Virtual Austin: Nikki Sunstrum had an idea.

When SXSW was cancelled last week, Nikki Sunstrum took notice. A few minutes later, she took action. She innocently suggested Virtual SXSW replace the event. And then, it came to life around a single tweet. You can hear about it here, and the amazing group of presenters and topics that will be streamed to Virtual Austin Group on Facebook on March 18, and 19.

Adam Pierno 0:11
Welcome back to another episode of the strategy inside everything. I almost called it an emergency session. But I feel like the word emergency is not appropriate for anything that is not a true emergency. But that is related to this conversation we’re about to have today. I am joined by none other than Nikki Sundstrom, who’s the Director of Social Media and Public Engagement at the University of Michigan. Nikki, how are you?

Nikki Sundstrom 0:36
I’m doing well. Thank you for having me.

Adam Pierno 0:38
We were just catching up on all the crazy stuff that’s happening out in the world. And I think give people a little bit of your background and kind of what you’ve done in your career. And then let’s talk about the current state of the world and the little part that you are trying to make sunnier and better.

Nikki Sundstrom 0:54
Absolutely. So I first found myself stumbling into social media back around 2007. I was working for the state of Michigan at the time. And I really saw the emerging tools as an opportunity to increase government transparency, and customer service. And I ended up becoming the statewide the first state wide social media coordinator for the state of Michigan and then landed here after the University of Michigan had a similar interesting, gave me a ring six years ago. So I have been overseeing the university wide social media strategy, engagement, protocol, best practice and also a lot of the executive communications in digital the President’s Twitter account, you know, those kind of things for six years now.

Adam Pierno 1:50
Wow. So you’ve you’ve probably seen a lot of school that size and a community that sizes, a lot of conversation, especially around you’ve got full NCAA activity going all seasons. So you have a great football team, great basketball program. So it’s highly active, I’m sure.

Nikki Sundstrom 2:10
Yes, there certainly never a dull moment here.

Adam Pierno 2:12
Yeah, I’m witnessing similar things here. So as at the time of this recording right now we’re living through coronavirus or kovat 19 and seeing cancellations of all kinds of events and even tire suspensions of entire seasons for professional sports and for the NCAA Tournament. It is shocking, but I think necessary. What do you what do you say?

Nikki Sundstrom 2:38
You know, we’re living in very unprecedented times, um, and I’m relying on the medical professionals that I have the opportunity to sit in rooms with for guidance. That is certainly not my area of expertise. But I am certainly helping to communicate on their behalf these necessary measures.

Adam Pierno 2:59
Yes. I liked the musical accompaniment when you said you’re relying on the medical experts, there was a little chime that came I’m assuming from your from your mobile phone.

Nikki Sundstrom 3:07
That’s right. It is now on Do Not Disturb I’m sorry about that.

Adam Pierno 3:12
No worries. I think it punctuated that you’re making good decisions like “That’s correct!” So the way you and I met was on Twitter, I think 24 hours or maybe 12 hours or maybe six hours after the announcement of South by Southwest wisely postponing their event. Now, the reasons for them postponing may be more financially related then, you know, prudently medical related as some of the later events but still it was a shock to the system and one of the first major events that I was exposed to was interested in then I saw “Oh, wow, that this is this is really happening.” And you kind of came up with a with a big idea. What did you think when you first saw that cancellation?

Nikki Sundstrom 3:59
You know, it’s funny. I belong, obviously to a lot of different communities having been in the social media profession for over a decade now. And we’re always kind of trying to keep each other informed. The pace, obviously, of social necessitates that you’re constantly on the top of your game. So when I originally saw the announcement, which I think a lot of us were kind of anticipating, I didn’t have intentions of going to South by this year, I’ve gone more than once previously, and spoken at the event as well. And so I know the sizing and scale of the gathering, and the trickle down effect of everything we’re seeing related to COVID- 19 really was indicative of the fact that it probably would get canceled. But I’ll be completely honest, when I first saw it, and you know, share the tweet and kind of said, you know, I’ll raise my hand to coordinate a virtual south by I don’t know that I was committing to everything I’ve gotten into more, just glancing A seed of an idea.

