ALAN MECKLER, CEO of Darien, Conn.-based Jupitermedia Corp., started his Internet Media Commentary weblog, or blog, two years ago to tell readers about the launch of a new trade show, cdXpo, which he hoped would put technology uber-show Comdex out of business. While cdXpo came and went (as did Comdex, which has been suspended through 2006 as of this writing), Meckler's online journal lives on.

“Blogs were brand-new at the time, and I thought the idea of an online diary about the show, where I talk about whatever was happening with it, would be interesting,” he says. Now he has extended his blog's subject matter to some of Jupiter-media's hottest shows, including its Search Engine Strategies events, along with updates on what his company is doing and his take on the latest news in the media and trade show industries, his market niche.

Meckler is among a growing group of corporate executives who believe that producing a blog in conjunction with their events can add real value for both attendees and show organizers.

In public relations terms, a blog is a chance to showcase your organization, and your event, as the place to go for expert information. “You can open a debate about any of the sessions being offered, or discuss the market impact of different products being showcased,” says Rich Westerfield, who manages The Westerfield Group, a marketing consulting company in Pittsburgh that specializes in helping trade show organizers improve attendance. “You can also discuss trends and legal and other issues of interest to your audience. The idea is to open a window to the outside and welcome people into your little corner of the world by encouraging comments and discussion. Your audience will accept occasional promotional messages if they are receiving information that they consider to be of value along with the promotion.”

“People are always asking how they can get a 24/7 handshake with their audience. The weblog is a good place to make that happen,” says Ted Doyle, senior partner with Needham, Mass.-based FuelDog Inc., which runs blogs for two shows it co-owns, Syndicate and Wireless Sensing Solutions.

Intelligence Out, Intelligence In

If the blog is simply used to tout your event as the greatest show on earth, unless you're with Ringling Bros., it quickly loses credibility with readers — who wants to tune in to a bunch of press releases? But if done well, with insight, expertise, and decent writing skills, blogs can be very helpful. In addition to public relations, market intelligence and search engine marketing are top benefits.

In terms of market research, bloggers say researching and scouring the Web for items to blog about can unearth dozens of leads for companies that should be attending or exhibiting at your event. In addition, you may find all sorts of topics that dovetail with your sessions or suggest new directions in which to take your content. “It gives you a real-time pulse of what's happening in your vertical,” says Doyle. “It's pretty powerful.”

Jon Price, CEO of The Golden Group, Golden, Colo., and managing director of ISPCON, an event for Internet service providers, and INBOX Event, a show for e-mail professionals, says of his blogging experience: “You're thinking through a lot of concepts for sessions that are important to people in the context of the news in the marketplace. Blogging forces you to learn more about it so you can make a public statement without looking stupid.” Since the blogging technology he uses allows him to organize his posts by category, he sorts them according to the various educational tracks at his events. That way, he can ease in a plug for that track as he blogs about the news in that topic category.

Another plus of maintaining a blog is the search engine exposure that it gives your event. Because blogs usually contain many outbound links and tend to link to each other, blogs also tend to bound to the top of searches on link-loving search engines such as Google and Yahoo!. This means that a blog can extend your reach far beyond your usual promotional mailing list, to others who find you through a keyword search on topics you're blogging about. Barry Hardy, PhD, a consultant with Douglas Connect in Basil, Switzerland, started a blog to support a meeting for a project that aims to pull together executives from pharmaceutical companies to discover ways to work together to enhance drug safety knowledge management. “I put my first post on this project on my blog, and when I searched for ‘drug safety knowledge management’ on Google the next day, it was the first hit.” Try that with a regular Web site.

Author, Author?

Westerfield says that the person doing the blogging should be a mix of content expert, journalist, columnist, and marketer. “The blogger should be the best expert on the field of your event that you have on staff, as well as someone who can write effectively in the blog format. It helps if that person is also executive-level. If you don't have an expert [in-house], consider someone else, like a conference chair.”

To be effective, a blog should be updated regularly, and that means a lot of work scouring the Internet and other news sources for articles and other blogs to link to, analyzing the information so you have something intelligent to say about it, and then writing a coherent post.

