Online professional networks add value to events and conferences outside the booth
Jim Harrer made some of his best trade show connections outside the booth. As an exhibitor, he paid attention to the people standing near him while he waited in line, looking to turn casual encounters into viable business leads.
Now the co-founder of Event Mingle has joined a host of online professional networking software companies vying to provide a more formal framework for those meetings—the event-specific equivalent of an online social networking site like Facebook or MySpace.
“The trade show industry could really use a tool to help people better network and better plan,” Harrer said. “We're putting people together who would not meet except by chance.”
The networking software touted by such companies as Event Mingle, Ning and WingateWeb allows attendees and exhibitors to set up and browse profiles, helping participants identify contacts and set appointments weeks before an event. The planning allows them to optimize their time at a show and make contacts outside the obvious outlets.
“It is a value-add,” said Alex Dunne, executive producer for the Live Events Group at TechWeb, which produces business-technology event Interop. Interop has provided the service through Event Mingle for its past three shows. “People are coming to expect some kind of online network. It's encouraging to see the kinds of connections made by our attendees and exhibitors.”
Registered participants at Interop receive an invitation to join the network, which provides discussion forums, planning tools, exhibitor news and an inbox that allows attendees to keep event-related e-mail in one place.
The format allows exhibitors to identify, then contact potential leads preshow; it also provides sponsorship and marketing opportunities that can give companies of different sizes the same visibility.
Participation in the network varies throughout the show timeline. Less than two weeks before the April opening of Interop Las Vegas, only 25% to 30% of attendees had logged onto the system, Dunne said, but he expected log-ins to climb.
“It ramps up right before the show,” he said. “We expect by the time the show starts to be close to 50%.”
Interop markets the network via its general show e-mails, Web site and the registration process, as well as on the show floor, Dunne said, but organizers stay away from network-only promotional e-mails.
“We want to be cognizant of the fact that people don't want to get a lot of e-mails from an event company,” he said.
Technology event producers are not the only ones to adopt the software. Advanstar Communication's Dealer Expo launched a network at its 2008 show, drawing 50% of attendees and 62% of exhibitors.
The tool helps attendees and exhibitors better navigate an event that takes place in four attached locations—and make new contacts in a crowd drawn from nine market segments. “We assumed that the majority of use would come from either attendees looking for exhibitors or from exhibitors looking to locate attendees that matched their target market,” Trumbo said. “While that did happen, we were surprised by the number of attendees scheduling meetings with other attendees.”
While only a fraction of event producers have adopted the online tools, an increasing number of events software providers are launching professional networking initiatives.
“There's a ton of buzz in the industry,” said Jason Mitchell, VP-marketing at WingateWeb, an event software provider that in March unveiled professional networking functionality branded as EventLink 2.0. “It is growing, and you can't deny the fact that younger users [familiar with social networking sites] will eventually come to these events.”
Likewise, virtual event producer Unisfair announced a new professional networking tool that allows attendees to network with other participants and set up meetings—albeit in a chat room, rather than the hotel bar.
“It makes you more productive, and it allows you to find people who, in a physical world, it's sometimes hard to find,” said Brent Arslaner, VP-marketing at Unisfair. M