One of the buzzwords of 2011 is “community.” Everyone wants to build one, sustain it, and potentially profit from it. The question is, how do you build one around your event that is vibrant, active, and passionate? That’s one of the things we asked Justin Ramers, director of social media, and Eric Olson, general manager of events, with The Active Network, which offers online event management, marketing solutions, and registration software. Here’s what they had to say.

MeetingsNet: The Active Network has been a network for people who do marathons and other endurance events, those who participate in parks and recreation activities, and campers. Now that you’re getting involved in providing end-to-end enterprise event management for corporate clients like Cisco and HP, are you finding that companies and business-to-business associations expect the communities they build around their events to be as passionate and engaged as communities around, say, a triathlon event?

Ramers: It’s a mistake to try to fit the super-passionate community model [at hobby sites] to B2B events. Not that you shouldn’t build a social media network around your event, but you do need to keep in mind the sharing and connections will be different.

Olson: While social networks and other communities, particularly when you’re talking about associations, may not be as exciting as those that center on a triathlon, they may be more meaningful. After all, associations are created to share information and connections around a common professional or trade bond. Community is at the core of the association world, and events support the community. But associations do need to adapt their business model to be more modern. Controlling information and holding it hostage by making people pay for access is an outdated concept. Social media can be a tool to help them survive.

It all depends on the problem you’re trying to solve. In the corporate space it’s a little tougher, but it can be done. Look at companies like Cisco. A few years ago, they introduced a community around their biggest event, which was focused on collaboration among their developers. The next year, they took the event virtual to reach a whole new audience.

Folks who have done this well, whether on the corporate or association side, have stayed laser-focused on the mission of their organization and, more specifically, of their event. Those who succeed align the technology to their goals, not the other way around.

MeetingsNet: What are the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to incorporating technology into an event?

 

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Ramers: The No. 1 mistake is saying, “This isn’t for us,” and not giving it a try. You can’t ignore it anymore. You don’t have to jump in with two feet, but you do need to not be afraid of it.

It’s also dangerous to come off as too rigid, as trying to control the message, or use social media as a one-way billboard. People always ask me how to lock down the page so they can control what people are talking about, but there’s no controlling how people talk about something. If they’re not talking about it on your Facebook page, they may be talking about on Twitter or YouTube or somewhere else. Instead of ranting out to their networks with no feedback from you, you now have the opportunity to connect directly with that person to solve the problem.

Olson: A lot of organizers spend too little time developing an understanding of who will be coming to the event. The more you know about the people in the room, the better match you can make with the technology. For example, a woman in my group at EventCamp Twin Cities this summer said she didn’t even really know what Twitter is. We may be all excited about putting high-tech stuff into place, but it’s really about understanding your audience, and how they want to interact. It’s not about selecting the coolest technology, but the most useful technology.

Another thing: We as humans tend to get excited about the cool new things, but we need to have the less glamorous things behind the scenes down first. If you don’t have the basics covered—registration, session scanning, speaker management—then it’s really hard to start layering in the engagement aspects. Make sure your foundation is strong before you start adding bells and whistles.

MeetingsNet: Some organizations, particularly on the association side, feel a bit threatened by the communities that are springing up independently to serve their constituencies through social media. How can they compete?

Olson: One way they can differentiate themselves is by giving a higher level of education than members can get by researching something on the Internet. One thing the association world is particularly good at is collaboration, so why not leverage technology to better facilitate collaboration, both at the event and year-round? If I engage with the community online before the event, I can have better, more collaborative sessions at the event because we better understand what the audience is looking for and everyone is better connected.

MeetingsNet: It seems to be more difficult than you’d think to develop that persistent year-round community. It’s more common to see engagement and interaction build pre-event, explode at the event, then drop off sharply afterward.

Olson: That’s because it’s usually so events-focused, so there’s a buildup before and a let-down after. We’re going to see the focus shift from the event to subject matter or attendees or causes. Associations have a common cause 365 days a year—make the community about that, not the event. And empower your most vocal members to become community leaders. The association shouldn’t be driving the content; it should be giving tools and direction to the leaders in the community so they can drive the content. That’s one of our biggest challenges, to let go and let our audiences drive things. Look at what ESPN has done with its communities—it has community leaders running the discussions on fantasy football, for example. You can leverage a massive unpaid workforce to drive content and engagement around your events. All you have to do is let go a little.

MeetingsNet: Where do you see the accelerating adoption of social media and other technology into meetings taking us in the next two years?

Olson: I know where I want this all to go. One challenge we have is that events have been the black sheep of the marketing mix. When the economic crisis hit, we got hammered because we haven’t made the results of what we do visible. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as logistics people and start thinking of ourselves as engagement marketers. We have things like EventCamp that push the envelope around creating better experiences and better collaboration, and ultimately better engagement. But it’s taking longer than I’d like to see that applied on a larger scale.

We as an industry need to grow up and see that what we really do is “architect” human interaction. Then we will be able to rise above where we have been and create something new, fresh, and engaging.

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