Social Agenda

Are Twitter and Facebook for gossip and family pics only? Think again.

For most conventioneers, Rahaf Harfoush has yet to attain household-name status. But at this year's InnoTech Conference in Portland, OR, in April, Harfoush, the self-dubbed new-media strategist behind the Obama campaign's Twitter strategy, created a near-frenzy. "As she began her presentation, which was about using social media, people got very excited and the Twitter comments from inside and out of the room just exploded," says InnoTech Executive Director Sean Lowery, also of Portland's Prospera Events.

As Lowery and fellow staffers watched their laptops in amazement, the tracking screen lit up. "It was really neat to see the instant reaction to the speaker," he says. "People inside were tweeting the highlights of Harfoush's talk as she spoke, among themselves and to those outside the room, while others were responding that they were bummed because they couldn't make it in. We were very excited by it all—even more so by the positive reaction."

Centers of Attention

Indeed, few planners would gripe at witnessing a wave of good tweets engulf a hot speaker or must-see exhibit. And where better to open wide the communication lines than in the heart of a convention center, typically teeming with energetic and opinionated attendees? Forget about e-mail and cell phone calls, though. The quickest and easiest way for them to spread the word: social networking sites.

No one today doubts the value of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other interactive sites (see sidebar summary) for catching up with old friends, posting vacation photos, and career networking. Those uses barely scratch the surface of social media's versatility and business potential, though, with most signs pointing toward grander plans. Facebook, for instance, just snapped up FriendFeed, a "Grand Central Terminal" site for organizing all types of social networking activities, for about $50 million. And recent reports suggest that Netscape developer Marc Andreessen plans a big push for RockMelt, an in-development web browser with some applications specifically geared towards a Facebook connection. With all this in the works, there's no reason for meeting groups and convention venues to hesitate before hopping aboard the social media bandwagon.

"For facilities it's a really good mechanism to use as part of their overall marketing and sales effort," says Jeff Blosser, executive director of the Oregon Convention Center (OCC). "Those of us over 40 don't necessarily tweet every day, but we have to realize it's a new way to reach people."

With that in mind, most of Blosser's staff, plus the OCC itself, have both Facebook and Twitter accounts. "It won't replace the human effort—people meet for a reason and they still want to network face-to-face—but it does complement our efforts," he says. "It's a new avenue to reach the crowd who might be interested in our marketing info as well."

In that spirit, some centers are joining forces with entrepreneurial vendors to make the process easier and more effective. Chicago's McCormick Place, for example, recently installed an in-building wireless network by ExteNet Systems, Inc. that uses the sprawling complex's heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems as waveguides for radio signals. The bottom line: the better the signal, the quicker the tweet.

The OCC (not to mention a growing number of other convention centers) also offers an in-house wireless network. In Portland's case, the system is a win-win, helping attendees better communicate with each other while burnishing the center's tech-friendly reputation among those groups already comfortable interfacing with the OCC via social media.

When the center recently held its Achieve Green Northwest expo (part of its ongoing LEED continuing education) the entire conference was conducted through an OCC webinar series and promoted heavily on Twitter. "We had about 1,400 followers for this one show," says Blosser. "It was an amazing process to watch."

Controlling the Experience

That enthusiasm should bring a rousing "amen" from the rapidly growing number of social networking devotees, many of whom already incorporate their favorite sites into meetings.

When MultifamilyPro holds its Executive Brainstorming Sessions at Houston's Hyatt Regency this fall, producer Tami Siewruk plans to employ Facebook and Twitter as promotional and communication tools at the event.

At the keynote address for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications' annual meeting in Boston last month, Mich Sineath, public relations and marketing director and Twitter fan, held the group's first-ever Tweetup for 30 attendees and used Twitter and Facebook to post schedule changes and promote last-minute events.

Andy Tompkins is group show director for Nielsen Business Media's twice-annual Action Sports Retailers (ASR) Marketplace at the San Diego Convention Center. "Our primary age demographic is 12 to 24," he says. "Using Twitter and Facebook to market ASR gave us a less corporate image and provided a great way to get the word out about the show." Tompkins also cites an enthusiastic sub-network of Twitter followers whose word-of-mouth tweets add invaluable street credibility during the event. (Successful Meetings is also a part of Nielsen Business Media.)

In the lead-up to and during this summer's Video Marketing Expo (VMX) at the Hilton Austin (TX), Sparksight, the conference's event management team, incorporated Twitter into a variety of conference hall activities. Attendee tweets quickly proved one speaker so popular, for example, that Sparksight immediately canceled the speaker's travel plans and booked him for a second session the next day. Live streams of keynote speakers and new media entertainers Brian Brushwood (star of Bizarre Magic and Scam School) and Brigitte Dale, a popular videoblogger and ABC Family network personality, also proved wildly successful.

"We already had the infrastructure in place to do this, so we just needed to turn on the Twitter feed," says Sparksight CEO Christopher Justice.

Well, not quite. It took a nudge from Justice's Baby Boomer dad to set the new media project in motion. "He said, 'You're doing a great video marketing conference here, so can I watch it online?' I said no. He said, 'Well, it's a video conference, after all, so why not?'"

As a result, Twitter followers of Brushwood and Dale got what amounted to a backstage pass. "Anyone on the site could see their sessions at no cost," says Justice. "Depending on the feed we could switch between sessions or cut away to an interview on the floor. As soon as Dale came offstage, for example, we caught her live and asked her about what she liked and what she would have done differently."

Social networking sites and their tangential products and services can also provide planners with a sense of control and exclusivity even in the midst of a crowded convention center.

Baltimore-based R2Integrated's R2i SMASH software offers meeting and trade show organizers an evaluation platform for seminars, breakouts, and exhibit floor action, capturing tweets and photos from a variety of real-time convention activities.

For those planners seeking even tighter crowd control, James Keaveny, vice president of sales for Fort Worth's Hunt Conference Group, suggests developing private, password-accessible attendee networks within Facebook and Twitter.

"With a private site you can control the information flow yourself," he explains. "You can have someone sitting at the sign board during a seminar managing questions and complaints, and send a message to the speaker saying, 'We have someone who wants to challenge you,' which isn't necessarily a bad thing at some conventions."


SOCIAL NETWORKING 101

Terrified of tweeting? Nervous about making friends? Here's a primer on three major social media sites and how they work. Note that each site operates with specific rules and an understood etiquette among members, so plan ahead and be sure to play nice.

Twitter

Free registration/password social site. Subscribers "follow" other site members and exchange text messages (tweets) of up to 140 characters among all followers. A Tweetup is when two or more followers meet in person (really) to socialize.

Facebook

Free registration/password social site. Members create personal profiles (including photos), invite and confirm others to join as "friends," send and receive private messages, post public notes on other members' profiles (aka, writing on someone's wall), and form unique groups and causes within the site itself. Member profiles may be available to everyone or tightly limited through special access.

LinkedIn

Free registration/password business/ professional site. Members create an online resume and contact base, send and receive messages, and invite others to link into their network. Members may also create special groups within the site and limit their memberships.

Originally published Sept. 1, 2009

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