Southerners like to share. It's in our very makeup, from pig pickings to church picnics, football tailgates to baby showers. Back in 2011, friends Cheri Leavy and Whitney Long, Southern publishing veterans, were longing for that same connection from their homes on St. Simons Island, Ga.
Long, a former stylist and scout for publications such as Coastal Living and Southern Accents, as well as Better Homes & Gardens and its special interest titles, kept running across great Southern blogs featuring images from homes she had styled or people and personalities she knew from her years as a field editor. "I kept thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great to create a place where all of these voices could be heard and all this great content could come together?'" she remembers.
For Leavy, founder of a University of Georgia sports fan publication Bulldawg Illustrated and city guidebook guide2athens, communication and bringing folks together was a no-brainer.
After many a cocktail hour brainstorm, the media mavens finalized their plan for Southern Coterie, the "social network of the South."
The Southern Coterie website features content from Southern tastemakers and bloggers from all over the country writing about the South or from a Southern slant, in addition to user-provided commentary such as blog posts on recipes, event planning, gardening, and photography on Southern etiquette, entertaining, and style.
But as Southern women flocked to TheSouthernC.com, Leavy and Long quickly began to notice something else. "While everyone was gathering on our virtual front porch, we saw that Southern brands, business owners, and creatives were coming together in a different way," Leavy says. "With our backgrounds in marketing, Whitney and I wanted to create a space to help entrepreneurs connect and get assistance with issues at the forefront of their minds."
Long adds, "We have so many members that said, 'You know, we'd like to meet in real life. Let's bring this online connection to the real world.' And that's what's happened."
The Southern Coterie launched its first summit in Jekyll Island, Ga. in March 2013 with additional stops in Athens and Nashville. This week Charleston will play host to the fourth summit.
Marketing and branding was a common denominator of interest for Southern C members; conferences usually have educational sessions and discussions on traditional and new media, as well as informal networking get-togethers, which include local food, curated cocktails, and conversations. The last three summits have featured a representative from Southern Living, often considered the Holy Grail of product placement.
"Yes, we started as a website, and we're teaching small Southern business owners the best way to utilize new media, but face-to-face connections remain imperative," Leavy explains.
For Southern C fans, like Tracy Blanchard, it's more than a website. "From a brand exposure perspective, it's so much more than I ever anticipated," says Blanchard, co-founder of Big T's Coastal Provisions and summit participant. "The beauty of the Southern C is that it's intimate and it allows you to connect with all the attendees personally. And the Southern C crowd is brand-loyal. They have embraced the Big T product line and don't mind sharing their loyalty with all of their friends."
Charleston's Southern C Summit promises to be no different, with a set list of speakers that includes Amy Smilovic, owner and creative director of clothing designer TIBI, as well as nationally renowned event planner Tara Guérard, founder of Soirée; and Southern Living Senior Editor Erin Street, plus Caitlin Moran of Glitter Guide and Katie Armour of Matchbook.
The opportunity to meet such individuals is what got artist Way Way Allen interested. "Since the Summit one year ago, I've connected with local graphic designers at Stitch Design Co., who branded and designed my website. I've also connected with old friends and past employers who have been so supportive of my artistic venture," says Allen.
Given the summit's focus, not surprisingly over 90 percent of participants are women, 30-50 years old. What is a more unexpected is its wide geographic following. Many participants hail from Southern states, but there are also contingents from Indiana, New York, Washington state, and Illinois. "Our readers from beyond the South are starving for contact and information," Leavy explains.
Long thinks that Southern Coterie has taken off because of a universal surge in the entrepreneurial spirit. "If you're working virtually, it's easier than ever to make that initial connection and get started," she says. "Our conferences are a great opportunity to get out of your home office and interact. People need that connection. Connection leads to collaboration."
"We're authentic," adds Leavy. "That's the difference. Communicating and connecting, sharing and talking ... none of this feels like work. It's who we are."