Writing regularly for a blog is not something a lot of CEOs want to take on. But, as Meckler points out, “If the person writing a blog is an employee, they have to be careful about what they write or they could lose their job. I'm the CEO and largest stockholder in my company, so if I get in trouble, I get in trouble, but no one's going to fire me. That makes it more interesting because I can say pretty much whatever I want.” He does, however, take a few minutes before hitting the “publish” button to make sure “there's nothing in it that will hang me with the SEC or stockholders.” He also discloses that he does not own stock in other companies he writes about. Westerfield adds, “Because Alan is well-known, along with being outspoken and unpredictable, his blog is widely read and linked to.”

As Doyle says, a blog needs to feel “a little renegade, that what you're reading is unfiltered and real, not just P.R. That's critical.” Writers, observers agree, need to be willing to put themselves out there. “Blogging is a crazy thing,” says Price. “I don't come from a journalism background, so I was a little scared about having typos or bad grammar. Then at some point, I decided to just say what I feel and not worry about looking like an idiot.”

Risk and Reward

If it's so great, why aren't more companies blogging about their meetings? “I think it's because execs don't see direct monetization,” says Price. “They'd rather have a Web site where they can sell banner advertising. It's also instant publishing without controls, which is a little scary for some people. Some just say, ‘Hmm, risk. Let's do an e-newsletter instead, with an editor to make sure it's all right.’”

Another factor is simply that blogging is still a relatively new phenomenon. According to a recent CNN/USA Today/ Gallup poll, only one in four Americans is very familiar or somewhat familiar with blogs, and 56 percent don't know a blog from a bootstrap. But since a quarter of all blog readers are aged 18 to 29 (an age bracket that makes up just 17 percent of the public), events at which the audience is young and/or tech-savvy may find that a blog reaches them in a way that other efforts don't.

Blogging has been mainly relegated to technology and marketing events, but Westerfield sees other industries as ripe. “Fields such as architecture, interior design, and fashion come to mind. These are fields in which most practitioners have broadband access, are Internet-savvy, and perhaps most important, have strong opinions. These fields also have strong opinion leaders — folks who can incite debate — which helps to get the blog discussed and noticed.”

For Price, the blogging experience has been well worth the effort. “If I get an extra exhibitor out of the blog, or 10 or 20 conference passes a month, I'll keep doing it. Not only does it help to sell more conference passes, but it lets you be in the middle of the industry, being viewed as one of the people whose opinion matters.”

Check It Out

Here are URLs for some event-oriented blogs:



Get on a Watch List

Even if you don't think blogging is for you, don't be surprised if your attendees are blogging about your event, or your company. Fortunately, it's easy to keep track of what they're saying.

Online tools such as Technorati, PubSub, Blogpulse, Feedster, and Bloglines allow you to track keywords — even your meeting's name — so you know what people are saying about you. Most of these sites offer RSS news readers, which will check the sites (blogs or other sources) that you want to monitor and let you know if something new has been posted that corresponds with the words that you are tracking.

Whether it's to do damage control or just to improve customer service by responding to attendee concerns, tracking cyberchat is a good idea. You may not want to pay attention to the world of blogs, but chances are, it's paying attention to you.

Blogs Aren't Just for Trade Shows

While most corporate meetings-related blogs are focused on customer events such as trade shows, companies are blogging for many other reasons. Microsoft alone has scores of bloggers, most notably Robert Scoble, aka Scobleizer (http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011/). He has gained a following by openly talking about what Microsoft is up to — including occasionally criticizing his company. Macromedia, which develops digital creative tools, also has a rash of bloggers offering news, bug fixes, and other product information.

In addition, because many blog hosts allow you to password-protect a site, you can use blogs for internal meetings. Imagine what it would be like if …

  • Your company's sales and marketing guru blogged about the latest strategies she planned to discuss at the next sales meeting. You'd spend less time at the meeting on the nuts and bolts, and more time troubleshooting problem areas. Plus, your sales force would pumped up to meet the person behind the blog.

  • Your top training specialist wrote a blog with links to articles and news about the topic of your next training meeting. Attendees would hit the ground running, and they would understand why the training is so important to the company's strategic goals.

  • Your department heads were blogging about how to streamline processes, praise good performances, shore up weak areas, and provide regular motivation to employees. Staff meetings could take on a whole new meaning if management took a daily online interest in their employees.