Gerry Regan, Co-Founder & Executive Producer of The Wild Geese, was kind enough to not only join a panel on social media for Duke Alums earlier this summer but also to recap some of his observations in the Q+A below. As you will soon discover Gerry brings a world of experience to his latest venture, a relatively new social network dedicated to the all things Irish. (Side note: As a social media practitioner, I’m rooting for niche networks like The Wild Geese with the hope they can provide engagement opportunities beyond those currently offered on Facebook and Twitter). And with that bit of cheerleading, here’s Gerry:
Drew: How did your end up in social media and what are your principal responsibilities?
I found my way into social media through my work as a journalist. After pursuing acting in Durham for a time after my Duke graduation, somewhat half-heartedly, and sampling other pursuits, I decided to focus on journalism, and received a masters degree toward that end from NYU in 1985. I then worked for several years for Gannett Westchester Newspapers, was let go, and then joined the news team at Prodigy, with AOL a sort of proto-Web. From there I made my way to Newsday Direct, Newsday’s first foray into digital media and the forerunner of newsday.com. It was at that point, in 1996 or thereabouts, that a colleague at Newsday introduced us to HTML and promised us that, together with the burgeoning Internet, these technologies would revolutionize our work.
So in 1997, Joe Gannon, Micah Chandler and I, all three friends, devotees of history and fellow Civil War re-enactors, created TheWildGeese.com, what we anticipated becoming the first of a series of websites designed to facilitate exploring the history that we relished. In the case of The Wild Geese, the focus was the dramatic history of the Ireland and the Irish diaspora. We hadn’t much understanding of how to sustain our efforts as a business, but thought we could figure that out as we went along. We kept our day jobs, though, and kept working on The Wild Geese, using our hand-coded website right till March 2013, when we determined that sustaining a social network held much greater chance for our success than our homespun online magazine. Plus, we saw great value in this opportunity to vastly multiply the voices we could thus bring into the conversations there. Hence, we re-launched The Wild Geese as the only social network focused on exploring and celebrating the epic heritage of the Irish worldwide.
My principal responsibilities these days are crafting and implementing a sustainable revenue model, a pursuit that engages me in building our team, researching digital marketing’s promise and capabilities, exploring our target market’s needs and wants and how to utilize both our team’s passion and technology to cost-effectively deliver on these. I also handle the bookkeeping; write the checks (I’m self-financed for now); write articles (occasionally); suggest and help implement content, community and marketing initiatives; sit in and often lead team meetings; and identify and assign spheres of responsibility, all in an effort to forge a foundation for our mission that will allow us to grow and prosper for years to come.
Drew: What role if any did Duke prepare you for your future career?
I came to Duke as a world-class introvert, and dreaded public speaking and writing papers, and Duke certainly gave me plenty of opportunities to overcome those phobias. In fact, I chose to major in physics, all in an effort to steer clear of public speaking and paper-writing. When I headed off to Dublin for my third undergraduate year, though, I decided to pursue Irish and British history, along with physics. It was at Trinity College Dublin that I found my metier, discovering that though my perfectionism led to an aversion to writing, when I handed in research papers, I found them hugely satisfying. The storyteller in me emerged, as well as my passion for history and Irish culture. These all have stayed with me. During my final year at Duke, I joined Duke Players and studied public speaking, both, in prospect, very intimidating. But I particularly enjoyed acting and the bon homie it provided. So Duke essentially provided me two things, a vehicle for personal growth and a springboard for professional advancement, even though it took me quite a few years to understand that.
Drew: You’ve built a very interesting niche business. How many “members” do you have in your network now and how big would you like to see it? What do you think it will take to get there?
We’re not a business yet, Drew, in that we’re far from profitable. I think we may need a year or even two to reach that point. We are closing in on 2,300 members, garnered in our 17 months as a network, with very little marketing spend to date. We understand that needs to change, and will. though. We need to grow dramatically if we are to achieve sustainability. We are about to launch our first marketing campaign, with the help of Facebook, and expect within a year to have close to 8,000 members and garner nearly half-a-million page views each month, an eight-fold increase. The page views are really more vital to our sustainability, at least in the short term, than the membership count. We believe that with this marketing thrust, and bringing additional revenue streams into line, such as premium memberships and innovative sponsorships, we have a shot at creating a viable business, and, to us, equally importantly, one that promotes and supports Irish culture ‘wherever green is worn.’
