Social-networking technology is invaluable in ensuring that attendees are engaged before, during and after an event, improving their experience and whetting their appetites for future events. By Adam Pletsch, September/October 2008
Traditional meetings and events can generate a wealth of interesting content about a particular industry. Sometimes a conference or show does a good job of entertaining its attendees. Other times people are just happy to have left home for a while to spend time with peers and colleagues.
Today’s meeting and event planners should be shooting higher. They should be making sure that attendees are engaged before, during and after an event, with the aim of creating a buzz that will improve everyone’s experience and leave them eagerly looking forward to the next one.
Technology can help planners do this. Social networking tools are all about giving attendees the capacity to actively publish and make known to others their own observations and experiences – sometimes while the event is still in progress. Meanwhile, shrewd planners are taking events and changing them from static experiences where conversations and interactions occur but are mostly forgotten, and extending them so that enthusiastic conversations (many of them online) will keep taking place throughout the year.
Unfortunately, Canadian event planners are not yet buying into the concepts of social networking with much gusto.
Alissa Hurley, director of meetings, events and incentive travel, Maritz Canada Inc., in Mississauga, Ont., says most of her clients are in sectors such as technology, telecommunications, financial services, healthcare and automotive, and are in the “very early stages of even considering adopting social networking as part of their meetings programme.” She does say clients within the technology sector are more advanced and have more early adopters.
Maritz has had success integrating social networking into some of its key clients’ events. Hurley says this is a good way to extend the life of the event “beyond a single point in time,” build awareness in advance of the event and facilitate discussions post-event.
“With some technology and healthcare clients, it’s been really effective, and we’ve been able to leverage those best practices in educating our other clients,” she says. “It’s early in the adoption cycle, but we’ve been able to gather some good examples.”
One of Maritz’s healthcare clients used social networking to help facilitate discussions before a conference that led into one-on-one meetings at the event itself. With a third-party tool from Leverage Software, an online forum was created which facilitated the one-on-one text conversations among people with similar interests. Event exhibitors could network with the attendees online and then set up mutually beneficial face-to-face meetings.
“It was similar to an online discussion board, but also with a scheduling and profiling element,” explains Hurley. “So ‘I can see this person fits this profile, so I want to meet with this person because I’m interested in the same things.’”
In this case, the technology was used primarily pre-event and extended to on-site at the event, though other Maritz clients have done more.
According to Chris Brogan, a speaker, blogger, writer and producer of media of all kinds at his own social-media blog (chrisbrogan.com), conferences like the blogger event Gnomedex, in Seattle, provide a great deal of pre-event networking support, including the building of a profile network, a likeness calculator (which asks, “Do we have something in common?”), and private messaging – all within the platform. He says this adds up to enhanced pre- and post-event networking.
“These platforms permit an ability to pre-stack the meeting experience with information. We can post agendas, slide decks, video introductions using YouTube, and [put] more into a neat little event package. This permits all kinds of relationship-building and business prospecting ahead of the main event.”
Hurley says other applications, some for Maritz technology clients, extend to the post-event period, too.
For example, some allow the integration of active bloggers. These are often consultants, industry watchers and industry experts who have their own blogs (online journals – from the term “Web log”), and use wireless networks available free on-site at the event to blog live to people who may or may not be in attendance. “[Organizers] just encouraged that communication vehicle through those bloggers,” says Hurley. “And it’s very exciting to see them at the event, because they’ll be in the session at the meeting table blogging live on what’s happening at that particular moment in time.”
Besides the excitement created, the work of bloggers can also encourage those who didn’t come to the event, to come next year. Or, Hurley says, bloggers can extend the event or conference to audiences that will never physically attend, because it’s not in their region, or budget. “Actually, those bloggers drive attendance to some of the recorded materials, such as webcasts and things like that.”
Paul Gillin, a Framingham, Mass.-based social-media author and consultant, says when attendees do participate in live online dialogues about an event, organizers would do well to listen to what they are saying. The information that is being lobbed around in these social networks is often pure gold.
Gillin says a clear example of this occurred in March, at the South by Southwest conference, in Austin, Tex., where “a very geeky crowd,” made up of a lot of Twitter users, was actively Twittering about all aspects of the conference. Twitter (www.twitter.com) is a free social-networking service that allows friends, family, co-workers or peers to stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one basic question: “What are you doing?”, although people use the short posts to offer opinions and share links and a lot of other musings and information.
“The organizers were able to tap into this and actually able to adjust the agenda as they went along,” says Gillin. “They changed the registration process mid-stream, for example, because so many people were commenting on it. That’s an example of how you can really move very quickly, if you’re tapped into what people are saying.”
Phil Barrett, senior director, mobile and interactive, Carlson Marketing, of Mississauga, Ont., says the implication of all this is profound: information and attendee opinions no longer have to be private. “If people are really pissed because the coffee’s cold, you can find out right away. If people are complaining that the food sucks and it’s a two-day conference, maybe you can adjust it, as opposed to waiting for the survey two weeks or two months after the event.”
