Virtual events have received a lot of attention recently as an effective way to communicate with your audiences without the costs associated with an in-person event. One argument against virtual events is that you would lose the intimacy that face-to-face interactions provide. Proponents state that social networking technology can help promote similar interactions in a virtual environment.
I recently wrote that virtual events aren't necessarily the answer to replacing physical events. The same goes for social media technology. In this case, social media isn't only for virtual events. For example, the TED and South by Southwest (SXSW) events are known for their innovative use of technology to engage audiences—both in person and online—with the events themselves.
Three factors for success
Before you start using social media technology, first consider why these conferences were successful to begin with. I believe these three factors contributed to their success:
- Know Your Audience: These organizers know their audiences are invested in the content and success of the events. They also know that their audiences are early adopters of technology to receive, consume and communicate information to each other. If your audience prefers pen and paper to a keyboard and computer screen, then social media technology may not be appropriate for your event.
- Use Technology to Enhance the Experience, Not Replace it: SXSW is where Twitter gained its prominence as a way for people to stay in touch with what was happening throughout the whole venue. This past year, SXSW allowed people to vote on the panels they wanted to hear at the conference. This increased the level of participation and ownership that audiences had with the content and speakers, as well as forced speakers to plan months before their actual presentation date. With TED, they started posting videos of the presentations online to share the knowledge with individuals unable to attend. And they did it for FREE. This doesn't cannibalize on their paid registrations. Rather it enhances the experience for those attending the conference.
- Build a Community: Conferences tend to be unsatisfying one-night stands. You get excited to go to the event, you see everything in three days, but you never hear from the organizer until they're ready to promote the event again. The difference with TED and SXSW is that they created a sense of community over time. While not every conference will be an instant community, I do believe that the "traditional" ways of marketing and driving attendance to an event have changed.
So You're Ready for Social Media
If the above doesn't daunt you, then how do you begin incorporating social media into your event? Here are four ways to start incorporating social media for your next event:
- Promote engagement BEFORE the event: Look at how technology, such as microblogging, blogs or group pages, can increase your engagement with audiences, as well as connect people with one another. As I mentioned above, SXSW solicited input on speakers and panel topics as part of the call for papers process.
- Provide a channel for communications DURING the event: Conferences are ceasing to be one-way presentations to audiences. Rather, there are back channel conversations happening throughout an event. Look at how you can tap into these conversations to help enhance live presentations or to promote discussion with your attendees. For example, use Twitter to solicit feedback and questions from the audience during a live panel discussion.
- Consider different avenues for distributing your content: Conference proceedings are typically provided to only paid attendees. Consider how to leverage the different ways to distribute your content—photos, video and audio—not only to paid attendees but key audiences who become interested in your event due to the "buzz" online. For example, post presenter slides on Slideshare.net in advance of the event. Attendees can provide feedback or questions which can further enhance how the speaker presents at the conference. The preso also serves as a promotional vehicle to drive registrants to your event.
- Continue the conversations AFTER the event has concluded: This may be the most difficult part of social networking. If your event is targeting an audience that doesn't have an existing community or your event is unique enough, then you may be able to create a community. The tendency is to create a proprietary platform for your community, but your audience may dictate using an existing platform, such as Twitter or Facebook.
Like any event, social media takes time and patience. There is no magic technology or technique for success. Rather it takes strategic planning, time-consuming execution and constant evaluation to find the right mix for your event. If you're willing to put in the time and effort, then your social media efforts will succeed.
The key thing to keep in mind is that social media is to help promote communications not only with you and your audience but also amongst the attendees as well.
About the Author
Cece Salomon-Lee is the author of PR Meets Marketing, which explores the intersection of public relations, social media and marketing. Her blog is ranked on the Ad Age 500 and other top ranked PR lists. If you're interested in learning how Cece can help your programs, she can be reached at cece.lee[@]gmail[dot]com.
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