Social Media: Are Meetings the Killer App?

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When future historians look back on the early days of social media—the days we’re living through right now—they might find that some of the earliest “killer apps” for interactive technologies depended on the power of face-to-face meetings.

And vice versa.

These are wild and woolly 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 awfully 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 onsite content and interaction. The company applied some of that experience at MPI’s 2009 Chapter Leaders Conference, then produced a white paper that positioned social media as an important and growing part of the meetings mix.

Fusion CEO Hugh Lee and Director of Meeting and Training Services Jamie McDonough told the story a couple of months ago at MPI’s World Education Congress in Salt Lake City. (For you dedicated learners, we have the whole thing on video, below. Beware: It’s long.)

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 hashtag 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,” Lee said in a recent interview. “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 has demonstrated the potential to link onsite 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 your 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 the online discussion while an event is in progress.

“People are going to say what’s on their minds,” said Fusion social media specialist Julie McKown. If the feedback is negative, “it gives you an opportunity to redefine your brand and demonstrate customer service—and 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 meetings 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, and the glory will go to the organizations that are most adept at combining on-site programs and online media to serve their overall 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.

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