In 2006, Chicago-based Starcom MediaVest Group deployed an online social network to connect the 200 executives attending its global meeting in Rome. Little did they know, it was the germ of a network that would soon grow to be more than 10 times larger.

SMV Global's Rome meeting network, designed by introNetworks, allowed attendees to create online profiles describing their strengths, challenges, experience, and responsibilities, as well as some personal interests. The executives could search for other attendees with similar characteristics and connect via e-mail before, during, and after the meeting.

Seth Romine, vice president and global director of knowledge management at SMV Group, says that the event network was so impressive that the company decided to deploy it companywide to better connect its 5,800 employees, who are spread out among 67 countries. After one year, without a mandate, about 50 percent of the workforce had opted in.

Employee and customer communities are hot, says Mike Walsh, CEO of San Francisco-based Leverage Software, which began deploying social networks for meetings in 2003, back when the players in the market could be counted on one hand. “What's happened in the last two years, especially last year, is that we're developing more ongoing customer communities. These are sometimes launched in conjunction with an event and are intended to live on. Or we launch the ongoing community, and when events come up, they are incorporated into the social networking site.” Event-only networks used to be 100 percent of Leverage's business, but now just 20 percent of the networks that they develop are that narrow, he says.

SMV hasn't ruled out using a social network specifically to connect meeting attendees, but at this point, it's focusing on building the companywide network. Romine notes that a number of subgroups and forums have developed within the network, linking employees with shared interests and projects. The subgroups have community leaders, as well as listservs, RSS feeds, or other shared content.

Changing Players

The ways that organizations use social networks are evolving, and so are the players. Just a few years ago, introNetworks, Leverage, and BDMetrics were the key companies marketing meeting-specific social networks, but new tools are flooding the space. The rush started with the launch of EventMingle in 2006, followed by Eventvue (August 2007), Crowdvine for Conferences (November 2007), A2Z's networkNow (December 2007), Pathable (April 2008), and EventMatch (December 2008).

The systems' capabilities are broadening, too. At their core, they provide a way for meeting attendees, speakers, and exhibitors to find one another. Rather than roaming receptions and exhibits hoping to run into good contacts, sales leads, or friends, meeting-goers can search a database of attendee profiles to find people, and then contact them using an internal e-mail system. (Most of the systems also recommend attendees whom the user might want to meet.) The networks typically go live well before the face-to-face event and stay up long after attendees are back home, allowing a meeting's footprint to extend beyond the few days that attendees are together.

Many of the tools now offer mobile versions, allow subgroups to form, and have made it easy for profiles to include links to a range of online content.

You Better Believe It

If you think that your attendees aren't using social technologies, consider the pace of change documented in The Growth of Social Technology Adoption, an October white paper by Forrester Research Inc. According to Forrester's study, three of four U.S. adults with online access use social tools monthly. That's up from 56 percent in 2007.

The Web 2.0 activities that Forrester tracked included writing or reading blogs, watching or uploading user-created videos, and writing an online review. But even when researchers looked specifically at what they termed “joiner activities” — visiting or maintaining a profile on a social networking site — they also found big increases. The percentage of U.S. online adults who participate in a social network at least monthly (such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on) jumped from about 24 percent in 2007 to about 34 percent in 2008. And the percentage who maintain a profile went from 20 percent in 2007 to about 28 percent in 2008.

Don't assume that your attendees are too old to be part of this trend. Forrester reports that about 12 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds participated in social networking sites in 2007, and that doubled to 24 percent in 2008.

The Long Engagement

Whether attendees are young or old, or the technology is slick or basic, a social networking system has to be promoted and nurtured. Mark Sylvester, co-founder of introNetworks, which has deployed 250 networks since the company launched in 2003, says adoption “is not a technology problem. It's a business problem. What we're finding is that you need a community manager who will tell people it exists and make sure that you're serving the audience. You need to know what the audience wants to know about each other, what questions and keywords will help them find each other, what challenges they are having with their businesses. You need someone who can think like the community.”

Charlene Li, co-author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technolo-gies, agrees that marketing an event-based social network is vital. “The biggest issue is trying to engage people before they come to the event. There's no history or experience to do so, and the danger is that only a few people participate fully beforehand, lessening the likelihood that the system will work. If it's deployed as an afterthought, it won't work.”

Not Another Network?

As exciting as the idea is of making conference networking less random, event-based networks have their detractors. Many are focused on the “not another network” problem. According Forrester's white paper, 74 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and more than half of 25- to 34-year-olds participate in social networking sites, and that can result in a kind of community overkill.

“Most of us already belong to more social networks and communities than we can effectively manage,” says Dawn Foster, an online community consultant. “Joining one more social network and maintaining information and contacts in one more place is not something that most people will spend time doing.” Instead of a new network, Foster says, meeting organizers should always publish a conference “tag,” a keyword that can be assigned to online content that allows it to be searched for. Conference registrants can tag their profiles on Facebook, for example, to connect with other attendees, or tag content on Flickr, Twitter, or their blog to make it easy for others to search for conference-related content.

Foster posted her thoughts about meeting-specific social networks on her Fast Wonder blog and got a chorus of agreement from readers.

However, Jordan Schwartz, founder of Pathable, weighed in with a dissenting view. While he agreed that “we, the digerati, are close to reaching social network overload,” he argued that the vast majority of conference attendees are far from it, and finding a social network that they all use would be tough. “Facebook is probably your best bet,” he posted, “but do you really want conference attendees seeing the wall posts and pictures that foolish friends have posted?

“Instead,” Schwartz continued, “a closed social network, where you know that everybody who is on it is someone you will actually have an opportunity to meet in person, is exactly what conferences need. You tailor your persona for that audience, and you scope your interactions to only those people who are relevant. And, everybody, regardless of whether they use Orkut or Facebook or LinkedIn, can play.”

Shopping Around

What to ask when researching a meeting-specific social network

  • By what criteria are attendee profiles searchable: name, company, job title, interests, geographic location, other?

  • Does the profile interface make it easy for attendees to link to their Web sites or blogs, or to their content on LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, or other sites? Can other multimedia content be uploaded, such as videos, pdf documents, or music files?

  • Is creating a profile and searching for attendees a user-friendly experience?

  • Is the networking system integrated with the conference agenda and/or a personal calendar for scheduling meetings?

  • Does the product have a system for recommending attendees who should meet, based on shared interests?

  • Is the system integrated with any registration providers?

  • Is there a mobile interface?

  • Is there an integrated private messaging system?

  • Can in-network blogs, microblogs (like Twitter), wikis, and community chat rooms be included?

  • Can features be turned on and off depending on the needs of the community?

  • How can the look and feel be customized to the meeting?

  • How many users can the system handle?

  • How robust are the administrator tools and reporting features?

  • Can meeting organizers sell sponsorships on the site? Who gets the revenue from sponsorships? Are advertising units displayed to all users, or can they be segmented so that groups of users see certain ads depending on their interests or other factors?

Social Networking for Meetings

The Players

a2z Inc. (NetworkNow!)
Columbia, Md., a2zinc.net

Crowdvine (Crowdvine for Conferences)
Mill Valley, Calif.
www.crowdvine.com

EventMingle
Bend, Ore.eventmingle.com

Eventvue
Boulder, Colo.
www.eventvue.com

Freeman/BDMetrics (EventMatch)
Dallas
www.freemanco.com/eventMatch/index.htm

introNetworks
Montecito, Calif.
www.intronetworks.com

Leverage Software
San Francisco
www.leveragesoftware.com

Pathable
Seattle, pathable.com