The buzz these days is all about, from Facebook to LinkedIn to Twitter to Flickr to blogs and podcasts and … well, the array of options is seemingly endless. But is social media right for your organization's events, or is it just a fad? To help you sort through what you need to know before jumping into this pool of sociability, called on the expertise of Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant of SocialFish, a Washington, D.C.-based company that they formed to help associations and nonprofits build community via the Web.
RCM: Let's start with the question I have heard repeatedly: Is social media just what the cool kids are doing, or does it really add value to an organization's meeting strategy?
GRANT: Social media does more than add value — it's about a new way of communicating between individuals and their friends and colleagues, and between individuals and brands or organizations. The idea that it's something only for the cool kids or early adopters is fading, as every main social site is showing exponential usage growth in every demographic. What that means to organizations is that you can guarantee that some of your members or stakeholders are out there using these sites — and maybe talking about you — so it makes perfect sense to think about how to join that conversation.
DREYER: Also, organizations are in the business of bringing people together for collaboration and community. The Internet is empowering collaboration and community in ways that were not possible before. It is important for organizations to adapt their thinking and prepare for a future in which social media is taken for granted.
RCM: What can social media do to enhance an organization's meetings and events?
GRANT: Actually, we see face-to-face meetings as one of the cornerstones of a good social media strategy. Online activity can feed real-life events, and real-life events provide amazing content for social media activity. Essentially, you can build buzz for your event by “teasing” potential attendees with snippets of the best stuff that will be at the event; you can add a whole layer of networking and connectivity during the meeting; and you can make the meeting content (both official and social) live online long after the actual event is over.
DREYER: Also, social media opens up a lot of possibilities for informal and peer-to-peer learning channels. This adds value for the attendees who are experiencing the meeting for themselves, as well as for spectators who are connected to those attendees but might not understand the value of your event until they see the richness of their colleagues' experiences.
RCM: How can you tell if your organization, its members, and your meeting attendees are ready to use social media around meetings?
GRANT: You can tell by listening and monitoring. You'll find out very quickly if any of your members are using public social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn by doing a few keyword searches. It doesn't matter if only a few people are using it — you can still provide value by participating and showing others how to use it.
DREYER: We're in an awkward spot at the moment. For a lot of organizations, the percentage of folks who will actively contribute to or monitor social spaces during a meeting is fairly low. That said, they are often some of your most engaged participants, and the value they add can be tremendous. It's worth adding a layer of support into your meeting for social media activity; there are a lot of ways to dip your toes without overwhelming your resources or your budget.
RCM: What costs and staff time are required to implement a social media strategy?
GRANT: How long is a piece of string? You can do it halfheartedly, or you can throw yourselves into it — you'll get out of it what you put in.
DREYER: For Buzz2009 — a meeting we hosted for associations on how to use social media — we spent four to five hours per week leading up to the month before the conference. Then we spent six to eight hours per week and had one staff person on-site whose job it was to live blog and tweet at the event. We used all free tools. When you're getting started, it's about picking one or two things and doing them well. Small and good can grow to large and good. Large and bad cannot be salvaged. Spend your resources on a thoughtful plan for connecting people and feeding the social space with content they can socialize around. Find champions from your membership to help you.
RCM: What can you gain from using social media with your meetings? What are the potential pitfalls?
GRANT: You'll energize your community. You already have people who care enough about your event to talk about it, share their experiences, and look forward to next year, right? So now you're empowering that community with tools that make it easier for them to stay connected throughout the year. You're making it easier for them to tell their colleagues why attending makes sense. And you are potentially creating a public record of the ripple your event made in the hearts and minds of your fans. When someone searches the Internet for your event, the opinions they find from people in your community matter.
DREYER: There are potential pitfalls — you know your attendees love to complain about the food, the boring speaker, the room temperature. And yes, some people will be on their computers or tweeting during the keynote — but that doesn't mean that they're not listening. In fact, they may be deeply engaged in capturing the best of the session and sharing it with their network. The biggest risk for organizations is not being prepared to listen and respond to the social interactions happening before, during, and after the meeting — and that risk exists regardless of whether you choose to add social media to your meeting. By consciously adding social media and recruiting champions from your membership, you're ensuring that your fans will be a part of the conversation, as opposed to ignoring social media and leaving it to chance. The folks you recruit can and will come to your defense.
