Few would argue that milling about at coffee breaks or walking endless aisles of eager exhibitors are the most efficient ways of networking. 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 event networking technologies are now on the market that can put that expression to shame, allowing attendees to network far more efficiently. And in addition, the most robust of the tools also give event organizers a unique window into the interests and demographics of their audiences.

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 version 3 last fall; and Rio by CRG-Total Event Solutions, Seattle, which has quietly facilitated networking at about 30 meetings since 2002 — largely for Microsoft Corp. — but plans a bigger marketing push this year.

Theses applications range widely in style and scope but have several things in common, the most important being that after registering for a conference, the systems request that attendees complete a profile of their responsibilities and interests, product focus, or reasons for attending an event. And from these profiles the systems create searchable, content-rich attendee databases.

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

All the systems then provide internal messaging centers. A user can send a message to a fellow attendee or exhibitor, but he or she does not have access to that person's e-mail or other contact details. As a privacy control, the person who receives the message gets to decide if they want to release that information or not.

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 conference and exhibition for communications service providers and private network managers, when it deployed the SmartEvent tool for the first time last year.

The meeting and event industry, he says, has “operated pretty much on a trust-me basis for a long time. And part of that is because of the absence of really significant tools to mine these face-to-face encounters.” Until now, he says.

Chalden, who recently turned to consulting (including providing product development guidance to SmartEvent), is a 30-year veteran of the trade show industry. He sees promise in these tools for 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.”

And that's what's possible, he says — “as soon as people understand they have the tools to build relationships with their customers and that it works.”

The Macromedia Developer's Conference has used introNetworks for two years now, and Peter Goldie, vice president, product marketing at Macromedia, a San Francisco-based software company that puts on annual customer or end-user events, says his 2,000-plus attendees have come to like and expect it.

About 75 percent of them opted-in in 2004, 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 only represent 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, they'd have the three days to meet people, and then they'd go. If they collected business cards or made contacts, 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.”

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Dearborn, Mich., has signed on with SmartEvent for nine meetings in 2005, and the ability to extend the life of the meeting is part of what sold them on the technology. “We're committed to face-to-face events,” says Gary Mikola, director of SME's exposition division, but “we're very convinced that the trade show is no longer just a three-day event where you come pop up your booth or bring in machinery.”

Put It to the Test

Bruce Epstein experienced intro-Networks at two Macromedia conferences, and he is quick to note the ways it has helped him to do his job as a book editor for O'Reilly Media Inc. He attends Macromedia events to meet potential authors, find technical reviewers, and learn more about new technologies. In one case, an attendee — who he guesses must have searched the database for “O'Reilly” — contacted him through the system 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 liked, 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 introduced himself electronically to someone on introNetworks' pushpin visualizer (see explanation below). “She was a user group coordinator and asked me to speak at one of her meetings,” says Epstein.

Mark McDonald was introduced to SmartEvent's online networking as an attendee at Reed Exhibitions' Infosecurity show at the Javits Center in December. The vice president of Electronic Interface Associates Inc., a New York-based telecommunications company, got a demo of the system and was intrigued by the implications. “The problem with shows is that you're either an exhibitor or an attendee. Everyone thinks attendees are nothing but people who might be buying something. But a lot of attendees are potential exhibitors; they go to the show to see the competition as well as to do business. I do business in the cocktail lounges, at the coffee shop, waiting in line. But this service opens up the whole world of the conference, gives you a reason to be there other than to pick up brochures. You get thrown into the whole conference mix, attendees and exhibitors.”

But attendee and exhibitor networking is just half the story of these new meeting technologies. Of critical value for introNetworks and Smart-Event 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 kind 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.” What he found was 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, fine-tuning it to better meet the needs of those attendees. “The profile questions we ask obviously are strategic to us,” he says, “so I can go in and really understand in-depth our customer base better than I would have otherwise.”

Mark Sylvester, CEO and co-founder of introNetworks, can recite plenty of other examples of successfully mining attendee data. “We had a conference in July where I noticed that 70 percent of the attendees named ‘action scripting’ as the No. 1 skill they were interested in. We looked at the show guide, and only one session out of 60 was on action scripting. Because it was two months before the event, the planners were able to rejigger the show and add more sessions on the topic, which was great for customer satisfaction.” Sylvester also cites a conference last October for the American Institute of Graphic Artists, where 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.

The National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C., came to better understand its audience after analyzing the NAB 2004 attendees who made use of their SmartEvent portals, says Justine McVaney, NAB vice president of operations and customer relations. “We used the data from NAB 2004 to revise and expand our registration demographic questions, for example, from 28 to 68 business categories in which attendees could identify themselves,” McVaney says. NAB, she adds, has been working with BDMetrics to create tools for sales staff to use to help potential exhibitors understand the value or true potential of the show. “When budgets are tight and people really have to justify attending trade shows, this product gives them hard-core reasons to attend.”

The Challenges

McVaney says the adoption rate at the 2004 show was about 15 percent. Part of the reason was that the system was rolled out just four weeks before the show. “We knew the number would be low but we wanted to roll it out so we could build on it for NAB 2005,” she says. An increase to 30 percent this year “would be good, but we'd love to see the adoption rate to go 50 percent in '05, and we eventually want to see 100 percent adoption.”

Besides an increased time to market, some of the other factors driving a higher adoption rate this year, McVaney says, are a new marketing campaign put together by BDMetrics that focuses separately on exhibitors and attendees, plus a new user interface, and the overall increased know-how that comes from having broken in the system the year before.

One potential challenge is that the system provides so much information “you really have to break it down into usable nuggets otherwise users will be confused and turned off,” McVaney says.

The minimum cost for these networking programs is about $10,000 — which could be too steep for many groups, though sponsorship options could defray costs in some cases. Moreover, it may take more than one-time usage to get satisfactory adoption rates.

“It's a new thing for the meetings industry, and it's an add-on cost that people haven't budgeted for,” says Corbin Ball, technology consultant. “But I contend that [these tools] have the potential for improving the meeting so much that they're 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 2004, 32 percent of its 30,000 attendees activated their SmartEvent 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 an agreeable and interactive experience. 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.

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 with whom they should network. 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 which 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