The buzz these days is all about social media, from Facebook to LinkedIn to Twitter to Flickr to blogs and podcasts and … well, the array of options is seemingly endless. But is social media right for your organization’s events, or is it just a fad? To help you sort through what you need to know before jumping into this pool of sociability, Association Meetings called on the expertise of Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant of SocialFish, a consulting company based in Washington, D.C., that they formed to help associations and nonprofits build community via the Web.

AM: Let’s start with the question I heard repeatedly at ASAE and The Center's annual meeting in Toronto this summer: Is social media just what the cool kids are doing, or does it really add value to an organization’s meeting strategy?

GRANT: Social media does more than add value—it’s about a new way of communicating between individuals and their friends and colleagues, and between individuals and brands or organizations. The idea that it’s something only for the cool kids or early adopters is fading as every main social site is showing exponential usage growth in every demographic. What that means for associations is that you can guarantee that some of your members or stakeholders are out there using these sites—and maybe talking about you, or your industry—so it makes perfect sense to think about how to join that conversation.

DREYER: Also, associations are in the business of bringing people together for collaboration and community. The Internet is empowering collaboration and community in ways that were not possible before. It is important for associations to adapt their thinking and prepare for a future where social media is taken for granted.

AM: What can social media do to enhance an association’s meetings and trade shows?

GRANT: Actually, we see face-to-face meetings as one of the cornerstones of a good social media strategy. Online activity can feed real-life events, and real-life events provide amazing content for social media activity. Essentially, you can build buzz for your event by “teasing” potential attendees with snippets of the best stuff that will be at the event; you can add a whole layer of networking and connectivity during the meeting; and you can make the meeting content (both official and social) live online long after the actual event is over.

DREYER: Also, social media opens up a lot of possibilities for informal and peer-to-peer learning channels. This adds value both for the attendees who are experiencing the meeting for themselves, and for spectators who are connected to those attendees but may not understand the value of your event until they see the richness of their colleagues’ experiences.

AM: How can you tell if your organization, your members, and meeting attendees are ready to use social media around meetings?

GRANT: You can tell by listening and monitoring. You’ll find out very quickly if any of your members are using public social sites like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn by doing a few keyword searches. It doesn’t matter if there are only a few people using it—you can still provide value by participating and showing others how to use it.

DREYER: We’re in an awkward spot at the moment. For a lot of associations, the percentage of folks who’ll actively contribute to or monitor social spaces during a meeting is fairly low. That said, they are often some of your most engaged participants, and the value they add can be tremendous. It’s worth adding a layer of support into your meeting for social media activity; there are a lot of ways to dip your toes without overwhelming your resources or your budget.

AM: What costs and staff time are required to implement a social media strategy?

GRANT: How long is a piece of string? You can do it halfheartedly or you can throw yourselves into it—you’ll get out of it what you put in.

DREYER: For Buzz2009—a meeting we hosted for associations on how to use social media—we spent four to five hours per week leading up to the month before the conference. Then we spent six to eight hours per week and had one staff person on site whose job it was to live-blog and tweet at the event. We used all free tools. When you’re getting started, it’s about picking one or two things and doing them well. Small and good can grow to large and good. Large and bad cannot be salvaged. Spend your resources on a thoughtful plan for connecting people and feeding the social space with content they can socialize around. Find champions from your membership to help you.

AM: What can you gain from using social media with your meetings? What are the potential pitfalls?

GRANT: You’ll energize your community. You already have people who care enough about your event to talk about it, share their experiences, and look forward to next year, right? So now you’re empowering that community with tools that make it easier for them to stay connected throughout the year. You’re making it easier than ever for them to tell their colleagues why attending makes sense. And you are potentially creating a public record of the ripple your event made in the hearts and minds of your fans. When someone searches the Internet for your event, the opinions they find from people in your community matter.

DREYER: There are potential pitfalls—you know your attendees love to complain about the food, the boring speaker, the room temperature. And yes, some people will be on their computers or tweeting during the keynote—but that doesn’t mean they’re not listening. In fact, they may be deeply engaged in capturing the best of the session and sharing it with their network. The biggest risk for associations is in not being prepared to listen and respond to the social interactions happening before, during, and after the meeting—and that risk exists regardless of whether you choose to add social media to your meeting. By consciously adding social media and recruiting champions from your membership, you’re actually ensuring that your fans will be a part of the conversation, as opposed to ignoring social media and just leaving it to chance. The folks you recruit can and will come to your defense.