Adam Pierno 5:01
I’m so sorry that this landed on you. Can you so tell people a little bit about the idea you came up with? Let’s talk about Virtual South by?

Nikki Sundstrom 5:10
Absolutely. And so Virtual South by when it started to gain some traction after I shared that first post, a lot of people, you know, they love to still come together and working in higher education. You know, my job every day is to facilitate educational opportunities. You know, whether I’m sharing research or you know, something here that’s happening academically or public speaker on campus, I really love furthering that message and you know, as a public institution, giving access to that knowledge to everyone in anyone around the world. So virtual south by you know, when people express interest just made good sense to me. I’m more than happy to throw together a schedule and help give people opportunities to share their area of expertise with people. It quickly went through from one day to two, which made a lot of sense, if you look at the south by structure, you know, there’s always in, in interactive, and then they added education higher ed a couple of years ago. So now we have a day next Wednesday, March 18, which is probably similar to what you’d see at South by Interactive, and it is all big brands, coming together from a variety of areas to do 30 minute sessions from nine o’clock in the morning until 430 in the afternoon, and then on Thursday, we will have panels and the same structure based primarily out of the higher education space, so a wide array of institutions, faculty members, and experts within that area. It’s gonna be pretty wild.

Adam Pierno 6:51
It’s it’s amazing how fast I think I woke up I saw it either trending or I don’t even know maybe it was in my notification someone tagged or something and then next thing I know, it was everybody piling on and saying I’m in, I’m in I’m in, you know, there was I was on a thread with something like 30 people that were all kind of tagged in and everybody was said how can I do this? How can I help? I’ll I’ll help. Of course most of the helping is the work. we’re coordinating all of it but I could not believe the the energy that that came behind it right away. It was were you shocked by sometimes we post those things and nobody even responds. Were you shocked by how fast it happened? You know,

Nikki Sundstrom 7:33
I wasn’t I wasn’t, um, I have always benefited from a really strong engaged network and, and frequently speak at conferences and events. And so there was the usual suspects that you know, if somebody was willing to put the work in was like ours, my hand this is great. And that’s one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about the social media profession. We’re all avid learners. You know, we’re constantly chasing new networks or new methods of engagements or algorithms or trying to figure out how to engage our stakeholders. And this, again, was just another opportunity that I think that popped up that people were like, yes, this totally makes sense. We can’t meet in person. What if we did it online? And the irony is that that’s what we do with our constituencies every single day. So why not throw a two day Twitter chat or as it turned out, you know, pop up a Facebook group real quick that we could all stream into. We were the right people to get it done.

Adam Pierno 8:36
I think I think you you got it in front of the right group. Yeah, at the right time that were extremely willing and interested. Did you at any point did you say Oh, no. Why did I do that? Or are you are you just smiling and happy that this is all coming together like it is a

Nikki Sundstrom 8:50
you know, it hasn’t been too terribly difficult, which, you know, is very, very fortunate. A lot of great speakers automatically popped up and wildly impressed. rested. Now, the evolving Cova 19 scenario is has a, you know, change some things, there’s some people that thought they would be able to speak and we’re really interested in their, you know, situations have changed based on what’s happening within their businesses or institutions. But fortunately, I had a pretty deep bench within the first 24 hours. So it’s actually hasn’t even been a full week, since the announcement or since virtual SXSW was launched. That’ll happen about 530 tonight, which is kind of crazy. We have a full 33 speakers lined up for next week already. And I actually just saw somebody asking about music and if we could stream some of that next week as well. And I said, more power to you, if you can figure it out. Let’s do it. So it just keeps kind of taking on a life of its own. And so I really wasn’t surprised, again, great people make great things happen. And that’s just Just what we’re seeing if you can figure out how to stream barbecue and tacos, I think you can really bring the Austin You know, that’s been coming up as well, quite frequently. I haven’t pulled that one off yet.

