FEW WOULD ARGUE that milling about at coffee breaks or walking aisles of eager exhibitors is the most efficient way to network. Yet that's the business model. Lanyards around our necks, business cards at the ready, we work the sessions, the booths, the breaks, the dinners because — as they always say — one good connection at a meeting makes the whole thing worthwhile.

One good connection? Event organizers and attendees accept this crusty proposition because, well, it has always been true. But new event networking technologies can put that idea to shame, allowing attendees to connect far more efficiently. In addition, the most robust of the tools give event organizers a unique window into their audience demographics.

Call it turbo networking, online networking, or maybe even the future of face-to-face events. Among the major players are SmartEvent by BDMetrics, which ran its first event in April 2004 (marketed through ExpoExchange, Frederick, Md.); Santa Barbara, Calif.-based introNetworks, which launched in February 2003 but only became relatively affordable and easy to deploy with the release of v3 last fall; and Rio by CRG-Total Event Solutions, Seattle, which has quietly facilitated networking at about 30 meetings since 2002 — many for Microsoft Corp.

These applications range widely in style and scope but have several things in common, the most important being that after attendees register for a conference, they are asked to complete a profile of their responsibilities and interests, product focus, or reasons for attending. From these profiles, the systems create searchable, content-rich databases.

Busy attendees, who might fill out registration forms in a minimal way, are motivated to complete the profiles out of self interest: Once they opt in, they can use the systems to search for other attendees. And in using it, some order can be imposed on the typically random meeting environment. For example, if an attendee wants to meet with programmers who focus on training applications in an html environment, the systems compile a list of matches from attendees who have a profile.

A user can then send a message to a fellow attendee on an internal message center, but does not have access to that person's e-mail or contact details. As a privacy control, the recipient gets to decide if he or she wants to release that information.

The New Formula

“The old formula was I, as the event owner, will assemble all of the thought leaders and all of the products and all of the brain power and solutions I can get my hands on. And I will bring them to this building and put a badge on them, but after that, it's up to you,” says Jack Chalden, who was general manager of Supercomm, an annual technology conference and exhibition, when it deployed SmartEvent for the first time last year.

Chalden, who recently turned to consulting (including product development guidance for SmartEvent), sees promise in these tools as a solution to an age-old problem. “ROI has been bandied about in this business until people are tired of hearing about it. It is absolutely the centerpiece of the industry's business challenge — demonstrating in tangible ways the value of the face-to-face business experience.” That's what's possible, he says, “as soon as people understand that they have the tools to build relationships with their customers and that it works.”

Microsoft's attendees have shown a growing understanding of the Rio tool. The number of attendees who completed the “Rio bio” at the Microsoft Worldwide Partners Conference jumped from 35 percent in 2002 to almost 60 percent in 2004, and the number of WPC meetings scheduled through Rio in 2004 reached more than 5,600.

The Macromedia Developer's Conference has used introNetworks twice, and Peter Goldie, vice president, product marketing at Macromedia in San Francisco, says his 2,000-plus attendees have come to like it and expect it. About 75 percent of them opted in for the 2004 event; 50 percent included a photo with their profile; and about 3,000 messages were sent during the three-day event. Of course, those 3,000 messages represent only a fraction of the conference correspondence. The system goes live well in advance of the meeting and stays up for months afterward. (Some operate year-round.) “It extends the meeting, which I think is powerful,” says Goldie. “Before the introNetwork, attendees would show up, have the three days to meet people, and then they'd go. If they collected business cards, they'd be able to follow up, but now with the system, people can arrange meetings even before getting to the conference, with people they might not even know yet.”

Put It to the Test

Bruce Epstein doesn't need any convincing about the value of networking technologies. He experienced introNetworks at two Macromedia conferences and is quick to note the ways it has helped him as a book editor for O'Reilly Media Inc. He attends Macromedia events to meet potential authors, find technical reviewers, and learn about new technologies. In one case, an attendee — who he guesses must have searched the database for “O'Reilly” — contacted him through the system simply to send kudos for the quality of O'Reilly books, but the two struck up an e-conversation. “I took the opportunity to ask him what books he read, and suggested our new intro to Macromedia Flash book,” says Epstein. “Turns out, he is an instructor in Boston and will consider the book for his class.” In another case, he met an online columnist at the show, but only briefly. He later searched for her on the introNetwork and followed up. “Subsequently, I sent her a review copy of a new Macromedia Flash book, which she reviewed on her Web site.”

Mark McDonald was introduced to SmartEvents as an attendee at Reed Exhibitions' Infosecurity show in December. The vice president of Electronic Interface Associates Inc., a New York telecommunications company, was intrigued by the implications. “A lot of attendees are potential exhibitors; they go to the show to see the competition as well as to do business. This service opens up the whole world of the conference, gives you a reason to be there other than to pick up brochures.”