Drew: What are the advantages to potential marketing partners to working with The Wild Geese site?
We believe there is an underserved niche in the cultural space, and particularly in the realm of Irish culture, a space we know increasingly well. Small marketers have limited and cost-effective choices. These options include, most notably, Facebook and Google, but these platforms, while easily managed, lack one ingredient we feel is vital — the human touch. We believe that an engaged, dynamic community of potentially tens of thousands of cultural devotees around the globe affords a ready-made audience for purveyors of Irish culture, for artists, artisans, ‘solopreneurs’ cultural institutions, and businesses large and small who can and do support our members’ passions for exploring the Irish experience worldwide. Using the growing technological and human connections that we aim on our mission has powerful appeal, we’re learning, appeal that provides both reach and the personal touch that the mass social media seem to have no interest in providing. Ultimately, we believe we’re offering members — and marketers — a chance to claim and / or support this passion for their own, to in effect ‘get a piece of the rock.’ Connecting our growing membership with hundreds of Irish marketers in direct and personal ways we believe represents a distinct differential advantage in this space.
Drew: What’s the most exciting part about working at your company right now?
Most exciting to me is seeing our team step up and meet our day-to-day challenges, my work in helping forge this team, and seeing it respond to direction and innovate solutions to our challenges. And seeing The Wild Geese’s influence, along with our reach and revenue, grow!
Drew: Talk a little about your own involvement in social media. How active are you and on what channels?
I use Facebook to communicate with friends and colleagues, and LinkedIn as a professional resource. I tend to limit my Facebook circle to people I either know or whom I’ve met or at least spoken to. Other colleagues and other networkers I steer to LinkedIn (or The Wild Geese). We auto post to Twitter from our Facebook page, so there’s quite a lot of Irish chatter on it that I don’t personally create. I am beginning to appreciate the potential of Twitter, though, as a fascinating real-time news roundup, and may use it more frequently in the months ahead. I’ve used Google+ least of all, but am finding that Google Hangouts are an increasingly important platform for multimedia content for us, so we’re using Google more and more, both for the Hangouts and for chat and talk. It’s become easier and more common for us to post for WG in Google+. I don’t use Google+ for personal use, at least not yet.
Drew: Relative to the other Dukies on the panel, you and I are on the “seasoned” side of our careers. Do you encounter “agism” when presenting The Wild Geese to younger social media professionals? Can you speak to the advantages of having more work experience when working in social media?
I’m not aware of age-ism, LOL, perhaps because I never act my age. I don’t have the technical grasp of social media that seems prevalent among our younger peers, and perhaps that’s a plus. I like to operate on a need-to-know basis, which helps keep me better-focused and my life simpler. I understand my limits, but won’t let a disinclination to reach out to those who can and want to help be one of those. These ‘whippersnappers’ inspire in me a sense that with technology (and passion) everything is possible. Drew, when you say ‘more work experience’ do you mean outside of social media? I’ll presume you do. I majored in mathematics at Duke, though through my years as an undergrad I really found my passion in history and storytelling. I like the approach I stumbled into, that of learning how to think and problem solve as an undergrad, and then pursuing softer sciences and interests later. After all, if one wants to learn a trade, why spend tens of thousands of dollars. I find there’s real power in focusing on what I have in front of me — the challenges and the resources — and looking back for lessons, but not ‘staring’ back. After all, we each have but ‘one day at a time’ to move forward with our dreams and ambitions, no more and no less.
Drew: Finally, how important do you think it is for our peers to be active in social media? What are they missing if anything?
The average age of a member of The Wild Geese is now 54, and I find that both gratifying and amazing, that is to see how these boomers are increasingly finding their way into not only The Wild Geese, but also Facebook, which is clearly pacing the trend. We have members in their 80s, a few of whom complain that they are having trouble figuring out how our platform works, but, Drew, it’s the individuals who complain that we relish, it’s those who walk away without a word or with a bad word or two to others that we fear. I’m not sure boomers ARE, in fact, missing anything — I sense they are joining the social media revolution in increasing numbers. In the case of The Wild Geese, it would seem many are only waiting for a reason to join. For us at The Wild Geese, that would be ‘coming home’ to our Irish roots, the satisfaction of looking back, getting answers about our past and our ancestry, and saying, yea, we’ve got a few years on us, and what a journey it continues to be!