Social networking isn't just for tweens anymore. B-to-b audiences are flocking to the Web in their personal and professional lives—using sites such as Facebook and Twitter to network with others in their community. And savvy event marketers are taking advantage. Becoming part of the digital conversation can boost brand image, draw larger audiences to events and increase postshow participation.
Not only that, but, according to Steve Gershik, VP-marketing innovation at Eloqua Corp., a lead-management company, it saves money. Marketers that use social networks to spread the word about their events, Gershik said, are “going to spend less money in search advertising because [their] word is going to be distributed virally, and that is free.”
Additionally, drawing the right type of audience into a conversation before, during and after an event creates a buzz that will allow even those who don't attend to feel like part of the action. Alli Gerkman, an event blogger and attorney, wrote on her blog Next Generation Event about a recent American Society of Association Executives annual meeting where social networking was employed in the form of Twitter, Flicker, blogging and even a Wikipedia-style wiki that attendees contribute to: “The online presence of this event has given me just enough to make me wish I was there—and I don't even work with associations.”
One caveat to consider when bringing social networking into the event space, however, is the fact that impersonal ad-style messaging can turn people against your brand. Here are some tips to assist marketers looking to capitalize on the new digital universe:
??Do your homework. The most important thing to remember about social networking is that it's a conversation, and as a result you need know how to speak the language. Before jumping in, spend time on each site and listen to how people interact. Sites such as Twitter only give you 140 characters to spread your message, while sites like Flicker are solely image-based. Colin Browning, director of business development at Mzinga, a social media business solutions provider, said: “As with anything new, it's always important to listen first. Listen to the right people first. Listen to the relevant influencers within your marketplace, and then start to engage with appropriate messages.”
??Find your audience. Not all members of your target audience are using every social network available. Before engaging in a conversation, you have to find out where the conversation is happening. Web sites such as Forrester Research's Groundswell, Techrigy's SM2 (www.techrigy.com) and Radian6 (www.radian6.com) are good places to start, Browning said. Additionally, Eloqua's Gershik said, if you want to know where your audience is, ask them. What blogs are they reading (or writing)? What social networking sites are they using? Which podcasts are they listening to?
??Start a conversation, make it personal and don't spam. As with any social situation, Gershik said, “You can't just walk into the room and start talking: "Hey, let me tell you about me.' The way that most people do it is to size things up to see what people are talking about and adjust behavior accordingly. If you come in with a big old graphic ad at the bottom of all your postings, you're going to be that guy who nobody wants to socialize with.”
If you've selected the right sites, then a conversation about your topics of interest will already be happening. The key is to get involved by adding constructive, useful information. Comment on blog posts relevant to your event. Create a Twitter feed that allows your team and people at your event to share information. Use each site in a way that contributes to the ongoing conversation.
“There really has to be a holistic approach,” Mzinga's Browning said. “You can't just expect to get the right reaction if you're participating with the sole purpose of driving people to this event. As a marketer, you should be a productive contributor to the industry you're participating in. It's a give and take. You're participating in a conversation with the rest of your industry. You have to give something back. You can't appear to be using the site for your own marketing purposes.”
Ultimately, be honest and upfront about your goals. Just as you would while having a conversation with people standing in front of you, social network users expect a certain amount of transparency from those participating. “It may make companies a little bit nervous because it feels uncomfortable not to be the one in charge of the conversation,” Gershik said. “But that's the way the world is. It's OK; it's OK to feel that way. Marketing is targeted even more by letting people start the conversation.”