by Agatha Gilmore | July 31, 2012
Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Pinterest. Social media is everywhere — literally. With the development of smartphones and apps, we now connect with each other on the go, 24/7. It has spilled over into our professional lives as well, with these social networking sites playing main roles in the meeting and events world.

And it’s no wonder: Social media tools allow for year-round attendee engagement, not to mention bottom-up input, says Corbin Ball, CMP, CSP, MS, a meetings technology speaker, consultant, and writer.

“[You can] engage attendees before, during, and after the event,” he says. “And [you] have the ability to collaborate on meeting design as well. It’s increasing opportunities for everyone to have their say about what they want to see and hear during events.”

However, with all the noise out there, it’s critical for meeting professionals to hone their focus and implement the most effective strategies for each social media outlet in which they wish to engage. Before simply setting up accounts for every different site under the sun, it’s important to listen to attendees, members, or other stakeholders, and go where they go. Meeting owners need to pick the right channels, says Amanda Wood, a director in the marketing and communication unit at SmithBucklin, an association management company. 

“Know what their communication preferences are and what social media sites they’re most active on so that the organization can make sure it’s playing in the right space and catching the attendees where they are,” Wood says.

It’s also crucial to remember, social media sites are not to be used for purely promotional purposes, Ball says. People need to be given information that is relevant to their professional development or that relates to their general interests.

The various social media tools should be integrated with each other. For example, Ball says, “every time I post new content on my website, I announce that across all my social media channels.” 

Here’s a primer on how to use the top five social media tools to maximum effect for your events.

With nearly one billion users, Facebook is the largest social network in the world. There are myriad possibilities to use it for meetings and events, but planners must take an organized approach if they plan to leverage it to the fullest. The first step is to build a Facebook fan page for the organization. These pages can help companies achieve a socially approved status, allowing them to solidify good reputations and attract more customers, according to Manpreet Wadan, vice president of business development for Social27, a virtual event solutions company. 

A successful Facebook fan page will tie in all kinds of content from the organization — photos, videos, and links to blog posts — and will be regularly maintained, says Corbin Ball. It will also show the more personal side of the organization or event, according to Amanda Wood. That means posting links to relevant news articles, polls, and questions, asking what the Facebook community thinks. “A sample post may be, ‘Hey, members that are in the San Antonio area (or wherever the conference is going to be): What are some great spots for people to check out while they’re there?’” Wood says. Also, be sure to link the Facebook fan page to the company’s main website, since Google is now indexing these pages and they will show up in online searches, Wadan adds.

Creating a Facebook fan page for the organization is a given, but should you also create a page specifically for your event? Only if the event is its own brand and not associated with a particular company, says Jessica Levin, MBA, CMP, CAE, president and “chief connector” at NJ-based Seven Degrees Communications. Otherwise, “you’re just going to split attendees’ attention by having a separate page.” 

Wood adds that planners should be sure not to “drop off” after the event. Keep the page active before, during, and after the meeting. “Our clients that are doing it really well are doing it on a year-round basis,” she says. 

Since there’s less churn with Facebook than with Twitter, for example, planners should be sure not to overwhelm attendees with too many posts and status updates, Wood says. There’s no hard and fast rule on how much is too much, but use your best judgment. Ask yourself: How often would you like to hear from your organization?

With 40 percent of all tweets coming from mobile devices, Twitter is a natural tool for events, says Ball. All the experts agree that meeting professionals should get the ball rolling early and establish a hashtag for an event as far out as possible. Every tweet related to the event should include this hashtag. “You have to over-communicate what the hashtag is,” Levin says. 

Successful tweets include basic event-awareness updates and headline information, as well as questions to promote conversation, Wood says. She adds that tweets can convey the same message in different ways in order to grab people’s attention better. Planners should also encourage event speakers to help spread the word through tweeting about their appearance.

