What do the Internet matchmaking site eHarmony and the social networking site MySpace have to do with the annual meeting of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand? An awareness of those sites — and how they are all about connecting people through the Internet — was the impetus for the society's foray into the world of social networking for its September annual meeting.

“It all started with our in-house tech committee,” says Danielle Conkle, meetings and exhibitors coordinator, with the Rosemont, Ill. — based association. “We had wanted to create some sort of online space for our exhibitors and then someone mentioned they'd heard of a company that provides social networking for meetings and we went from there.”

What they ended up with was much more than a simple online listing space for exhibitors. Working with EventMingle, an online collaboration Web application developed specifically for conventions, meetings, and trade shows, the society was able to offer a full-service networking and planning tool. It allowed the 1,900 attendees to communicate and interact with the 113 exhibitor companies and their 807 staff members, as well as with each other, before, during, and after the show. The convention took place at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., September 7 to 9.

“We chose EventMingle because it had a lot of different features — not just for attendee-to-attendee interaction, but it also had a section set up for exhibitors, plus a daily planner, job boards, and more,” says Conkle. “They have standard features, but they were also willing to completely personalize it to our needs.”

Virtual Handshake

In a nutshell, the point of a social networking tool for a convention or meeting is to encourage interaction between attendees and/or exhibitors, and to a lesser degree among speakers, the press, association staff, and others connected more peripherally to an event. Features encourage participants to “meet” online before the actual event to facilitate face-to-face interactions once on site, as well as provide information and techniques to make the most of the show once there.

For the ASSH meeting, for example, Conkle says attendees liked that they could search the exhibitors' site for detailed information about companies and the products and services they were highlighting at their booths, as well as get contact information and a way to schedule appointments. “There was a really great search function so attendees could search ahead of time to decide whether or not to schedule an appointment,” she says. “The section had a lot of information but didn't appear to be just a commercial section — it's very important with our group to make sure that things don't appear to be [heavily] sponsored and EventMingle did that well.” Conkle says another fun feature was the “treasure hunt,” in which exhibitors listed product samples that they were giving away and items they were raffling so attendees could choose the best time to visit.

The search function also allowed attendees (and exhibitors) to search for other attendees by a variety of criteria, ranging from location to specialty. To protect privacy, an internal e-mail system allowed participants to communicate with each other without disclosing personal information such as their own e-mail address. And a day planner helped participants keep track of sessions they planned to attend and automatically added meetings after they were arranged. For those who wanted to keep things more open-ended, there was a “to-do” list — attendees just clicked on someone or something they wanted to see and it was added to the list. Message boards were another way that attendees and exhibitors could connect, while exhibitors were able to post free press releases.

The cost for all that? It's free for attendees and exhibitors. (See sidebar “The Right Revenue Split,” page 35.)

Prep Your Attendees

Given all the potential of tools like this, how do they actually play out at a meeting? “We had some hesitations,” says Conkle of the association's initial thoughts. “Would people use it or would it just be out there?”

Unsure of how its membership would respond, ASSH tested the idea on focus groups, first with established leadership within the association and then with a second group comprised of a random selection of members of different ages and from various regions. “First we did a teleconference to discuss what online social networking is,” says Conkle, “and then we followed up with test runs of the site to show what it means in a business setting.” She says there was a mixed response from the focus groups. “Going in, we knew it would be an experiment. Some of the focus group participants thought it was wonderful and said they'd used it, while others said they barely check their e-mail as it is so they knew they wouldn't use it.”

Moving forward, Conkle would take it a step farther and do a survey before the meeting “with clear questions to determine if people are interesting in using specific features,” she says. “Then I'd do a survey after the meeting to compare what people really did use and what else they might like to see.”

Jim Harrer, co-founder of Laguna Beach, Calif. — based EventMingle, is a strong supporter of such an approach. “I'm constantly surprised when planners call and want to know more about our product, but they haven't even asked their attendees if they're interested in tools like this,” he says. “The first thing I tell people is to survey their membership to gauge the interest. Like any tool, it only works if people use it. If everyone opts out, it's a failure — you need to have everyone's buy-in ahead of time.”

One way to get that buy-in is to actively promote the tools before the meeting. “The feedback we got was positive from those who used it,” says Conkle, “but there were those who didn't understand where it came from or what it was.” Although ASSH included information about it in the preliminary meeting materials and followed up with e-mail blasts to registered attendees, Conkle says she would want to market it more strongly, emphasizing the purpose of using such a tool and also stressing that the program is something the society — not an outside group — is doing. Plus, she says, “I really think the key is to have someone within the society leadership be a champion for it. It would be great to express the excitement of someone high up before the meeting and maybe also have a session at the beginning to teach people how to use the tools.”