Adam Pierno 10:11
That would be incredible. Well, I’m glad that however I got involved in this thing almost by accident, I’m really glad that I that I stumbled on it and I’m really excited to participate. What are you most looking forward to? And are you are you actually speaking at this are you delivering in a session?

Unknown Speaker 10:28
You know, this is the nice thing I’m actually not I’m I’m just kind of playing the puppet master behind the scenes. I’m gonna jump on each morning and provide a welcome and get the zoom going into the Facebook group. I’ll probably do some live tweeting, because we have had to navigate, you know from Twitter into a space where we stream on Facebook. And then I’m going to moderate one panel with a couple of professional women towards the end of the day on Thursday and throw out some questions in a lifetime. Our chat kind of format, or we can really bring everybody together. But that is solely my role in the circumstance. I am the facilitator. And you know, the host or the gather of these brilliant, brilliant minds. I love it. How important you mentioned that you do speak a lot, and you do attend a lot of events. How important are those events and meetings? Well, particularly important to me, because my background is in education. So I always like to joke that speaking on stage is my equivalent of teaching and justifies my student loans. But more so it has provided the opportunity to network and to meet with so many phenomenal people. Jason Keith, from the CEO of Social Fresh and founder of, you know, the oldest, if not one of the oldest social media conferences is going to open our conference for us and I just had the opportunity to speak at his conference last fall. So you know, being connected and aware with him, right? came on board very quickly. Brian Fanzo is going to join us, which is phenomenal. And he’ll be closing out our first day. But other communities that I’ve been in and other networks in which we’ve talked about have also made things just kind of happened serendipitously. This afternoon, I was able to announce a bonus session with the social media team from NASA, who saw a friend of a friend kind of talk about it and got pointed in my direction. And that’s the beauty of social media.

Adam Pierno 12:30
It’s incredible. I love it. Do you? What do you think the virtual version will have that potentially a live event doesn’t have?

Nikki Sundstrom 12:41
You know, as a former attendee, or somebody that’s attended SXSW quite a few times. You know, there is such an overwhelming program element, you know, you always walk away I think every year wishing you could have gotten two more we’re gonna have a Little bit more of a streamlined, you know, agenda, which is kind of nice, but simply also a bandwidth issue for me, I can only do one track each day. So we will have the added benefit, I think of that. But even more so the Facebook group that we’ve popped up already is nearing if has not surpassed today 500 community members, and you know, just like South by anybody can attend, and they’re talking to each other in a way that might be a little bit different than the opportunities that you get in Austin. And then they’ll have that ability if they so choose to stay together in that community. And knowledge share moving forward. And so I think that’s pretty unique and pretty special. Dammit, you’re gonna make me join Facebook so I can be a part of that community. Right. Yeah, I know. I had to go back to we talked a little bit I’m so sorry.

Adam Pierno 13:52
It’s okay. It’ll be worth it’ll be worth it. I’ll just turn off all notifications and try to close off all the tracking that they do. I don’t know. We’ll figure something than out. It is difficult. It’ll be nice to see some members of my family that I only had seen there. There you go. That’ll be that’s an upside. But yeah, I do want to participate in the community aspects of it because it had, like I said, it’s been great to watch it grow. And it sounds like I’m seeing it on Twitter. But it sounds like it’s happening more so on Facebook, the continuing conversation and maybe even richer conversations there where you can go beyond 280 characters.

Nikki Sundstrom 14:26
Yeah, it’s really interesting. I’ve been able to pop in just a few things, you know, as the groups have grown, and, you know, not, you could call it a roll call. But, hey, where are you from? check in, let us know. And we’re starting to see a lot of global participation at this point, which is really phenomenal. Outside of even just the mitten state where I reside, or Texas, where people saw the virtual south by thing pop up across the United States and then into Europe, which was kind of fascinating for me. It’s I was establishing the schedule because I, you know, naively assumed everyone was Eastern Standard Time. And everyone’s like,

Adam Pierno 15:07
I think you and I bumped into that a little –

Unknown Speaker 15:09
Yeah, exactly. I was like, Oh, yeah, people live on their places I forget some time. Um, so that’s really great to see as well.