Barrett says when Apple’s Steve Jobs announced the release of the 3G iPhone in June, “the whole blogosphere and social media sphere was abuzz about what was going on.” This is because there were a few people at the actual press conference who were posting pictures, posting transcripts, posting their perspective on things, and just reacting to the event. “So I’m sitting here in Toronto, following three or four blogs that are live, blogging what’s going on, and I feel like I’m actually there.”
re difficult than sustaining interest in an event is drumming it up beforehand. Today, planners send printed invitations or possibly e-mails, with links to an event’s website. Social networking platforms such as Facebook can also be used to build an engaged community. In fact, more people are using Facebook’s Events application than all other events sites and tools combined, says Barrett.
This is surprising when you see the Events application and realize how limited it is. It’s less surprising when you consider that one in three Canadians is registered on the site, according to Barrett. “Facebook is everything the Internet was supposed to be,” says Barrett. “It’s easy to find people, to communicate, to share, so when event planners are looking at pre-planning, building awareness and getting new attendees, they really need to look at tapping into the power of Facebook as a communication channel.”
In fact, Barrett adds, photo sharing on Facebook is not that sophisticated either, yet more people share pictures on Facebook than on all other photo sharing platforms combined. “So it’s not really about the technology, it’s about the fact that we’ve got a really easy-to-use platform and everyone’s on it.”
As a planner, you can easily create your own event page on Facebook, whether it’s a consumer or an open conference, or even if it’s for just a certain type of people. Facebook allows you to target those people within their network, explains Barrett. “Let’s say you only want professionals in Toronto of a certain age range who’ve shown an interest in unicycles. That’s your conference. Then you can actually put ads on the Facebook network that drive people to your fan page, where you can say, ‘here’s our event.’”
Still, Facebook isn’t your only option. Flickr (flickr.com), Photobucket (photobucket.com) and similar sites are obvious places to share experiences through pictures and/or videos. And at most events, many people are already taking pictures and posting them, and these efforts can only serve to help raise your event’s profile, if you can harness them.
Barrett also recommends event planners familiarize themselves with something called Slideshare, which is a way of sharing PowerPoint presentations online – without allowing them to be copied. Planners can make this content available pre- or post-event, so people searching on the site for content will come across the slides, says Barrett. “And if your slides have a call to action, it helps raise that awareness for your brand.”
YouTube is another site that can be used to create a buzz and share experiences. Carlson did all the online work for Canadians accessing the Masters golf tournament this year, and when Barrett was down for the practice rounds, he did some filming for the video blog on mastersgolf.ca. “I filmed Mike Weir and Ben Crenshaw skipping balls across the water onto the green on the 16th hole. It’s a trick shot they do every year. I videotaped it and I put it on YouTube and it’s still driving traffic to our website,” he says.
Another huge positive about many social network sites is they don’t cost the event marketer anything. You may want to spend money on customizing your own websites and putting up special conference or event content, but you don’t have to buy Flickr, YouTube or FaceBook membership. They’re all free.
For an overall, simple event platform, planners can use a solution like Ning.com, which is either free or inexpensive, depending on the level of customization, and does an excellent job of allowing for customizable information, says Brogan. But it also requires that people start an account, build a profile and all kinds of other steps. Something more lightweight might be Facebook or something like MyPunchbowl.com.
Brogan says sites such as Flickr and YouTube can make for great add-ins to an event site. For instance, start a Flickr photo group for your event and invite people to find it with a simple URL link for those with Flickr accounts to join and contribute. Use tagging, and explain to those people to add tags to their media if they’re posting to their own blogs and websites so that others can find the information a little more easily on the Web after the fact. “Not all your attendees will do this, but depending on their level of technical sophistication, this can work well,” says Brogan.
As with any voluntary effort, people will participate to varying degrees. Often, there’s no real incentive to drive participation, which can result in “rather spotty” events, adds Brogan. That’s why he says building a programme with incentives tied to participation (such as: “slides will only be available through the social platform”) makes for a better participation level.
Barrett says any participant should understand privacy issues – and one golden rule: “Google never forgets.” Assume that anything you say in an electronic form can be seen by anyone else, in an e-mail, on blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, or any other such site. “If you apply that filter to your [online] conversations, you’re probably going to be better protected,” he says.
Moreover, as a planner, you should always take into account privacy and privacy regulations, as well as any of your clients’ corporate privacy policies, when implementing any social-networking campaign.
Thankfully, users can choose to be anonymous. “Privacy isn’t all that tricky on most of the platforms,” says Brogan. “They’re built with privacy in mind. People can opt to share something or they can mask all that they want.”
— Adam Pletsch is a Toronto-based freelance writer.