How Events Can Use Social Media

IMS09 Boston Crowd

I’m presenting to the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) conference today. These people all put on conferences for a living, a multi-billion dollar industry (note: I also put on conferences), and work with an events solutions company. What they’ll want to know is how all these social media tools can improve attendance, drive collaboration, extend the value of events, without taking away any potential revenue. They’ll want a very safe path, tried and true, with a step by step understanding of what will add to the bottom line and how to avoid things that will detract.

After years of attending and running events, I can tell you that it’s all still very much a lab environment. That said, here’s what I know.

Social Media Buzzes Up Potential Attendance

Hooking Twitter to your registration system such that it tweets out a message like “I just registered for PodCamp Boston on Jun 14th. Are you coming?” is a powerful way to get more attendance. Also distributing discount codes and early birds via that method is equally effective.

Jeff Pulver did a lot of his promotion and ticket sales via Twitter for his 140 Conference, but then again, that’s an event about Twitter and real-time social media tools of its kind. Would it work as well for a less technology-based show?

It’s hard to say. The demographics of people joining Facebook, for instance, are promising. 650,000 new people join a day, mostly within the age range of 31-55, a little more than half are women. If your show is less technology-focused, there’s still a potential that you could find attendees via Facebook, as people use the tool in many ways in their off time.

But don’t be too optimistic. I’ve yet to find reports or case studies of Facebook having as successful a conversion for attendance. If you build a fan page, it’s just another place to have to push eyeballs and hope for conversion. To the plus, there are more people visiting Facebook than your website. To the minus, they’re not as well targeted. There’s potential there, but it requires a lot of effort. And Facebook ads have shown mixed results.

What’s required is a kind of social media sherpa, who can find you the audience you seek, who can reach to them on the platforms where they are already congregating, and who can help promote in tasteful ways that fit the sensitivities of the networks where your audiences are found.

Social Media Extends Communities

There are a number of community platform tools in all price ranges that might appeal to conference organizers. Some are custom-built to tie into registration systems. Others are separate-but-robust and allow your attendees to build a profile, make meetings at the event, share media, and a whole host of other potential uses. The upside is that this gives organizers a new way to provide sponsors and exhibitors a new place to make relationships. It’s another potential property to advertise on.

To the downside, these communities are rarely heavily used. I’ve been made to sign up for them in the past (and “made to” is the key takeaway for you), and the return on effort wasn’t exactly there. They can appear to be ghost towns, which might drag down the experience of the attendees and send false signals to all involved. Some are costly and require a lot of customization before putting them into practice.

Here’s the thing about communities, bottom line: if you’re going to build one, realize that you need a community manager capable of making content, capable of keeping the “cocktail party environment” going on the site, and capable of understanding potential business introductions of value that would give all involved some yield for being there.

Video and Audio Materials Drive Awareness

Creating video for a YouTube or other video channel of your best presentations is a great way to build awareness of the event, and a way to give your sales team something to talk about when calling up prospects. It’s also a great way to help prospective attendees realize what they could see at the event. Consider the difference between a printed brochure with a bunch of heads on it versus a series of video posts that show highlights or the entire presentation of past presenters.

There are lots of great ways to use video and audio materials to drum up business. Rick Calvert and Jim Turner did this expertly for Blog World Expo, including creating many anticipatory audio podcast experiences. The double benefit of how Rick and Jim did it was that they got their influential speakers to do these pre-show activities and then those were promoted to some extent, thus driving even more potential sign-up.

Here’s where most show organizers worry that they’re giving away the show, and that they can make money on after-show DVD sales. If you’re making a killing on that business, then don’t listen to me. However, I’ve rarely seen many people tell me with a straight face that their after-show DVD sales are a huge stream of revenue, or that the prospect of trading that stream for more paying attendees wasn’t a worthwhile trade-off.

Remember: this video and audio material makes for good sales lead conversational material, not just attendee awareness.

And just sticking the video on YouTube doesn’t mean you’ll have someone knocking down the door. We can talk about all the various elements that need to go into it, including calls to action and the like, but that’ll be another time.

Nothing Is a Slam Dunk, But It All Can Work

After years of experimentation with the various shows I produce or collaborate on, there are lots of ways that social media tools can add to the experience, and there are lots of ways that it can go horribly wrong. The positives are that shows extended by social media get talked about more, get more coverage, get more exposure, and have better potential to grow using non-traditional marketing methods. The negatives are that bad news travels fast.

All in all, the recommendation is to work with someone who understands and can build the strategy around the tools, instead of just throwing a bunch of tools together that you read about in various places. There are no shortcuts to building social media into events, but the yield from taking an intelligent approach is very much worth it.

I’m always happy to talk with you about how events can be extended. Drop me a line on my contact form and I’ll get back soon.

How Have You Seen It Done, Good or Bad?

What are the ways you’ve seen companies attempt to use social media in events, and what do you like or dislike about it?

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