Picture the most successful meeting you ever attended. You read about the education and the venue, and decided that the program would be a worthwhile investment. On site, you caught up with some old friends, met new ones, learned a lot, and felt inspired. You returned home energized, with a pocket full of business cards. But pretty soon you were back to your normal routine, as if you’d never left.

Sound familiar?

When you use social media to support meetings, you not only enhance the attendee experience, you also extend it:

Before the meeting, participants can learn about the program and interact with others who are attending. Presenters can conduct polls to help refine their content or gather data to use at the conference.

At the meeting, they can share their experiences with friends and colleagues who are not attending.

After the meeting, they can keep building relationships and continue the learning process.

Many planners already have social media strategies in place for large conferences. But it’s easy to integrate social media into smaller meetings, even if you don’t have a dedicated social media team. Social media is an extension of our lives, our work, and our relationships. It hasn’t changed the world completely; it has just made it more convenient and more connected.

Here are my five tips for using that connectedness to harness the power of meetings and events:

1. Create a social strategy.
Keep in mind that social media is not a separate activity, but an extension of your event plan. What are you trying to accomplish? Who are you trying to reach? For most of the meetings I’ve managed, the goals were to enable our participants to network with each other and to provide them with relevant information that they could use when they were back in their offices. Creating a strategy that fulfills those goals doesn’t have to be complicated.

A simple process is to use the POST method, created by the authors of Groundswell.

2. Connect with your participants.
Where and how you connect will depend on your audience, so you need to understand what your audience is interested in. Do they follow you on Twitter? Perhaps they’re avid blog subscribers. Some basic research—a brief survey, articles on social media adoption for different demographic groups—will help you determine this.

For a recent meeting, we invited participants to a closed LinkedIn group to facilitate networking, and we also used it as a way to share information we thought would be helpful. Creating an online venue like this means that your participants have a place to interact with you. This is a great opportunity to crowdsource: Ask your participants for program ideas! The value of meaningful connections on social media is that they can translate to meaningful on-site connections.

3. Share information that your participants value.
Many organizations use their social media channels to talk about themselves, as if they are extensions of their Web sites or advertising. Don’t make this mistake! The beauty of social media is that it empowers individuals to choose what they want to listen to, and an organization that talks only about itself will be tuned out quickly. Treat social media as an extension of your meeting: You provide value to your participants through your program content and events. Promote those same assets through social media, but save some for the on-site. For example, share background information and photos of speakers, but include only an outline of their presentations so your participants will come wanting more.

4. Talk back!
Provide participants with a platform to interact with you, and other participants, during the event. This can be as simple as creating an event hashtag for Twitter or Instagram so that your participants can share their experiences. It can also be a Facebook group or a LinkedIn group—online meeting spaces that will likely prompt participants to find each other at the live event. And when your participants are talking about your event on social media, join the conversation! Re-tweet their tweets, comment or like their posts, or respond to their questions. Your participants will be far more engaged when they feel that they are part of a conversation rather than just a face in the crowd.

5. Don’t drop the connection.
Once participants have gone home, give them more reasons to stay in touch. Share photos from the event. Feature meeting attendees on your Facebook or LinkedIn groups. Do virtual introductions. But most of all, invite participants to continue their relationships post-event by connecting on LinkedIn, following each other on Twitter, and keeping the conversation going in other social media channels.

Now, Reimagine Your Meeting

Let’s revisit your memory of that successful event, adding in a social media component. Perhaps a LinkedIn post from a colleague alerted you that the event was open for registration. After registering, you followed the host organization on social media platforms and participated in a pre-meeting poll. You noted the event’s hashtag and started following people who use it. A few weeks before the meeting, you asked the organizers a question on their Facebook page, and they answered it. (Extra credit! Ten other people had the same question, and you saved the organizers from answering it 10 times by e-mail.)

When you arrived at the meeting, you recognized a few of the faces from their online profiles, making a note to catch up with them. After the opening reception, you saw some tweets about a first-timer meet-up at the main bar, so you joined in. You posted a few pictures on your Instagram account, using the event hashtag, and your old friend from college recognized you—she’s there, too! The organizers sent an announcement on several social media platforms to say that dinner had to be moved because of weather, saving you a long walk in uncomfortable shoes to the wrong venue.

Back home, you connected with your new friends on LinkedIn. You looked through event photos, which, thanks to Facebook’s tagging feature, allowed you to put names with faces. Now, when you have a new business opportunity, or a question about a venue, you won’t hesitate to reach out to this network—a network that is already established, with whom you’ve shared an in-person experience. And when the next event is scheduled, you hear about it on social media long before you receive the registration e-mail.

Which version of this event would you like your attendees to experience? If I have convinced you that the social media–enabled version of the event offers the richest, most valuable experience, sit down with my five steps and get social, strategically.

The POST Method for Creating a Social Strategy

Adapted from a blog by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, both of Forrester Research and authors of Groundswell

People: First, determine the interests—and capabilities—of your audience. Survey your attendees and use that data or make some estimates on your own. Understand which social media platforms they are using and how they’re using them, and customize your content to fit their needs. Don’t jump in without doing a little research. Note: Instead of thinking, “I want to use social media,” be sure you are thinking, “How can I meet my goals, and those of my attendees, better through social media?”

Objectives: Keep it simple. Will you be listening to your participants on social media sites, or engaging with them by re-tweeting or sharing their updates? Building an online community to collaborate with attendees and allow them to collaborate with each other? Decide on your objective before you decide on a technology. Then figure out how you will measure it, so you know if you’ve succeeded.

Strategy: Imagine what your success will look like and develop a plan to get there. A strategy could include, “Follow participants on Twitter,” “Create an online community on Yammer” or “Establish a wiki for conference speakers.”

Tactics: These are specific steps you need to take. For example, “Write one blog post per week on X topic,” and “Tweet information about the meeting venue.”

Luann Edwards, CMP, CMM, strategic communications consultant, social media marketing, for FM Global, develops and executes the company’s social media strategy around the world.