Today I filled in to host a panel on European Social Media at SXSW. And boy, did I enjoy this session – the audience just rocked. Needless to say, my colleagues and buddies Igor Schwarzmann (@zeigor) and Kevin Dykes (@kdykes) and I had a a great time.

There’s a number of points that I’d like to share with you.

First: Thanks to Robin Grant for for thinking of me after realizing he couldn’t make it over to Austin in time for his own talk. (I wasn’t expected to speak at my first SXSW…). Thanks to the audience, all of whom were great & enganged & shared great stories. Thanks to my co-panelists Igor and Kevin for helping out on such short notice (they had hardly 24h advance notice). And a big thanks also to all of you who pitched in with ideas, stats, links and kind words when Robin and I asked for input as a last-minute preparation for this panel. (This was truly a crowdsourcing effort.)

It’s great to see such a diverse audience like this one in this room, full of the smartest people, a lot of whom are doing business of sorts with or within Europe. I learned a lot from their stories and examples, and I hope the conversation won’t stop here.

But there’s content I’d like to point out too:

Hackerspaces. Someone in the audience talked about a hackerspace she’s involved with in Tokyo, and she made some great points about the connection between social media and the hackers & other early adopters. And it’s true, social media seem to be driven strongly through these techno-philes. I assume this is because there’s a global communication sphere where techies world-wide can connect and share stuff easily. But what roles do hackerspaces play? This should be interesting to research. (Would love to continue this discussion – sadly I was too slow to talk to her, so you read this or know who that was, please ping me!)

Conferences. One question was what the Euro equivalent to SXSW is. Igor and I had discussed this before. I haven’t been, but PICNIC in Amsterdam would probably be close in that it attracts a similar set of folks and also has a strong tie to music. But of course there are other conferences well worth checking out. Depending on personal preferences: reboot in Denmark is a not-quite-annual conference; smaller than SXSW, but absolutely great. It’s not commercially run but a labor of love, so expect a different tonality. The annual meetup of Chaos Computer Club between Xmas and New Years in Berlin is the place to go if you’re into hacker culture. re:publica is where the German bloggers, hacktivists and NGO folks meet the social media crowd. If you’re more into professional agency kind of events, Next (Berlin) might be for you. There’s plenty of smaller, one-day or one-evening events like Ignites, TEDx or similar events (disclosure: I’ve been involved in some of those recently). This list is nowhere complete, so please share more conferences in the comments.

Marketing. When asked for global brands successfully engaging in social media campaigns in Europe, all three of us struggled. Someone pointed out that Dell and Walmart have been doing well; besides that, there’s not all that many overseas campaigns that stand out that any of us remembered. Temporary lapse or serious issue? Hard to tell. There are of course examples of big global brands engaging in European countries via social media, like Mercedes Benz and their (very successful) corporate blog. I’m not aware of any Zappos-like story, though. With smaller companies and particularly startups it’s an entirely different story of course. These folks know how to engage their audiences. This is where it’s happening.

Who should I be watching? We were asked which European social media mavens to follow on Twitter. This is a tough one as two filters were requested: They should be blogging in English, and with a strong focus on social media (not their hobbies or lunches). In another crowdsourcing effort, a few names popped up. and then some more. I’m adding some right now. (Full disclosure: most of those I’ve worked with or am friends with, or both):

(Update: We were asked about global brands that successfully engage in social media. In Germany I recommend checking out Madlen Nicolaus‘ work for Kodak Europe, how O’Reilly Germany‘s Nathalie Pelz works the social webs or – if you’re more interested in corporate blogging – the Daimler Blog (maybe better known as the folks behind Mercedes Benz or Smart Cars).)

Startup culture. This is a hot one and has been discussed for a long time. Europe isn’t Silicon Valley. (Then again, Ohio isn’t Silicon Valley either.) There’s not the same culture of accepting failure at least in Germany, and where you have a strong system of social welfare people maybe don’t have to hustle just as much as where there isn’t. On the other hand, as someone pointed out, this also leads to higher standard of living in Europe (on average, particularly for the not-so-privileged). There’s a lot of assumptions in this statement and it’d be another discussion altogether. However, I think we all agreed that having a less-developed startup culture is not simply a lack of passion in Europe.

Cultural differences. This can’t be stressed enough: Europe is not just another USA. Europe isn’t even Europe, so to speak, but a large number of individual countries. Or as David Weinberger would put it: Small pieces loosely joined. One example I like to give is the role of personal branding. It’s almost a mantra in the US that it is important to build your personal brand. In Europe, this won’t get you far. In Germany or the UK pointing out your successes is – except when done very tactfully – considered boasting rather than legitimate communication. It’ll put people off. Culture clash, anyone?

Bloggers. Blogging isn’t really a major force in Germany (even though there’s some great stuff), but it is in France. (It’s different in other European countries.) Why is this important? You might want to reach out to bloggers, but on different terms. Since hardly any German bloggers make a living doing so, financial incentives are hard to use. Still, if you talk to them you might build long-lasting, productive relationships. If you offer them money per blog post, you might just have made a new critic. Be tactful and work with locals.

Details, details, details! Europe isn’t the US. Don’t take your assumptions for granted. Two small examples: In Europe, weeks start on Mondays, not Sundays – make sure to reflect that in your online calendar. In Germany, credit cards aren’t as ubiquitous as in the US or Sweden: they’re more costly, and the card carrier is liable for credit card fraud. (If someone uses your credit card in a fraudulent way, it’s nowhere guaranteed that you’ll get refunded, and it’s a bureaucratic hassle.) Keep those things in mind and work with locals. It’s all very doable, you just have to pay attention.

Europe is worth your effort. Speaking of cultural differences and boasting vs building your brand: I completely forgot to point out some strong points of Europe, and why it’s worth your efforts anyway – way worth! You can draw from a huge, diverse population and different backgrounds. Distances are small and it’s easy for EU citizens to move between countries without much paperwork. The market is huge (bigger than the US) both in terms of population and economics. In the web industry, and depending on your exact focus, competition might not be as tough in the US (yet). Plus, it’s pretty damn nice over there ;) Take Soundcloud as an example: Founded by a few Swedish guys in Berlin with a very international team. They picked the right time and the right folks from the right places and built a service that just rocks. European privacy or labor laws aren’t in the way if you don’t try to just copy & paste a US model but work within the different cultural, legal and economic framework.

To wrap it up, Robin Grant has put together a blog post with plenty of statistics about the European social media sphere. This is a great place to start looking for some basic info.

Alright, that’s my two cents for the moment. I’d love to continue this conversation with you. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch, here in the comments, via Twitter (@thewavingcat) or email (peter@thewavingcat.com).

And again, thanks!