The best advice Jeff Hurt, director of education and events with the National Association of Dental Plans, has to offer when it comes to using social media for events is to “know why you want to be there, define your goals, start small, and don’t be overwhelmed by everything that’s out there.”

While the NADP now has a full-blown private online community for its members, blogs, and Twitter accounts for both members and the public, it started small by inviting audience members at its general sessions two years ago to tweet or text message the speaker. The goal, says Hurt, was to provide more interaction and enhance the learning experience.

Starting Small

Since his audience is C-level executives who have mobile devices with them all the time, this seemed like a good fit. And it was. Instead of giving the usual announcement about turning the devices off, NADP’s general session attendees were asked to turn them on—albeit to “vibrate”—and let their comments fly. They had a screen up on stage for the audience and a monitor on the floor so the speaker could see the comments.

“Because it was a new toy and the speaker was good, they immediately went nuts for it,” says Hurt. At first the messages were along the lines of, “I don’t like Scott’s [the speaker’s] tie,” but once he identified the tie-hater and offered to take it off for her, the conversation began to shift. Tweets soon began asking for explanation and clarification of the speaker’s points, and for more resources. “We watched a whole new level of learning happen,” says Hurt. “We do it all the time now because the audience demands it.”

Fortunately, even two years ago his speakers were comfortable with the idea of real-time feedback, says Hurt, who thinks nothing of “asking the world” of his presenters—including webinars, blog posts, Internet radio interviews, newsletter articles, and, of course, face-to-face presentation. “We want to extend the experience by giving members as many “touchpoints” with the content as possible, and to integrate it into what we offer year-round. Social media fits well with that approach.”

Here Come the Blogs (and Tweets, and Velvet Ropes)

Along with the real-time Twittering, NADP started a blog for the conference two years ago, “and it’s grown from there as a place we educate both members and their customers.” When members first enter the NADP site, they choose a gateway that will funnel them into a blog specifically geared toward their needs, whether they’re a health or dental insurance member, a consumer, an employer, or a dental-benefits company. One staff member and master-tweeter, communications specialist Joe Flowers, has set up alerts so that any time someone mentions dental insurance anywhere on the Web, he can respond to them or pass along a complaint about a member company to the company so it can respond.

NADP has staff tweeting about information relevant to members and consumers. It also recently started wading into the healthcare reform debate via social media, since “it does dramatically affect our members,” says Hurt. Staff has identified so-called Mommy bloggers—who post regularly about related issues—relevant YouTube clips, and they also post about the issues. “Instead of trying to get pieces in the major media outlets, we’re going the grassroots route.”

Then there’s the “velvet rope” private e-community NADP started for its members a year and a half ago. “I kept hearing members say they wanted a way to communicate with each other online but didn’t know how other than e-mail. They didn’t know what an e-community was, but that’s what they wanted,” says Hurt. NADP now has 100 percent participation among its member companies, with 350 people active in the e-community on any given day.

With only eight staff members, NADP divvies up the social-media workload—or rather, lets its staff pick their passion. “Our LinkedIn area is run by a staff member who loves LinkedIn; Joe Flowers is our Gen Y tech guru who runs all other things Internet-based; and most of the staff have their own Twitter accounts,” says Hurt. Figure out what your goals are, then find the champions of the various social media among your staff.

“We wanted to educate our members on what their customers would be expecting of them” in terms of social media, says Hurt. “Whether they like it or not, there will be sites evaluating dentists and dental plans; there will be people using the social space to badmouth their companies. Were our members aware? Did they understand the impact that could have on their brands? Did they know what to do about it?” That’s what NADP is trying to model for its members.

And members are getting it. According to an NADP research study conducted by a third party in January, 74 percent of NADP members use social media on a daily basis, with the most popular site being LinkedIn, the second-most-popular Facebook, and third place going to Twitter. While they don’t know for sure how much of that can be attributed to the education the association has been doing around social media, NADP does know that it is meeting its members where they live in the social media space.

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