly I’m doing social media consulting and PR for my clients who don’t necessarily want to meet face to face, but want to keep their audience engaged. Most recently, I have started a meet-up group in Tulsa, called Social Media Tulsa. #SMTulsa allows me the opportunity to rediscover my home town, to connect with other social media enthusiasts in Tulsa, and to demonstrate the importance of bringing your social media connections to a face-to-face environment.
How do you track the ROI of social media?
I try to [track] how the message is spreading. I try to stay away from the number of people following or how fast they follow, but I do like to track the number of people who respond, raise their hands or register, based on a specific messages or post. I also measure the level of engagement. If people are willing to comment, reply and respond to a message, I consider that a level of success. If somebody tweets, “Hey do you know an event planner?” I see a lot of “Have you talked to @PartyAficionado?” I think that’s a really good measurement of whether [my] message is being heard.
I think what you put out [in social media] is whoever you are at your core and essence, and you will attract the kind of customers who want to be around you, your personality, style and how you work. I would advise people to concentrate more on the social than on the media as they approach [it] as a marketing strategy. No one wants to see just one-way postings and broadcast messages all the time.
How do you set a price, so you can work independently but still make the amount of money you want?
That’s been the biggest challenge, because I see so many small businesses get taken, and I want to help them. But what I’ve been able to do, over time, is offer a tiered-type of pricing. For full event management, I charge a premium. I also offer consulting services, which allow businesses with smaller budgets to create their own social marketing strategies at an affordable price. There’s something in there for everybody.
A lot of my friends and relatives say, “Why don’t you do one thing and just focus on that?” I think that would drive me batty. What I try to do is stay true to why I left corporate America in the first place. I found that I always ended up — even though event planner/manager was never part of my title — I was always asked to do those things, and I always incorporated that into how I marketed. I found that was where I was most comfortable; that was where I found the most joy. I left corporate America saying, “This is what I’m going to do.” I teach about event management, and when I teach classes about marketing, I always add event marketing to it. That [earned me] my presenting chops, so I’ve done that and people have asked me to come and speak.
You mentioned you came from the corporate world. Plan Your Meetings’ audience is full of non-titled planners who wind up planning meetings. So, I wanted to ask you about your corporate experience. I’ve heard that sometimes it’s a struggle choosing venues/destinations if, say, the vice president’s wife saw something and she really liked it — that’s what they want to use. How do you work with these decision-makers if they may want something that’s not best for the group?
That’s who I created the Event Planning class for … people who, like me, it wasn’t their job but they end up doing it anyway. I start with a mindmap: who, what, when, where, why. Why are we doing it? Who are the stakeholders (the shareholders, the attendees, the wife)? If it’s the wife, you may have to spend some time with her and find out what her vision is and her thoughts are, or maybe meet her for lunch at this location. If it’s not a good location, maybe point out, in a friendly way, how this may not be a good spot for whatever it is. But in order to do that, you need to know who is making the decisions and who the influencers are. And of course, go through the when and the where: Is this a time when it’s appropriate for our industry is something else going on? Are people not even going to be able to attend? The what is “what are the resources we are going to need?” … Once you put that on paper … you present it in a way that’s research-based.
The whole “treat people how you’d like to be treated” is the wrong approach. Treat people how they want to be treated. Once you figure out who the players are and what their buttons are, it’s a real easy sell. Just start using them to coordinate whatever it is. We had to use the same caterer for a long time and their food was horrible, but they had a relationship with somebody. Nobody knew who the relationship was with, they just kept using them. Well, I went in and found out where the relationship was and found out that person no longer worked for the company. [I was] like: “You’re fired. We’re not using you after all.” Even if that person is still with the company, I guarantee they don’t know you’re only using that company because they’re your friends. They have no idea that’s what’s happening, in most cases, so get to the root of what’s [going on].
What’s some advice you have for young planners?
Do what you’re passionate about; what you like. I don’t do weddings, but if that’s what you want to do, go after it wholeheartedly and don’t do business meetings or something just because you think you should. Following your passion is key. The other thing is get out and network, whether it’s online or face to face, and get in front of people who can help you get contacts and do different things. Work hard and have fun, too. You have to enjoy what you do. I really try to tell people whatever your knowledge is pass it on. It’s not common in our industry to share and I think that’s why our #eventsprofs community is small, because people are not used to sharing.
I used to hear a lot, especially from independent planners, that they looked at each other as competition. But I feel as if that’s changing, perhaps due to social media. What do you think?
I think so, too. I think the MPIs of the world are great, but they’re not always affordable to people who are not necessarily planners — secretaries, administrative professionals — but who are asked to do this. The old days of the MiForum are gone. Those forums really kept us from promoting ourselves, and I think what social media does is allow you to promote yourself. People are just kind of going for it, but I think it’s a good thing; the community is a good thing. Social media has given event professionals a platform to step from behind the curtain and promote who we are and showcase the wonderful work we do. It has opened a dialog to allow us to support and educate each other on the latest trends. I think people who are making connections appreciate the collaborative nature of social media much more than [they] fear competition.