EventMingle, too, has discovered that more is better when it comes to education and explanation, especially in the medical field. From his experience with ASSH, as well as with the Disease Management Association of America and the Medical Records Institute, Harrer says, “There seem to be a percentage of medical professionals who are comfortable with e-mail and technology, but there's another group that delegates all that, so we have to find ways to get information in front of all of them. Without education ahead of time, they see it as intrusive and just opt out immediately.” To combat that, the company is creating a video series that attendees can run on their computer that explains the social networking tool.

In all, Conkle says, “Those who used it seemed to like it, but I think the overall impression right now is that we were a little ahead of the game.” Still, she says, “Social networking is clearly not going away. It's only going to become more popular as it continues to grow among the general public and this is definitely something we'll be revisiting.”

Social Networking Grows Up

Knowing your audience is obviously essential when deciding whether or not a social networking tool is appropriate for any given group. But you might be surprised at just how much your audience already knows. “I think a younger group would be more comfortable with these kinds of tools, since they've grown up with this kind of technology,” speculates Danielle Conkle, meetings and exhibitors coordinator, American Society for Surgery of the Hand, Rosemont, Ill. “They know about online message boards and how to send and receive online invitations. This is all familiar to them.”

Still, there's good reason to think the older folks might be catching on to the possibilities. Two sets of data released this fall showed that about half of MySpace visitors are 35 and older, a surprise to those who thought the online social network was just a teen hangout. Nielsen//NetRatings revealed 46 percent of MySpace U.S. visitors were 35 and older in September; comScore Media Metrix showed 51.6 percent of U.S. visitors were 35 or older in August. While there's some question as to what these grown-ups are doing there (Are they just checking up on the kids? Seeing what all the fuss is about?), there's no doubt that the technology is increasingly entering the mainstream.

With the majority of ASSH's members falling into the 40- to 60-year-old age range, Conkle became acutely aware of the generation gap between the attendees who wanted to use such technology and those who didn't really understand what it could do for them. In addition to the technology gap, she notes that younger doctors are more likely to be at a point in their careers where they're interested in making connections and networking, as opposed to those who are older and already more established.

In or Out?

For the American Society for Surgery of the Hand convention, physicians who registered for the meeting received the initial invite to participate in social networking via e-mail from EventMingle and had that chance to opt out. But there were actually two separate opt-out options, which confused attendees: one to opt out of the program entirely, so their profiles would never show up, and the other to just opt out of receiving e-mails, both the tutorial e-mails from EventMingle and notification e-mails that an attendee or exhibitor had sent them an invitation.

To address that, Jim Harrer, co-founder of Laguna Beach, Calif. — based EventMingle, says his company has changed the “unsubscribe” button to immediately take participants to one control screen where all the options are presented together, including the ability to set the frequency of e-mails.

Anyone who didn't opt out was automatically included in the profiles that became part of the program, with the information coming directly from the registration process. Harrer says that's the most common way to gather the information and encourages planners who want to use social networking tools to start the process early enough to include relevant questions on the registration forms. “If it's early enough in the cycle, we like to sit down with planners to determine what kinds of information will be most relevant for their group,” he says. Harrer notes that the typical life cycle of the site is about four months, with the site going live about two months before an event and remaining active for about two months afterwards.

“Our job is to get people to meet and mingle before, during, and after the event,” he says, “but we could just as easily create a year-round social networking community with the event being the main focus.”

The Right Revenue Split

For convention attendees, virtually all the features of the social networking program, EventMingle, are free with the exception of posting a résumé or job opening on the job board. Exhibitors, too, only pay for a handful of features: In addition to advertising on the site, extras that exhibitors can pay for include sending an e-mail blast to a particular demographic or sending individual e-mails to participants. In both cases, the e-mail goes to an internal e-mail address, allowing attendees the option of disclosing their own e-mail address only if and when they want to.

So who does pay? “Our relationship is with the show producer,” says Jim Harrer, co-founder of Laguna Beach, Calif. — based EventMingle. “We charge a setup fee to create a customized site that ranges from $5,000 to $15,000 — based on the number of attendees and exhibitors — and that's the total out-of-pocket expense for the association. There are no surprises that come up later.”

To offset the cost, the association can then turn around and charge exhibitors for advertising opportunities on the homepage and banner ads throughout. “The association can choose what they want to charge,” he says. “They can set it up to get just that initial fee back or look to make a profit.”

Beyond that, when an exhibitor or attendee purchases a premium service, the revenue is split between EventMingle and the show producer. “It's an adjustable amount,” says Harrer. We sit down with the meeting planner to figure out what a reasonable fee is for each component.”

While Danielle Conkle, meetings and exhibitors coordinator, with the Rosemont, Ill. — based American Society for Surgery of the Hand, declined to comment on how much ASSH paid for the EventMingle features or recouped in revenue-sharing, she notes that EventMingle “was very willing to work with a nonprofit association and within our budget.” Harrer adds, “We try to create a program that makes sense for a particular client, so if a group has a tight budget and can't pay the full setup fee, we might reduce that and take a larger portion of the revenue share for the premium features. Our goal is to create a contract that meets their business needs as well as our own.”