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.

Next Page: How Do Associations Use Social Media for Meetings

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.

Sidebar #1: How Do Associations Use Social Media for Meetings?

80% of respondents use some type of free social network

35% have a custom-built social network system

19% have a social-network site for their conferences

60% offer wireless Internet access at their largest events

The top three benefits from a conference-based social network:

1: To create pre-event interest and enthusiasm

2: To facilitate interaction among conference participants

3: To increase attendance

Source: July 2009 survey by Omnipress of 325 associations on how they use social media for meetings

Next Page: Social Media Tip Sheet

Sidebar #2: Social Media Tip Sheet

  • Listen, Listen, Listen

    “You need to know what's being said about you everywhere on the Internet, and what's being said about you on Twitter,” says KiKi L'Italien, membership and education services manager, Optical Society of America, Washington, D.C. Set up Google alerts for your organization's name, your annual meeting's name, any secondary meetings you have, your primary competitors, and keywords for your industry, to pick up news articles, blog posts, photos, and anything else related to your alert topics. Because Twitter isn't tracked on Google, you also need to set up a separate-but-similar keyword search on Twitter.

  • Find internal champions on your staff

    If you have a staff member who loves Facebook, put her in charge of your Facebook fan page, says Jeff Hurt, director of education and events with the National Association of Dental Plans, Dallas. Twitter might be a natural for your techies. You'll find your staff much more interested and involved if the media they head up is one they love anyway.

  • Encourage exhibitors to use Twitter

    L'Italien says that exhibitors who pay attention to tweets from attendees can develop relationships before the event and get them to stop by the booth, as long as they truly respond to the needs the attendee expresses and do it in a friendly, nonmarketing way. While a similar pitch via e-mail would have been ignored at best, L'Italien says Twitter interactions with exhibitors at ASAE and The Center's annual meeting not only got her to their booths, but helped develop real friendships.

  • Make it easy for your members to let people know they'll be at your meeting

    Give them a “Meet us at the Meeting” image they can display on their home page, with a link back to your event Web site.

  • Remember that your goal is not to drive people to use Twitter or Facebook or another social media

    But to reach out to people who are using those media, says Peter Hutchins, vice president of knowledge initiatives with ASAE and The Center, Washington, D.C. “We don't want you to think Facebook or LinkedIn are the home place for what ASAE and The Center has to offer. We are careful to create those accounts to be a funnel to bring members back to the core ASAE site, because that's the place we can monetize and learn from the relationship and interactions.”

Sidebar #3: With Social Media for Meetings, Start Small and Good

Maddie Grant and Lindy Dreyer

As the Washington, D.C.-based American Geophysical Union considered ways to use social media tools to build community online, they decided to conduct an experiment. The association set up a Twitter account a few weeks before their Joint Assembly that took place in May. Some of their goals for the experiment were to find out who uses Twitter within their community, to help members get to know staff, to explore two-way communication, and to extend the event's reach. AGU staff — many of whom were new to Twitter — discussed the possibilities for the Twitter account. As a team they chose people who would post during the conference, and several others who would be monitoring the Twitter stream. Here are the steps they took:

  • AGU set up a Twitter account specifically for the Joint Assembly. http://twitter.com/theAGU

  • They established a hashtag (#ja09) that would identify all tweets related to the meeting and started using it in conjunction with Joint Assembly tweets. (Hash tags are a way for people to search for tweets that have a common topic. The pound sign (#) is called a hash symbol.)

  • The organization let attendees know about the Twitter account through e-mail, its Web site, and face-to-face conversations on site.

  • AGU staff on site tweeted both logistics updates and interesting content that was coming out of the conference. They identified a few attendees who were using the hashtag and made contact with them through Twitter.

Even with light adoption by members, the AGU succeeded in setting up systems and giving its staff the confidence to succeed on a larger scale at its fall meeting.

Next Page: Time to Redefine Social

Sidebar #4: Time to Redefine Social

By Sue Pelletier

With attendees frantically updating their Facebook accounts on their BlackBerries between sessions, tweeting notes about the keynote during the presentation, and tapping away on their netbooks during breaks, one can't help but wonder what happened to being social with the people who are actually in the same room. Is social media making us less social face to face?

JEFF DE CAGNA, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation LLC, Reston, Va., says we need to think 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,” but now the definition of “social” has to extend to all those in your community of people who you follow and who follow you on Twitter, your Facebook friends, and your LinkedIn links. “I don't think of it as being less social; I think of it as being social in a different way.”