Market Intelligence Delivered

Attendee networking is just half the story of these new technologies. Of critical value for introNetworks and SmartEvent clients are the back-end reports that allow them to better understand their markets. Both systems allow attendees to do Google-like searches of the profile database and, in turn, allow organizers to see exactly what kinds of things attendees are looking for. They also can get reports on their groups' answers to every profile question.

Just weeks before the 2004 Macromedia Developer's Conference, Goldie got a bit of key market intelligence from his introNetwork: On the profile, he had asked users to select from a pull-down menu “the types of projects I work on most often.” He found that the conference had attracted a lot more designers and developers working on business applications than he had expected. As a result, he did some last-minute fiddling with the conference content to better meet the needs of those attendees.

Mark Sylvester, CEO and co-founder of introNetworks, can recite plenty of other examples of successfully mining attendee data. He cites a conference last October in New York for the American Institute of Graphic Artists, for which one of the profile questions was “speaker I am most interested in meeting.” “We were able to show them exactly how many people wanted to see each speaker,” he says.

One organization came to better understand its audience after analyzing the 2004 attendees who made use of its SmartEvent portal, says Don Mahoney, executive vice president at BDMetrics. On the 2004 registration form, attendees could place themselves in any of a few dozen market classifications. However, in the more detailed SmartEvent profile there were 2,500 different market spaces into which attendees could categorize themselves, and attendees selected 702 different disciplines in which to ground themselves. “That was the basis for a real revamp of the demographics of the 2005 show,” he says.

The Challenges

Despite the benefits of the new technologies, hurdles exist for first adopters. “It's a new thing for the meeting industry,” says Corbin Ball, meeting industry technology consultant. “And secondly, it's an add-on cost that people haven't budgeted for. Now, I contend that they have the potential for improving the meeting so much that it's worth it.”

Jack Chalden agrees. “In terms of impediments to adoption, I don't think it's a financial issue, because the return on investment is so high.” However, he says of the SmartEvent product, “It's complex. We've had different ways of conducting our business, and technology has not been a big part of it.” At Supercomm, for example, which adopted the tool relatively late in the cycle for its 2004 event, less than a third of its 30,000 attendees activated their Smart Event portals. “It's a revolutionary tool,” Chalden says, “but it's evolutionary in its adoption.”

The Players

Here's a rundown of three major players in the event networking space:

introNetworks

introNetworks' differential lies in its intriguing Flash interface. The creators, Mark Sylvester, CEO, who before this endeavor helped to develop an Oscar-winning 3-D computer animation system, and Kimberlee Weil, COO, a nationally recognized Flash expert, have made completing a profile and searching for other attendees as agreeable and interactive as one can imagine. A taste of the graphics can be seen at www.introNetworks.com.

Conventional keyword searches are part of the system, but it's the “Visualizer” search mode that catches users' attention. Attendees are represented as pins on a circular grid. The user is shown as a gray pin in the center. The distance of the other pins from the center indicates how closely those people match the user's profile. As the user narrows an attendee search, pins disappear. When the user rolls the cursor over a particular pin, that individual's profile appears in a pop-up box, which has an attendee's profile information (and picture or video if the attendee has uploaded one). It also shows users how their interests intersect with one another.

The cost of an introNetwork starts at $9,995 for events of up to 2,200 people.

Rio

Developed by Seattle-based CRG-Total Event Solutions, Rio specializes in scheduling and facilitating attendee meetings. Once attendees search the Rio database for people with whom they're interested in connecting, they send an invitation to one or several people requesting a face-to-face meeting during the course of the larger event. Using a calendar built into the system, attendees can create Rio meetings only during designated times — not, for example, during keynotes or other times that the host organization designates. Rio meetings happen in a specified area, set apart with pipe and drape and outfitted with numbered tables and a CRG employee who manages the floor. Tables can be reserved for 15 minutes to an hour or more.

In comparison to the other networking tools, Rio does not mine attendee profiles to provide market data to show organizers. Also, while Rio typically goes live well in advance of a meeting, it usually stays up for only a week afterward. Pricing is based on the number of attendees at the meeting and starts at $6,000 to $10,000 for a meeting of 500 people. www.crgevents.com

SmartEvent

Up until about a year and a half ago, BDMetrics' software was focused on creating business deals — mapping them out and bringing together potential partners. But that changed when, last January, they hooked up with ExpoExchange, an exhibit services provider, to apply their “business relationship optimization” tool, as they call it, to the event industry.

While SmartEvent can map attendee demographics, which allows them to find one another (and allows show management to understand their customers better), the system can also make personalized recommendations for products and services an attendee should explore, or specific people that they should network with. The product includes a meeting scheduling function.

SmartEvent also has a strong focus on helping show managers attract exhibitors and attendees. For potential exhibitors, the system can generate reports based on their product category and what major job titles and functions they are targeting. Attendees who need to justify attendance can generate a “True Potential Report,” which mines the data based on their job function, expertise, and interests, showing how many networking opportunities there are.

The cost can range from $2 to $10 per person. www.bdmetrics.com