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Convention Connections - 12/1/2009 -

Social media can personalize association events and engage attendees, leading to more effective marketing and satisfied customers.

By Jeffrey Lee

THE MARKETING EFFORTS FOR THE BIOTECHNOLOGY INDUSTRY ORGANIZATION'S (BIO) ANNUAL EVENT aren't a one-way conversation, with e-mail after e-mail sent to attendees. And while BIO attempts to personalize content for event participants, it's not even a two-way conversation between the event organizers and attendees. Instead, BIO builds a conversation among thousands of readers, exhibitors, presenters, and prospects using social media and multimedia content to develop buzz—and to create satisfied, repeat attendees.

At "The Big Social Mix for Event Communications, Marketing, and Publications,” a recent Association Media & Publishing Lunch & Learn discussion, two association meeting marketers offered advice and shared the lessons they've learned about incorporating new methods of communication into their marketing efforts.

Margaret Core, director of marketing and sales, conventions and conferences at BIO, says social media provides her organization with different methods to engage with attendees and prospects and show professionals in the field that it is taking part in the biotechnology industry conversation.

"We have to be the go-to source when someone has a quandary around biotech,” Core says. "The most important thing is that you're in their path, that you are found when they are trying to solve a business challenge. We engaged in these tools because we want to make sure we are in prospects' lines of sight to come to our event as quickly as possible.”

BIO uses social media tools to stay part of the conversation year-round. BIO hosts a group within LinkedIn that has 6,600 members and finds that half of the users who join the group are new names. The LinkedIn group conversations have increased in value the last six months and require very little staff time, Core notes.

As the organization's annual event approaches, the social media tools are focused on personalizing the event and making connections for potential attendees with other participants, session leaders, or exhibitors. The ultimate goal is to ensure the attendee arrives with a plan that not only meets their business needs, but also makes them more likely to become repeat customers.

All event communications are focused on driving attendees to the MyBIO personal show planner, which suggests relevant connections for users to make at the event. While the organization has that focused goal, it uses a "spaghetti” approach to achieve it. "We see what sticks,” Core says.

Before those individuals applying to speak at a session receive a rejection letter, they're offered an opportunity to write a white paper or an article. That free content can be chopped and repurposed as blog posts or entries on one of the organization's social media pages. The organization solicits guest bloggers to feature on the convention website, and supplements blog content with multimedia efforts such as video blogs from partner magazines and podcasts with industry executives.

Content that involves or is generated by the user is particularly helpful in personalizing the event, Core says. BIO facilitates Meetups, which are in-person gatherings organized through social media. It also offers a BioPartyList blog listing the convention's evening events and parties from other exhibiting sponsors. Some editors have even encouraged attendees to follow them on Twitter to find out how the party is going. Finally, the organization creates a tag for Flickr and YouTube with which attendees can post their own content for their colleagues to see.

With so much personalized content available to attendees, BIO's communications staff can offer more advanced daily communications than the traditional show daily. The event site includes a Smashup with blocks of content, such as tweet scrolls, stories from event sessions, or photos posted with the event's Flickr tag.

If BIO's efforts sound more like the activities of a media provider than an association, it's not by accident. Says Core: "The healthiest association will act more like a media company and an online provider than a traditional association that acts like it only provides events and advocacy.”

Dive In

While Sarah Lawler, marketing manager for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), says her organization has gone from "dipping a toe in the social media ocean” to "wading in the pool,” she has a piece of advice for hesitant association communicators: Just dive in. "It's one more tool for us to reach deeper into our membership to engage people,” she says.

At the Lunch & Learn, Lawler divulged some of the lessons she's taken away from her association's successful social media experiment, including:

  • Learn by doing it. Read blogs to understand how they work. Play around with Twitter and Facebook, Lawler suggests. You'll feel more engaged in the online conversation and more comfortable with how it works.
  • Start small and be realistic. While Lawler's association feels social media is important, it has limited resources. "I have to rein myself in sometimes,” she says. She's found success setting aside time in her day to participate or monitor social media accounts.
  • Build a team. One person can't be an expert on everything. You'll need other members of your organization to contribute content, as well as share information with their audiences.
  • Have a plan, no matter how vague. The AACC's goal is to provide information to its members and other constituents so that they view the AACC as a resource. In addition to its social media efforts, the association is launching a website to replace one of its print newspapers as well as a digital version of its journal to supplement the print.
  • Know who is following you. Every social media site has a different audience. Know who your audience is and the kind of content that serves them best.
  • Be patient. It takes time for a community to grow, Lawler says. The AACC started tweeting five days before its recent event for attendees at the meeting. With positive feedback, the association now tweets for a larger audience of professionals in the higher-education world and is already up to 500 followers.

Jeffrey Lee is staff writer, UNITS Magazine, for the National Apartment Association. Association Media & Publishing thanks him for volunteering to cover this Lunch & Learn session for our members who were unable to attend.


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