Make Me a Match

Online social networking, in which people form personal or business relationships through the Internet, is growing as a tool to generate greater value for attendees and exhibitors at in-person meetings. For example, just a few groups deployed ExpoExchange's SmartEvent social networking application in 2004, when the event registration and lead-retrieval unit of Conferon Global Services introduced the Web-based software. By comparison, about 40 groups deployed SmartEvent last year, and this year some 70 are signed up for the software, according to Bruce Harris, recently retired president of Conferon, MD based Expo- Exchange.

"The best way to determine its success is whether people want it for a second year," says Harris, pointing out that all but one group have either renewed their contracts or continue to deploy SmartEvent on three-to five-year deals.

Most effective for meetings of 3,000 or more people, SmartEvent costs $25,000 to $100,000 annually, depending on the show size, he says. Social networking applications that complement in-person meetings typically operate like a combination of Match.com, the online personal matchmaking service, and Amazon.com, which suggests products that might interest the user based on a keyword search. Users can anonymously contact people whose interests match theirs, sharing information online or scheduling face-to-face meetings during the convention or trade show.

"Attendees get greater value from an event any time they can schedule a meeting beforehand, and exhibitors get greater value when they can meet with qualified buyers instead of standing at their booths," says Harris.

Last year, about half the approximately 100,000 attendees and exhibitors at the National Association of Broadcasters' (NAB) annual trade show made connections through the software, about double the number of the year before, according to Justine McVaney, NAB's vice president of operations.

With the increasing popularity of social networking, other companies have jumped into the fray, offering applications of their own specifically for meetings. Leverage Software of San Francisco launched its EventConnect in late 2004. In its first full year, the company claimed 100 customers and 200 events. Leverage founder/CEO Mike Walsh projects that 400 groups holding more than 1,000 events will deploy EventConnect this year.