Adam Pierno 15:17
I think it’s, it’s been amazing. Do you think you would do this again? You think next year you’ll have another one? Or is it wait and see,

Nikki Sundstrom 15:24
the million dollar question?

Adam Pierno 15:26
Could be could be more than a million dollar question. To be fair,

Nikki Sundstrom 15:29
you know, if all goes well, next week and off without a hitch, I can certainly see the possibility of something happening again. I also think they’re really special thing in the circumstances that you know, once we’ve established the community and demonstrated that it can be done. Anybody could pick it up, right? I could pass the torch to somebody else and, and they could be the host of virtual Austin next year, because we’ve we’ve built this platform for them. Do it. I love it.

Adam Pierno 16:01
And I especially love that you are building something to be handed off, you’re not trying to own it or being proprietary. It’s like, here’s this is all public things that I’m using zoom, it’s Facebook, here’s here’s how to take it and build on it.

Nikki Sundstrom 16:18
Yes, I’ve tried to be very transparent with everyone with speakers and, and anyone else on the line, we started to get even some solicitations about wanting to participate in our event. And I said, you know, it doesn’t really exist in real life. Right?

Unknown Speaker 16:35
I’m just signing it up to see what’s gonna happen.

Nikki Sundstrom 16:38
I mean, you can come knock on Facebook’s door, I guess. But, um, it is just truly unique and an opportunity for us to share knowledge together. And that’s not something that that I own. That’s something that we all own and we learn more when we widen our spectrum and you know, Ah with people that are doing things that are completely different than us,

Adam Pierno 17:03
I love it. One more question and then I will let you go on this pretty short pop up episode of the strategy inside of everything. What if so I just as I was walking into this room to join this call, I ran into someone who is transitioning an event from a live event to a virtual event, what are the What’s one or two of the biggest learnings that you’ve had as you’ve been figuring this out?

Nikki Sundstrom 17:30
I’ve learned a lot about streaming. As I kind of indicated Originally, I thought, you know, 24 hour tweet chat, that’d be great. For years on years here at U of M, we implemented something called the Miche chats, they were once monthly dialogues, where we bring together internal expert, external experts and faculty to talk on pivotal issues affecting society and impacting the world and so you know, That’s a pretty easy format to me, I’ll just draw something out and you answer and we’ll be fine. But people really wanted that visual element. So I did have to pop up a Facebook group and I thought, Okay, everybody just grab your phone and jump on. But people wanted to show slides and I was like, Okay, I need to figure out how to do this. But thankfully, everyone else is participating as a panelist or a participant, they’re like, oh, I’ve been in this thing. And I have used this tool or I’ve used this, what do you think about that? So we did identify zoom. And I tested it just a little bit the other day, so I think it’s going to go ahead and work for us. And then we started to get panels, which I thought was really interesting. I’m

Adam Pierno 18:43
exhausted, you know, panels are gonna work

Nikki Sundstrom 18:44
exactly. Well cross your fingers, okay.

You know, we’re gonna have maybe multi screens going on at the same time. It just, it’s so exciting and hopefully, based on my level of transparency in this space, people will be very forgiving if anything goes awry. We’re going to kind of fly by the seat of our pants.

Adam Pierno 19:06
I think that’s fantastic. Hey, Nikki, I really appreciate that you stepped up and saw the opportunity here to help keep the community together and build something that people could all get gather around and this weird, uncharted waters that we’re swimming around and together, so I appreciate you stepping forward and doing that. It is absolutely My pleasure. Where can people a learn more about virtual South By now and then where can they view it when on the 18th when it kicks off?

Nikki Sundstrom 19:36
Yes. So right now, they can visit me on Twitter @NikkiSundstrom. There’s a link in my bio that will take them to the full agenda for the event. And then if they want to join the Facebook group, which is where we’ll be having the live streams, they can look for Virtual Austin on Facebook.

Adam Pierno 19:58
That’s fantastic. All right, thank you very much. It’s been great talking to you.

Nikki Sundstrom 20:03
Thank you, Adam.