It began as a nagging suspicion. Once the idea started to form, it got harder to ignore. And once I began paying attention to it, I knew I would soon have some pointed questions about one of the most powerful trends in our industry:

What if the incessant buzz about social media and social technologies is mostly smoke and mirrors? In the search for quick solutions, are meeting professionals missing out on the impact that social media can legitimately deliver?

Many meetings have used online networks to produce good results, sometimes great results. But those successes have spawned two dangerous assumptions: that every audience will respond to one set of social media tools in the same way, and that success is about the technologies you choose, not the strategy that guides their use.

The focus on bells and whistles is fed, deliberately or not, by developers who promise fabulous success to anyone who buys in to the latest software package or social media platform. It’s reinforced by consultants who perform the essential task of helping the industry keep up with social technologies, but ends up feeding a desperate sense of inadequacy for people who try their best, but lack the time and resources to keep up.

The question planners rarely ask, and that few vendors can answer coherently, is why a particular tool is best to meet a specific set of planning, marketing, or community-building objectives. Invariably, the conversation is about features and price, not the focused uses that will make a decisive difference for the buyer.

Two other issues seem beside the point if you focus mainly on the technology, but are absolutely essential if the ultimate goal is to market a meeting more effectively or build a stronger conference community.

  • The dirty little secret of social media communication is that there’s far too much of it. The challenge is not to get access to the social Web, but to make any one message rise above the crowd and stay there long enough to resonate with its intended audience.
  • In addition to feeding the clutter, the temptation toward mass messaging distracts from the need to carefully define the specific audiences that match a meeting’s content and objectives. That kind of planning should be the first step, not an afterthought, for anyone who wants to make effective use of social media or any other communication tool.

So, yes, the arrival of social media is definitely a game-changer, but not as fundamentally as that phrase usually implies. It’s an essential tool for meeting professionals, but it’s not the only tool and it’s certainly no silver bullet. It’s a good place to find audiences that are (usually) younger and (generally) more tech-savvy. But whether that helps you market your next conference or sustain its message depends on whom you’re trying to reach and why you need to reach them. Even the most effective social media message, delivered to the most homogeneous group, doesn’t diminish the need to define and understand your audience, one segment at a time.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at and tweets as @mitchellbeer.