With attendees frantically updating Facebook accounts on their BlackBerrys between sessions, tweeting about your keynoter while she’s still on stage, and tapping away on netbooks during breaks, one can’t help but wonder what happened to actually being social with people who are in the same room. Is all this social networking making us less social face-to-face?

Jeff De Cagna, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, Reston, Va., says that the answer lies in thinking 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,” he says, but now the definition extends to the distributed community of people you follow and who follow you on Twitter, your Facebook friends, and your LinkedIn links.

Corporate Meetings & Incentives: If “social” is being redefined to include both face-to-face encounters and virtual relationships during conference downtime, doesn’t that take away from what has traditionally been one of a live meeting’s strong suits: those coffee breaks and hallway conversations?

De Cagna: I don’t think so. It’s not 1970, 1980, or 1990 where people coming to an event could come and unplug. We don’t live in that world anymore. Instead of fighting that trend, we need to create double-sided experiences that, like double-sided tape, are sticky on both sides—for physical-space attendees and virtual attendees. Frankly, when we organize things that are about the needs exclusively of one segment of the audience, that’s more devaluing [than off-site interactions].

CMI: How do you design an event to be sticky on both sides?
De Cagna: There are simple things organizers can do, such as use social tools to share their messages, have event blogs, share video and audio, and have live tweeters to share information. I attended a meeting last summer that did a great job of organizing an annual meeting hub that included blogs and tweets and podcasts so everyone who was there could access it easily, as well as those who were not there.

We also need to get speakers involved not just in submitting content in advance, offering a handout, and writing a blog post, but also engaging them with how they can use Twitter as part of their sessions. Would they take questions from a Twitter audience? Create chat-oriented conversations that involve both a virtual audience and an audience in the room? It’s about creating a community of content providers, people we might formerly have known as an audience.

CMI: But if attendees are spending so much time tweeting with off-site people, does that mean their needs are somehow not being met at the meeting?
De Cagna: Event organizers need to ask themselves why people are using social tools while attending in physical space: Is what they’re learning in virtual space more engaging to them than what’s going on in the room? Are they finding more value in taking one statement from a speaker and putting it out on Twitter and instead having a rich conversation about that one statement?

The challenge is to create an experience that is worthy of in-person attendance, but also is rich enough to be inclusive of those who cannot attend. We have to review, refine, and amplify a view of what it means to be social from one that has been narrowly focused on what goes on in the room to one that is more inclusive of a universe of stakeholders, some of whom are in the room and some not.

For More Info

See Association Meetings’ take on social media: Social Media: What Meeting Planners Need to Know.

From the Conference Publishers Inc.’s Mitchell Beer: Social Media: The Killer App?

Columnist Jim Spellos on Twitter