With tens of millions of active, loyal users and an unprecedented ability to differentiate users based on their interests and affiliations, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace offer a rich opportunity for events to increase their audience, focus their offerings, and extend the reach of their events beyond the convention hall. Social networks represent five of the top 10 Web sites in the world; the rest are search engines pointed largely at the content on those social networks. And you can't afford to be absent from them any longer.

For the uninitiated, social networking sites are Web-based services that use software to facilitate online networks of people who share common interests. Also called social media, they expand the “social” reach beyond the network into the vast realm of Internet forums, message boards, weblogs, and video, as well as photo-sharing sites. They're where the traditional broadcast media model transforms into a true conversation.

A recent development in the space is the idea of the platform, a common software standard upon which to build new services that leverage this social information. This trend, led by Facebook's Developer Platform and recently joined by the Google-led Open Social system, has extraordinary potential. The social networking sites benefit by expanding their reach outside their walls, and third-party developers benefit by being able to reach into and interact with the voracious users of these sites. As we explore ways that you can, should, and (really) must leverage social networks to spread the word about your events today, consider that this is just the beginning. Securing your footprint and strategy today will lead to even greater opportunities tomorrow.

Listen Up

One of the most important and immediately valuable benefits of all this social interaction is the ability to learn what consumers are saying about the products and services that matter to them. Services such as Technorati, TechMeme (for tech-specific topics), and Google's Blog Search allow you to search the blogosphere for brand or event mentions. The Twitter microblogging platform also presents a rich lab for learning about current attitudes surrounding an event or product. Using an adjunct service such as Summize to search Twitter allows you to quickly see all mentions of a term. Listening is how you find your target audience within the social networks — and how you find out what they are looking for from you. Once you find them, you simply respond to their ideas, address their concerns, or offer them an incentive to attend your event. This can also help to head off a potential firestorm or allow an organization to ride and enhance a wave of good will.

A recent example of this is Comcast quickly swooping in to put out a fire started by blogger/mogul Michael Arrington. Arrington complained, on Twitter, about a recent outage, and in short order he was contacted by a Comcast rep to sort out his issues. Comcast has since staffed a Twitter account (comcastcares) to directly interact with Twitter users.

Build Awareness

One of the simplest and most effective ways to increase one's social media footprint is to dive right in and join the fun. Depending on the event's demographics, adding accounts at services such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Upcoming can allow direct interaction with prospective attendees. As long as the interaction is within the communities' written (and unwritten) guidelines, interactions can generate impressive results. Using tags (basically, keywords used by these systems to sort and group information across the site), conversations about events on Twitter can be easily tracked across multiple users using Web applications such as Summize or Hashtags.

Setting up events on Facebook offers a great opportunity to build awareness. As each user indicates they're attending an event, the news percolates around their network, showing up in each user's news feed, a river of updates about a user's network. It serves as a passive yet personal recommendation of the event.

Sites such as Flickr and YouTube can also build event awareness. Using agreed-upon tags in both systems and “pools” on Flickr (multi-user collections of images,) all of the cameras and camera-phones in the audience can be put to good use documenting the ins and outs of a show. This can enhance the show experience for attendees and create interest in people who missed the show — “Wow! That was a great talk” — to make the trip the next time around. You can even create your own YouTube channel featuring all the videos from your event.

Audience Acquisition

For many people, the Web is the first avenue of research into any purchase, including an event. Presenting solid, enticing information about a gathering in channels that appeal to the prospective attendee can help to grease the wheels. Events are social monsters — people want to hang out with friends and people of interest, so putting a human face on an event and linking it to the social Web (a speaker's Facebook, Twitter, or del.icio.us pages) can help to create that social atmosphere around a meeting long before the doors open.

Another method of creating a social buzz around an event is to create badges, mini apps, and widgets that readers can post to their profiles or blogs. Leveraging the Facebook Platform or Open Social allows your attendees to act as your best advertisers, proudly spreading the gospel of your show to the world.

Dell's Bob Pearson recently claimed to have raised an additional $500,000 in revenue through offers made via Twitter. To target customers, Dell used services from Seattle-based Visible Technologies, which scanned the conversations flowing through Twitter for users talking about Dell-related topics. Why shouldn't your organization be able to do something similar?

Let's Talk

By definition, social networks are all about communication. For an event, they can provide invaluable pathways for conversation and information exchange. These communication pathways also represent the most direct way to convey the value of an event to prospective attendees. Event organizers should start by writing a blog, updating it frequently, responding to comments, and syndicating that content into social networks. An RSS feed of news from an event blog can easily be added to Facebook, for example. That way, every time you post to your blog, it automatically adds a link to the post to your Facebook page. Let's hope some of your enthusiastic attendees will share your blog feed on their pages as well.

Special Treatment

Twitter can help you to communicate with prospective attendees in several key ways. First, anyone who agrees to “follow” your event on Twitter will receive any message you send. It's like an instant message to all your prospects. You can also have your blog posts automatically announced to your Twitter followers every time you update your blog. To respond to questions and support issues, you can establish a Twitter account as a help line for prospective attendees who have questions about your event. Organizations have also achieved successful results by allowing customers to send inquiries to them via Twitter, getting back to them with answers within minutes.

Keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. Asking for content suggestions, feedback, and comments can engage prospective attendees, improve conversation, and reduce attrition.

Attendees will naturally communicate with each other about the event. These conversations are open to the public when they happen on Twitter and Facebook. During a typical event, social networks facilitate the obvious networking conversations as well as open topic discussions, brainstorming, collaboration, and scheduling.

Twitter has been used successfully at events as a method of communication to, from, and between attendees. EMC, for example, set up a Twitter account for its EMC World conference and established a special tag that, when placed in a Twitter message, helped people to filter out just the event-related messages and view them in chronological order. This stream of conversations coming from the event helped attendees to stay in touch, allowed attendee wannabes to keep in touch with the event, and helped prospective attendees to evaluate the pulse of the event as they made their decision about whether to go.

Let Them Co-Create

Attendees are increasingly interested in creating content in the forms of video, photos, blog posts, and comments. Find ways to encourage this user-generated content and leverage it for greater viral reach. Event organizers must make certain that wireless Internet access is readily available, and many event organizers have gotten into the habit of seating bloggers at prestigious front-row tables at general sessions.

User-generated content will have a greater ability to attract future attendees if they can find it easily. Consider asking attendees to use consistent tags and, where possible, provide ways for attendees to post their content to the official event Web site, network, or network space. Macworld, for example, used a social network built on the Ning platform to allow attendees to network with each other, write their own blogs, and upload images and videos. Other events choose to build their own social media site so that they can better control the user experience and data connectivity.

People are talking about your gathering and your organization. Find them and join the conversation.

Once you find where your prospective attendees hang out, set up shop there. Social media marketing is fairly complex because of the sheer number of networks out there, but the effort required to build a presence and maintain it on each site is very low. Building these channels will pay year-to-year benefits in awareness, membership, and a growing pool of people ready to hear about your next event.

Rob Larsen is senior front-end developer, social media specialist, and Rob Everton is creative technology director, both with digital marketing and events agency Cramer. For more, check out their blogs: Larsen's can be found at roblarsen.org/blog; Everton's Cramer's Marketing Technology Blog is at www.crameronline.com.