RCM: If your organization is using social media for other purposes, how do you fit the meetings piece into the existing strategy? Or, if you're starting your social media strategy with meetings, how do you make sure that it can expand to incorporate objectives outside of the annual conference?
DREYER: Think about real life for a minute. Most meetings exist to bring an existing community together face to face. Apply that concept to online community, and what we're really talking about is using your meeting to find and connect with people who care about your organization, and then building community with those people. It's a long-term process, and your meeting is essential to jump-starting that process.
GRANT: Meetings are a great way to experiment with social media, because there is a specific time frame and you're tapping into an existing groundswell of energy from people looking forward to the meeting. It's still important to know your objectives for the meeting and for your organization as a whole. Pay special attention to the sweet spot — where your meeting objectives are in line with your organization's objectives. Over time, you should strive to build an online community that reflects the diversity of your organization.
RCM: Of all the social media tools and resources out there, which are being used most effectively for conferences? Should you do everything — LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and blogs — to try to meet your members/attendees where they like to hang out, or do you pick one or two and concentrate on those?
GRANT: It's always a good plan to meet your members and attendees where they hang out. This is where the listening piece is so important. We usually start with the big three: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Find out if your members are using one or more of these, and concentrate on them. LinkedIn and Facebook can be really useful for organizing groups before and after a conference, but in our experience Twitter is by far the most popular social site for on-site engagement by virtue of its ease of use with mobile devices and its quick-fire, real-time communication method.
DREYER: Another strategy is to choose a tool that lends itself especially well to the type of content you are capturing on-site. If your members love photos, you might try Flickr. If your presenters love PowerPoint, Slideshare might be a good place to explore. If you are able to capture short videos of speakers, YouTube is a natural fit. All three of these tools are easy to share in blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else your members might be.
We've only talked about outposts (social sites hosted by third-parties). Organizations also have a lot of good options for their home base — everything from an event or organization blog to a full-featured online community hosted on your organization's Web site. Outpost strategy and home-base strategy can work in conjunction. Generally speaking, it's easier to build a presence in outposts where your members already are, and then work to pull those members back to your home base.
RCM: Once you've built it, how do you get your attendees to use it?
DREYER: It's a Catch-22, isn't it? If no one is there, no one will come. This is especially challenging with groups who choose to invest in their own online community, where the temptation is to pre-populate the space with the entire member directory, forgetting that a database record is not nearly as interesting as an actual person using the tool. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some groups have members and attendees who have been begging their association to build it. Even in that case, you need to start small and good. Get the most excited members to give you feedback or beta test your new tools. As interaction in the community grows, you can start to scale it by bringing in more people.
GRANT: You also need to manage expectations. Keep in mind that participation in online social spaces follows the 1:9:90 rule: 1 percent creates content; 9 percent interacts with that content through commenting, sharing, rating, or reviewing it; 90 percent are spectators. That's normal and quite healthy. The trick is to manage your social spaces in a way that makes it easy for people to move from spectator to commenter to creator.
RCM: How can you tell if your social media strategy is working?
DREYER: There are many ways to measure social media, but it's difficult to measure results. That's why it's important to define measurable objectives that your social media efforts can reasonably affect. For example, increased attendance could come from any number of sources. Increased online mentions of your event, on the other hand, are much more measurable and very likely to come from your social media work. If the mentions are positive and other factors (economy, location, health of the organization) cooperate, you'll see an increase in attendance as a byproduct of the buzz.
GRANT: At first, measure what's easy, such as your number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers, and keep track of anecdotal evidence and feedback from members. You'll get a sense of whether it's working based on the energy you see in your social spaces. As you get more comfortable with social media and begin to understand more about what it can do for you, you can delve into more meaningful metrics. Just remember to measure what you need to know in order to see if you are successful! Align the metrics with your objectives and use that information to try different things, or to prioritize projects that are going really well.
Social Media Tip Sheet
- Listen, Listen, Listen
“You need to know what's being said about you everywhere on the Internet, and what's being said about you on Twitter,” says KiKi L'Italien, membership and education services manager, Optical Society of America, Washington, D.C. Set up Google alerts for your organization's name, your annual meeting's name, any secondary meetings you have, your primary competitors, and keywords for your industry, in order to pick up news articles, blog posts, photos, and anything else related to your alert topics. Because Twitter isn't tracked on Google, you also need to set up a separate-but-similar keyword search on Twitter.