Twitter is also an effective on-site tool, allowing planners to tweet real-time event updates such as “sessions start in five minutes.” Also, an important part of any Twitter strategy is to monitor the feed closely to spot trends and identify issues important to attendees, Wadan says. Doing this can help planners identify voices worth listening to, leading to new potential attendees or speakers. Further, a moderator should be reviewing the feed constantly from a customer service perspective so as to respond in real-time to any issues or complaints, Levin says. “You also want to have somebody who’s out there starting conversations, throwing out provocative questions,” she says.

The cardinal rule of maintaining a successful business Twitter account: keep it professional, says Wood. Don’t “be too lax about it. [Don’t include] so much slang that attendees are not going to understand what your message is,” she explains. Adds Ball: “Planners probably shouldn’t be using it to tell people what they had for breakfast.” Further, don’t ignore communities on Twitter if your attendees are using them. “If you suspect there might be some usage, you’re much better off taking a proactive role than ignoring it,” Levin says. Also, keep in mind that Twitter is at least a daily commitment. “Planners should be tweeting regularly,” says Ball.

“YouTube is the second most widely used search site in the world after Google,” Ball explains. “A picture’s worth a thousand words — a good video can be worth a thousand pictures.” Planners should create their own YouTube channels to share previous event footage, including keynotes, and to share new videos of events and speakers. These videos can consist of speaker interviews, executive interviews, destination footage, and anything else of interest to attendees. Either homemade (often dubbed “authentic”) or professionally shot videos work well, as long as they’re high-quality and provide relevant and fun information. “If you want to give people who haven’t attended your event before a real taste of what it’s like to be there, it’s not going to happen through words as much as it is through making them feel like they’re getting a taste of the experience — and video is great for that,” Wood says. 

It’s crucial to have a cache of quality video content, but don’t forget to promote it! “You really have to integrate it with other things —whether it’s a player on your website or making sure you have links back to your YouTube videos” on Facebook, blog posts, and other communications, Wood says. Adds Levin: “People aren’t necessarily going to your YouTube page if they’re on your other social media; they want to see that content being pushed through.”

LinkedIn has a business focus and should reflect the more professional side of the organization. It’s essential to have a LinkedIn presence as an organization, but subgroups can be used to generate a community for a particular event, or conversations among connections surrounding events or simply relevant topics, Wood says. Levin adds that LinkedIn subgroups are another tool that planners can use to “listen to what people are saying and what they’re looking for. From a research perspective, if you’re early in the planning process, trying to figure out some speakers and topics — do some listening.”

A common pitfall is letting LinkedIn profiles sit untended for long periods of time, making them look abandoned or unprofessional with spam buildup. Be sure to monitor the page regularly. And Levin adds: “What not to do is rely on LinkedIn as your solo networking tool,” Levin says. Planners may want to reach out to LinkedIn connections prior to an event to make contact, but should be sure to use other methods of networking as well.

Pinterest is “the new darling of social media,” according to Ball — a very hot new tool with more than 11 million users already. The site serves as a virtual corkboard for images: Planners create a Pinterest account and then can create different “boards” — basically photo albums — of digital pictures. These are not necessarily photos that you have taken yourself: They are images you can find anywhere on the web. You simply “pin” the image to your board. 

“It’s the eye-candy social media site,” Wood says, explaining that the key to an effective Pinterest account is having the right visual assets. Tempt people with photos of the event location and speaker headshots; consider even including venues related to the event or attractions at the event location, Levin says. Wood adds that creating a board for the organization’s communications and pinning snapshots of the organization’s HTML emails is also helpful, while Ball suggests creating boards of infographics on relevant topics to entice followers. Pinning to additional resources — such as books written by speakers — is also a fun idea, Levin says. “Really paint a picture of the theme of your meeting,” she says.

The major no-no when it comes to Pinterest is creating an account in the midst of all the hype and leaving it dormant and devoid of any eye-catching images. “Nobody’s going to go there if you have five boards and, while they’re a good idea, you haven’t pinned them. Then there’s no eye candy!” Wood says. You also want to make sure to follow the right people — meaning those with the images that you’ll want to link to. Also, keep in mind it’s a visual space, so don’t just link to text-heavy items such as speaker bios.