Blogs, wikis, and speaker selection

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When it comes time to line up speakers for your next conference, do 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, and author of E-Venting.net, believes that social media can help.


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


A: 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 most interested in using social media to program events—the hardest thing I face is figuring out what 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 the site’s content]. People in the events industry are interested in two things: Making their jobs easier; and improving the quality of their conferences. Tapping into social media will allow them to do both of those things.


Q: How can blogs help?


A: A lot of people focus on the technology, but it’s not so much about the technology as it is about getting feedback. Now we only get feedback after the show. Wouldn’t it be great to have feedback while we’re developing the program to increase our chances of getting it right the first time? Instead of getting hundreds of pitches from prospective speakers and having to rely on an advisory board and our familiarity with the speaker or the company, imagine having the whole thing 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? If you could, we’d be interested in seeing it.” Conference programmers generally don’t know as much about the topics we’re covering as registrants do—if we did, we would be deeper in the industry, not running its events. So we have to rely on feedback from people who live and breath it every day, and social media like a blog is a good way to collect more of this feedback from these people.


Q: Wouldn’t it get a little chaotic to throw your programming open to the world?


A: If you have four keynotes and four general session panels, and 32 track sessions, as I had in the event I just programmed, there’s no way you could just say, “OK blogosphere, let me know what you want to hear.” There still 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 identify a keynote as a place to start. I can see a conference programmer going up to a very elusive keynoter and say, “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 them to come to your event.


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


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


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


A: 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 show—a lot of burden is put on the meeting planner to get it all right. I plan to create a wiki where prospective and confirmed speakers could upload all their materials, their bios, their headshots, what topics they can speak on, all their assets, instead of having them send it all to the conference producer to send to the printer.


Q: How would it work?


A: What I envision is that every time I g et a speaker proposal, I go back to the PR person or the company and tell them to upload the speaker bio and the headshot, and to fill out the form on the wiki about topics, the number of years they’ve been in the industry, even podcasts and video clips--whatever would help the programmer make the decision on whether they’d like to talk to this person about speaking. You could even use RSS feeds [which syndicate content from one Web site to another] to include speaker blogs, or even a Google search for that speaker’s name, so there’s always fresh content. All you have to do is build functionality and people will use it in innovative ways.


The speakers wiki probably will start with speakers for just one show, but it eventually could turn into a massive speakers bureau that would pull together the assets from the various PR firms, companies, and regular speakers bureaus into one place where conference programmers could do a keyword search and see all the speakers who have raised their hands and said, “Yes, I’d like to speak on that topic for a conference.” And conference programmers would have all the materials they need for the conference brochure and other collateral without having to chase it down.


Q: So, do you think you’re going to be able to talk some of the people you’re working with into doing some of this?


A: 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 others. 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 not an advocate for new technology for the sake of new technology—I like it because it makes my job easier. Who isn’t for that?

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