- Accept the Reality
“Embrace it for what it is, and let go of old stereotypes,” says Mark Jevert, vice president of Youth for Christ, Englewood, Colo. “One thing that can rankle some attendees is when people are texting or posting or looking things up on the Web using their various gadgets while a session is going on.”
Keep in mind, Jevert says, that the attendees may be looking up Bible verses or expanding the reach of the message your speaker just shared with their friends and Twitter followers. “Today, being on the phone during a session is not being disrespectful,” he says. “It's the norm for a large part of the population.”
- Find Internal Champions on Your Staff
If you have a staff member who loves Facebook, put her in charge of your Facebook fan page, says Jeff Hurt, director of education and events with the National Association of Dental Plans, Dallas. Twitter might be a natural for your techies. You'll find your staff much more interested and involved if the media they head is one that they love anyway.
- Make it Easy for Your Members to Let People Know that They'll be at Your Meeting
Give them a “Meet us at the Meeting” image to display on their home page, with a link back to your event Web site.
- Remember that Your Goal is not to Drive People to Use Twitter or Facebook or Another Social Media, but to Reach Out to People Who are Using those Media
You don't want people to think Facebook or LinkedIn are the home place for what your religious organization has to offer. Create those accounts to be a funnel to bring members back to your core Web site, because that's the place where you can learn from the relationship and interactions.
Your Social Media Resource
MeetingsNet has put together a one-stop shop for social media resources. Go to meetingsnet.com/socialmedia to find information on:
- How to build online communities around your meetings
- Tips for marketing your event
- Case studies from organizations using social media for their meetings
- Technology overviews
- Podcast with Jeff De Cagna on redefining “social”
- Podcasts with David Gammel on incorporating social media into your events
- And more
This special report will be updated as new information becomes available, so bookmark the page!
Snapshot: Seek Balance
Mark Jevert, vice president of Youth for Christ in Englewood, Colo., says that this year's staff conference for 650, held in February at the Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., represented a “quantum leap” when it comes to social media. When the staff conference was held just two years ago, many of today's social media technologies were fledglings. Now, of course, they're almost required in order to reach teenagers where they live, which increasingly is in the social networking realm.
YFC used Skype, a voice-over-the-Internet-protocol, or VoIP, service that allows people to establish an audiovisual link that can be broadcast over a screen as small as a netbook or as large as a screen on the stage.
“We used Skype in many plenary sessions to interview someone who was not at the conference, whether it was a teenager telling his or her story or the past president greeting people. We also used it to recognize some of our service award recipients,” Jevert says. The organization also streamed its main sessions live onto the Web so staff and board members who could not attend were able to watch morning and evening sessions as they were taking place. “Our conference attendance virtually doubled with all those who watched the streaming video,” he says.
YFC staffers this year also embraced Twitter, which had the under-30 crowd in particular whipping out their iPhones to post what they were learning.
Having survived, and even enjoyed, his first big socially networked conference, Jevert has learned a few things. The first is: Don't rely totally on the technology. “Yes, we are posting sessions on YouTube, but we also have DVDs we will send to those who don't go on YouTube but to whom the plenary session or the message from the president is still very important.” Also, don't rely on it to always work flawlessly. Just as you would with any technology, give it a test run. “Just as you'd do a sound check on stage, do a Skype check to make sure the lighting works and that the person's clothing looks good on the screen.”
Time to Redefine Social
With attendees frantically updating their Facebook accounts on their BlackBerries between sessions, tweeting notes about the keynote during the presentation, and tapping away on their netbooks during breaks, one can't help but wonder: What happened to being social with the people who are actually in the same room? Is social media making us less social face to face?
Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, Reston, Va., says that we need to think differently about what we mean by social. “It used to be that you were being social when you were interacting with the people who were sharing the same physical space,” but now the definition of “social” has to extend to all those in your community of people whom you follow and who follow you on Twitter, your Facebook friends, and your LinkedIn links. “I don't think of it as being less social; I think of it as being social in a different way,” De Cagna adds.
Like it or not, he says, this new sociability is here to stay. To learn what you can do to design “double-sided” experiences that are available to both real-life and virtual attendees (and their extended networks), go to meetingsnet.com/socialmedia and click on the “Redefining Sociability” podcast.
— Sue Pelletier