When it comes time to line up speakers for your conference, do you find yourself buried in piles of prospectuses from potential presenters, or searching high and low for someone qualified to address your topics? Mike May, principal of The Acorn Group, an event producer in Bethesda, Md., and author of the E-Venting.net blog, believes that social media technologies could be the answer. He sat with The Meetings Group's Web Editor Sue Pelletier — in a virtual space — to explain how.

Q: What is social media, and why should meeting executives care about it?

A: Social media is any outlet that invites conversation with the audience. The value comes not from what the author creates but from the conversation that ensues.

I specialize in developing programming for conferences and events in the interactive media, advertising, marketing, and commerce industries, and we've seen social media at work for a long time — for example, the networking and customer reviews that are a big part of Amazon's success. I'm most interested in using social media to program events — not just to identify who the right speakers are, but also to bring that target audience into the selection process.

You can do that using blogs [interactive Web sites that allow readers to comment on the content] and wikis [interactive Web sites that allow readers to contribute to the sites' content]. People in the event industry are interested in two things: Making their jobs easier and improving the quality of their conferences. Social media lets them do both.

Q: How can blogs help?

A: Instead of getting hundreds of pitches from prospective speakers and having to rely on an advisory board and our familiarity with the speaker or the company, imagine having the whole thing take place online. Speakers could submit their proposals to a blog, and all the registrants could comment in real time. They might say, “I saw you speak at this other event, and I didn't think what you said really covered the topic well. Could you approach it this way instead? If you could, we'd be interested in seeing it.”

Q: Wouldn't it get a little chaotic to throw your programming open to the world?

A: If you have four keynotes and four general session panels and 32 track sessions, as I had in the event I just programmed, there's no way you could just say, “OK, blogosphere, let me know what you want to hear.” There still would have to be some narrowing of the topics, but once you've roughly decided what you want to do, you could open up one session, or one track, or identify a keynote as a place to start.

I can see a conference programmer going up to a very elusive keynoter and saying: “170 people who commented on this blog said they want you for our keynote speaker.” That would be a powerful thing to bring to a prospective speaker to get him or her to come to your event.

Q: How is this different from doing an e-mail survey of potential attendees?

A: It's a little more qualitative and a little less quantitative — a little richer. You get to some of the reasons behind why people might choose a topic or speaker.

Q: How else can social media be used to ease the speaker selection and management processes?

A: Everybody who's in meeting planning or production knows what a pain it is to assemble all the materials that go into print before the show. I plan to create a wiki where prospective and confirmed speakers can upload all their materials, bios, head shots, the topics they can speak on — all their assets — instead of having them send it all to the conference producer to send to the printer.

Q: How would that work?

A: What I envision is that every time I get a speaker proposal, I go back to the PR person or the company and tell them to upload the speaker bio and the head shot, and to fill out the form on the wiki about topics, the number of years they've been in the industry, even podcasts and video clips — whatever would help the programmer make the decision on whether they'd like to hire this person. You could even use RSS feeds [which syndicate content from one Web site to another] to include speaker blogs, or even a Google search for that speaker's name, so there's always fresh content.

The speakers' wiki probably will start with speakers for just one show, but I hope it eventually could turn into a massive speakers bureau that would pull together the assets from the various PR firms, companies, and regular speakers bureaus in one place. Conference programmers could do a keyword search and see all the speakers who have raised their hands and said, “Yes, I'd like to speak on that topic for a conference.” And conference programmers would have all the materials they need for the conference brochure and other collateral without having to chase it down.

Q: So, do you think you're going to be able to talk some of the people you're working with into doing some of this?

A: We in the interactive media and marketing industry are often accused of not practicing what we preach. It would be very difficult for a speaker in interactive media to refuse if we said we're going to produce this conference using social media!

I see social media being adopted in the meeting industry more quickly than in many other markets. The meeting industry is all about conversations, education, and community, and social media facilitates all of that. Once people start to see the value, it will be pretty hard to ignore.

I'm not an advocate for new technology for the sake of new technology — I like it because it makes my job easier. Who isn't for that?

Social Media Spelled Out

BLOG — n.) a weblog or Web page that serves as a publicly accessible personal journal for an individual. Typically updated daily, blogs often reflect the personality of the author. More recently, blogs have grown into interactive Web sites that allow readers to comment on the content. v.) to write a Web log PODCAST — n.) multimedia files, such as audio programs or music videos, distributed over the Internet for playback on mobile devices, such as iPods and other MP3 players, and personal computers. The distribution format of a podcast uses either the RSS or Atom syndication formats. The host or author of a podcast is often referred to as a “podcaster.” Usually the podcast features one type of “show,” with new episodes either sporadically or at planned intervals, such as daily or weekly. In addition to this, there are podcast networks that feature multiple shows on the same feed. Podcasting's essence is about creating content (audio or video) for an audience that wants to listen or watch when they want, where they want, and how they want. v.) to distribute content via a podcast RSS — n.) short for RDF Site Summary or Rich Site Summary, an XML format for syndicating Web content. A Web site that wants to allow other sites to publish some of its content creates an RSS document and registers the document with an RSS publisher. A user that can read RSS-distributed content can use the content on a different Web site. Syndicated content can be almost anything: news feeds, event listings, news stories, headlines, project updates, excerpts from discussion forums, or even corporate information. WIKI — n.) a type of Web site that allows users to easily add, remove, or otherwise edit all content very quickly and easily, sometimes without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for collaboration. The term wiki can also refer to the collaborative software itself (wiki engine) that facilitates the operation of such a Web site.
SOURCE: Wikipedia