Event technology examined

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Stephen Nold, publisher of community Web site MeetingTechOnline, spoke recently to Media Business recently of the hurdles social media face as the tools enter the events industry: "A lot of show producers are deer in the headlights right now. They're worried it's going to be something that will take away from their show floors."

But social media have made inroads in an industry that champions its same catchphrasesónetworking, building community, facilitating conversation. "Tech is the new big thing," Nold said. "What is social media going to do to the trade show industry, to face-to-face marketing?"

It's a topic the online publishing company will explore when it hosts its inaugural MeetingTechOnline Summit next month in Chicago. A daylong conference will focus on strengthening back-end exhibition systems, integrating new and old media and implementing social media tools that fit audience and marketing strategies, as well as the capabilities of events producers.

The summit comes at a time when new technologies hold promise not only as vehicles for marketing an event and informing an audience but also to extend an event's reach, even as economic pressures threaten travel budgets.

Event Web sites that once functioned primarily as registration and planning tools now offer blogs, podcasts, social networking, video and other multimedia content. Communication vehicles such as Twitter are popping up in conference sessions, and companies are introducing virtual companions to their events.

Of course, Nold doesn't recommend taking up every new media tool that comes to market. Organizers should carefully select the tools they add to their kits. "You have to think about when social media makes sense and when it does not make sense," he said.

The first step when considering new technologies should be taking care of legacy systems, streamlining processes by building an integrated customer interface, he said.

"Our registration tools are not where they need to be," he said. "This is one of the most customer-facing tools today. Get your infrastructure in place. Get the fundamentals and then build your social networking tools on top of that."

Features like unified logins can simplify access for customers and be carried over to social networks and other new media initiatives, said John Curtis, CEO of integrated solutions provider Quotient, who will lead a segment of the conference.

Organizers should approach technology with an agenda in mind, rather than tailoring their strategy to the capabilities of off-the-shelf products, he said: "You have to start with trying to solve a problem."

No one should rush into the development of a social media strategy, said Jason Fellman, a strategic consultant who will also lead an educational track at the show. But the technology offers benefits to exhibitors, attendees and show organizers that could be difficult to ignore.

"It could be that to maintain a competitive value proposition, you have to offer ways to reach your target audience beyond the show," Fellman said.

He recommended that organizers interested in developing a strategy start by identifying their audiences' key interests and deliver the highest priorities.

Organizers should look at their internal culture as well as the ways that social media work with other programs, he said. Social media often demands a new perspective.

"If you're going to use social media as a marketing tool, it needs to be integrated in the show experience," he said. "The old pre-, during and postshow thinking changes."

New endeavors should be launched internally, giving staff time to gain familiarity with the demands of functions like blogging and the management of user-generated content. "That way, when you go to market, your organization is comfortable with the culture of social media," Fellman said.

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