When it comes time to line up speakers for your next conference, will you find yourself buried in piles of prospectuses from potential presenters, or searching high and low for someone qualified to address your topics? Mike May, principal of The Acorn Group, Bethesda, Md., and author of the blog E-Venting.net, believes that social media can help.

FIM: What is social media, and why should meeting planners care about it?

May: Social media is any outlet that invites conversation with the audience. The value comes not from what the author creates, but from the conversation that ensues. I specialize in developing programming for conferences and events in the interactive media, advertising, marketing, and commerce industries, and we've seen social media at work for a long time — for example, the networking and customer reviews that are a big part of Amazon's success. I'm interested in using social media to program events — the hardest thing is figuring out which speakers can cover what topics for the audience we're after. I'd like to use social media not just to identify who the right speakers are, but also to bring that target audience into the selection process. We can do that using blogs [interactive Web sites that allow readers to comment on the content] and wikis [interactive Web sites that allow others to upload and edit a site's content].

How can blogs help?

It's not so much about the technology as it is about getting feedback. Now we only get feedback after the event. Wouldn't it be great to have feedback while we're developing the program, which would increase our chances of getting it right the first time? Instead of getting hundreds of pitches from prospective speakers and having to rely on our familiarity with the speaker or the company, imagine having the whole process take place online. Speakers could submit their proposals to a blog, and all the registrants could comment in real time. They could say, “I saw you speak at this other event, and I didn't think what you said really covered the topic well. Could you approach it this way instead?”

Wouldn't it get a little chaotic to throw your programming open to the world?

If you have four keynotes, four general session panels, and 32 track sessions, as I had in a recent event, there's no way you could just say, “OK, blogosphere, let me know what you want to hear.” There would have to be some narrowing of the topics, but once you've roughly decided what you want to do, you could open up one session or one track, or ask bloggers to identify a keynote as a place to start. I can see going up to a very elusive keynoter and saying, “170 people who commented on this blog said they want you for our keynote speaker.” That would be a powerful thing to bring to a prospective speaker to get him or her to come to your event.

How is this different from just doing an e-mail survey of potential attendees?

It's a little more qualitative and a little less quantitative, a little richer. You get to some of the reasons behind why people might choose a topic or speaker.

How else can social media be used to ease the speaker selection and management processes?

Everybody who's in meeting planning or production knows what a pain it is to assemble all the materials that go into print before the meeting. I plan to create a wiki where speakers could upload all their materials. What I envision is that every time I get a speaker proposal, I ask [the appropriate company] to upload the speaker bio, a head shot, and even podcasts, video clips, or RSS feeds that include speaker blogs [RSS feeds syndicate content from one Web site to another] — and to fill out a form on the wiki about topics, number of years the speaker has been in the industry, and so on — whatever would help the planner make a follow-up decision.

I hope this will eventually turn into a massive site that will pull together the assets from the various PR firms, companies, and regular speaker bureaus in one place. Planners could do a keyword search, for example, and see all the speakers who have said, “Yes, I'd like to speak on that topic for a conference.” And they would have all the materials they need for the conference brochure and other collateral without having to chase it down.

Do you think you're going to be able to talk some of the people you're working with into participating?

Yes, I think I am. I have the advantage of working with some clients with really strong shows that speakers find desirable. If I can say to prospective speakers, “This is the process you need to follow to be able to speak at the show,” they will. Also, we in the interactive media and marketing industry are often accused of not practicing what we preach. It would be very difficult for a speaker in interactive media to refuse if we said we're going to produce this conference using social media!

I see social media being adopted in the meetings industry more quickly than in many other markets. The meetings industry is all about conversations, education, and community, and social media facilitates all of that. Once people start to see the value, it will be pretty hard to ignore. I'm an advocate for new technology because it makes my job easier. Who isn't for that?