AM: If your organization is using social media for other purposes, how do you fit the meetings piece into the existing strategy? Or, if you’re starting your social media strategy with meetings, how do you make sure it can expand to incorporate objectives outside of the annual convention?

DREYER: Think about real life for a minute—most meetings exist to bring an existing community together face to face. Apply that concept to online community, and what we’re really talking about is using your meeting to find and connect with people who care about your organization, and then building community with those people. It’s a long-term process, and your meeting is essential to jump-starting that process.

GRANT: Meetings are a great way to start experimenting with social media, because there is a specific time frame and you’re tapping into an existing groundswell of energy from people looking forward to the meeting. It’s still important to know your objectives for both the meeting and for your organization as a whole. Pay special attention to the sweet spot—where your meeting objectives are in line with your organization’s objectives. Over time, you should strive to build an online community that reflects the diversity of your association.

AM: Of all the social media tools and resources out there, which are being used most effectively for conferences? Should you do everything—LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and blogs—to try to meet your members/attendees where they like to hang out, or do you pick one or two media and concentrate on those?

GRANT: It’s always a good plan to meet your members and attendees where they hang out. This is where the listening piece is so important. We usually start with the big three: Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Find out if your members are using one or more of these, and concentrate on them. LinkedIn and Facebook can be really useful for organizing groups before and after a conference, but in our experience Twitter is by far the most popular social site for on-site engagement by virtue of its ease of use with mobile devices and its quick-fire, real-time communication method.

DREYER: Another strategy is to choose a tool that lends itself especially well to the type of content you are capturing on site. If your members love photos, you might want to try Flickr. If your presenters love PowerPoint, Slideshare might be a good place to explore. If you are able to capture short videos of speakers, YouTube is a natural fit. All three of these tools are easy to share in blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else your members might be.

We’ve only talked about outposts (social sites hosted by third-parties).

Associations also have a lot of good options for their home base—everything from an event or association blog to a full-featured online community hosted on your organization’s Web site. Outpost strategy and home-base strategy can work in conjunction. Generally speaking, it’s easier to build a presence in outposts where your members already are, and then work to pull those members back to your home base.

AM: Once you’ve built it, how do you get your attendees to use it?

DREYER: It’s a Catch-22, isn’t it? If no one is there, no one will come. This is especially challenging with groups who choose to invest in their own online community, where the temptation is to pre-populate the space with the entire member directory, forgetting that a database record is not nearly as interesting as an actual person using the tool. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some groups have members and attendees who have been begging their association to build it. Even in that case, you need to start small and good. Get the most excited members to give you feedback or beta test your new tools. As interaction in the community grows, you can start to scale it by bringing in more people.

GRANT: You also need to manage expectations. Keep in mind that participation in online social spaces follows the 1:9:90 rule: 1 percent creates content; 9 percent interacts with that content through commenting, sharing, rating, or reviewing it; 90 percent are spectators. That’s normal and quite healthy. The trick is to manage your social spaces in a way that makes it easy for people to move from spectator to commenter to creator.

AM: How can you tell if your social media strategy is working?

DREYER: There are so many ways to measure social media, but it’s difficult to actually measure results. That’s why it’s important to define measurable objectives that your social media efforts can reasonably impact. For example, increased attendance could come from any number of sources. Increased online mentions of your event, on the other hand, are much more measurable and very likely to come from your social media work. If the mentions are positive and other factors (economy, location, health of the industry) cooperate, you’ll see an increase in attendance as a byproduct of the buzz.

GRANT: At first, measure what’s easy, like your number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers, and keep track of anecdotal evidence and feedback from members. You’ll get a sense for whether it’s working or not, based on the energy you see in your social spaces. As you get more comfortable with social media and begin to understand more about what it can do for you, you can delve into more meaningful metrics. Just remember to measure what you need to know in order to see if you are successful! Align the metrics with your objectives and use that information to try different things, or to prioritize projects that are going really well.

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