Like it or not, he adds, this new sociability is here to stay. To learn what you can do to design “double-sided” experiences that are available to both real-life and virtual attendees (and their extended networks), go to meetingsnet.com/socialmedia and click on the “Redefining Sociability” podcast.

Sidebar #5: Set Goals for Using Social Media With Meetings

By Sue Pelletier

Jeff Hurt, director of education and events with the National Association of Dental Plans, Dallas, says the place to start with social media is to put a goal behind your strategy. It doesn't have to be huge. “It could be as easy as, ‘We want to connect with our members on Facebook,'” he says.

Hurt's goal when his organization began using social media for its meetings two years ago was to increase interactivity on site to better engage attendees and increase their learning. They began by incorporating Twitter into the keynote addresses, so tweeters in the audience could interact directly with the presenter and have their questions answered in real time.

“Our audience — which is C-suite executives who have their mobile devices with them at all times — went nuts for it,” he says. “We watched a new level of learning happen.” It has since become a staple. “We do it all the time because the audience demands it.”

While its members didn't necessarily know they wanted their own “velvet-rope” online community, they had made it clear that they wanted a way to continue to interact with each other and learn from their peers outside of the meeting. A year and a half ago, NADP set up a private online community for its members, which took off like a rocket.

Healthcare reform directly affects its members' business, so NADP has ventured into consumer education via Twitter and blogs, along with LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media accounts. They update members on government relations, dental benefits, electronic coding, and other areas. The goal was to show members how social media works, and how they can reach out to their customers and monitor what's being said about their companies in the social space.

Next Page: Are Meetings the Killer App?

Sidebar #6: Are Meetings the Killer App?

By Mitchell Beer

When historians look back on the early days of social media — the days we're living in now — they might find that some of the earliest “killer apps” for interactive technologies relied on the power of face-to-face meetings. And vic

These are wild times for social media, with brilliant new services and expert commentators falling in and out of favor in the time it takes to craft a blog post (or sort through the multitude of disorganized comments the blog may have generated). But if you listen carefully, the fundamentals behind a winning social media application sound similar to the takeaways that any client should expect from a successful meeting.

Webster, N.Y.-based Fusion Productions has been experimenting with social media since 2006, using its annual DigitalNow conference as a test bed for integrating online tools with on-site content and interaction. Fusion applied that experience at Meeting Professionals International's 2009 Chapter Leaders Conference, then produced a white paper that positioned social media as an important and growing part of the meetings mix.

Refreshingly, Fusion's version of Social Media 101 is not about how to set up a Facebook account, write a winning Twitter tweet, or add YouTube to a static Web site. And it goes far beyond announcing a hash tag at a general session, mounting a separate display screen for audience comments, and counting on participants and keynotes to get with the program.

“It requires your production group to design the stage, the screens, the media, the Internet connection, and the graphic look to accommodate Twitter comments and interaction in a way that it's not just a constant stream of stuff going across the stage,” said Fusion CEO Hugh Lee. “It requires you to design the general sessions to allow time” for the added interaction. And it means training everyone on site, participants as well as speakers, in an effort to “engage the audience and give them reasons to do this.”

Lee said DigitalNow demonstrated the potential to link on-site and off-site audiences. “Here's a summit of CEOs and senior executives that's cut off at 250 people,” he said. “In the general sessions, we had up to 600 people tweeting; at one point, it was the fifth-most-popular subject on Twitter. Obviously, many of the people in the audience were engaged, but the conversation both ways carried outside our four walls. So now you have our audience and keynote speakers talking to the external world. Think about the energy that starts to happen!”

Interactive technologies give organizations the tools to carry on the dialogue and prompt action after participants go home, Lee said. They also enable conference hosts to shape or guide the online discussion while an event is in progress.

“People are going to say what's on their minds,” said Julie McKown, Fusion social media specialist. If the feedback is negative, “it gives you an opportunity to redefine your brand and demonstrate customer service, just show that you're listening, even if there's nothing you can do about it right away.”

Lee pointed out that uncontrolled conversations, positive and negative, are bound to occur, whether or not meeting organizers take part. “They're talking now,” he said, but “now you have a forum to put out the right information.”

As the industry takes its first, tentative steps in its use of social media, we have a chance to create the “killer apps” that will make meetings and social media more powerful and vibrant.

Fusion's integrated approach takes the best of both to build something even better. But there's a lot more of this story to be written. The glory will go to the organizations that are most adept at combining on-site programs and online media to serve their strategic goals.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world's leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.