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SocialWest: Mike Morrison says customer experience the key for event’s success

The biggest lesson Mike Morrison has learned in building Western Canada’s largest digital marketing conference is that it’s all about the customer experience.

Now in its third year, SocialWest has grown from 350 participants to more than 550 (with 100+ on the waiting list) and has attracted some of the biggest names on the internet: Twitter, Google, Microsoft and Hootsuite. That’s just four of the more than 30 experts he has at sessions during the two-day event (Thursday and Friday) at Eau Claire Market.

“I texted someone today and said, ‘when did I turn into an event planner,’” Morrison told LiveWire Calgary on the eve of his opening night party and annual Hashtag Awards, while claiming to be folding laundry.

“It’s obviously an amazing trajectory.”

The seed of SocialWest was first sown in at the Social Summit four years ago, a partnership with fellow Calgarian Kelly Doody. It was a workshop format at that time and has now turned into full-blown theatre presentations.

Morrison moved the event to a bigger theatre, sold more tickets and attracted bigger names to speak at the event. Many are brands that Calgarians want to hear from that aren’t really in Calgary a lot. There’s also a strong Alberta contingent of experts – people in the tech and digital marketing field who Morrison says are doing a lot of amazing things in the industry, including companies like Calgary’s own Benevity.

With the push to diversify Calgary’s economy and many thinking that tech is a great fit for the city, Morrison said digital and social media marketing are a part of that discussion.

“It really helps with the narrative. We’re doing incredible things here, attracting really incredible companies who want to speak, who want to come out here. Maybe three years ago it was, ‘really, Calgary wants to hear from Twitter?’” Morrison said.

“Now they’re seeing everything that’s happening here.

“I think the goal is the same – to continue this diversification of what Calgarians are known for across the country.”

When charting the course for each year, Morrison says there’s an element of fear that goes into it – not about it getting too big, but making sure he can make ends meet. He’s made a commitment to ensuring that anyone who’s working for SocialWest gets paid – marketers, photographers, tech folks, and, of course, the speakers.

“You take a look at ticket sales and you hope they creep up to the point where you can eat that week,” Morrison joked.

And while it seems as though the growth has been explosive, he’s wanted to maintain a slow, steady growth model instead of letting the event get out of control.

“I’d rather build an event for 30 people and have it be super popular and then grow it to 60 the next year,” he said.

So far, he’s found that sweet spot. Morrison said SocialWest was 50 per cent sold out before they’d even announced a speaker. He found that quite intimidating.

“It’s incredibly intimidating… ‘Hey Mike, here’s $600, please don’t make me think I wasted my money,’” he said.

“Times that by 550 people and basically I’m in therapy the rest of the year.”

A focus on the customer experience has been the biggest lesson in building SocialWest. Morrison said he looks at each person who signs up, finds out their name and what kind of company they’re coming from. Once he gets a good idea of the type of crowd he’s presenting to he builds the program around that.

“I make sure the program fits the people in the room rather than fit the people to the program that I’m building,” he said.

He said the customer experience lesson that has helped build SocialWest into a powerhouse digital marketing conference is a good lesson for life, but a fundamental one for businesses.

“I don’t know if the customer is always right, but the customer should always be happy.”