Screw Your Ole Event Resolutions. Do You Conference Social?

Have you made some event resolutions for 2010? I suspect it may have included something about integrating social media into your conference format.

Well, it’s time to screw your event resolutions about integrating social media. No, I’m not a heretic that has moved to the dark side banning social media from events and conferences. Calm down.

I’m talking about creating a Social Conference, Living Conference or Conference 2.0, as some are calling it.

So, how social is your annual conference, meeting or event?

In theory, the annual conference is already a social event. Right? You probably provide a conference website and email marketing about the event. That’s social, right?

Your conference is about people gathering in one place for several days attending meetings, education efforts, networking sessions, parties and special events. In that process, people interact and are social with one another. They are social on the bus to the convention center, in the hallways, during meals, at special events. Fairly standard social stuff, wouldn’t you say?

Yet in a Web 2.0 connected world, social has a much deeper meaning and a far reaching impact than just the onsite event. Social is an attitude and way of viewing your entire conference planning and onsite experience. It’s about changing the top-down controlled format and allowing the conference attendee to help create a much more organic experience.

That sounds a little messy, doesn’t it? It also is a little frightening, giving the power back the conference attendee. You’re probably thinking, “But what if…” Or, “I’m not sure I’m ready for an organic conference. I’m not into Birkenstocks, hemp flower dresses, fruits, nuts and flakes yet.” Well, that’s for another post too.

David Armano wrote a fantastic post on Harvard Business Review called Do You Live Social?
“Do you live social? …Many organizations simply skip this question because they assume that they themselves don’t have to be social (open and collaborative) to reap the rewards (cost savings, marketing ROI, effective reputation management, and search engine juice) they think they might get from social media,” he writes.

Here’s a twist on his question. “Do you conference social?”

It’s more than advertising and marketing. It’s a way of thinking and approaching the conference experience that requires event organizers to participate in social spaces honestly. It’s about having an open and collaborative conference planning process. It’s about encouraging conference attendees to “take control” of the meeting, to help guide it so that it meets their needs, to help customize the content for their own learning and digestion. It’s about cheering attendees on to share their thoughts, their input and add to the presenter’s content. It’s about supporting attendee engagement with each other and with the content.

This will not be easy for traditional conference organizers. We’re used to top-down, command and control approaches. We decide when you’ll eat, what you’ll hear, what you’ll see, who you’ll meet. Giving up control is hard.

So how do you create a social conference? I suggest starting small. Pilot a collaborative program by allowing potential attendees to crowdsource conference topics (not speakers–that’s a different blog post). Consider a spinoff of Starbucks customer initiative with “My Conference Idea.”

Or encourage your staff to have personalities and use social media to begin communicating with attendees and prospective attendees. Not communicating “at or to” attendees pushing conference tradeshow, registration and sponsorship specials. Rather engaging in conversation with others about the conference. Or start by reaching out to industry bloggers and influential tweeps asking them to blog and micro blog during the event.

Don’t just ignore this stuff, start somewhere.

Need more help wrapping your head around the Social Conference? View this short PowerPoint comparing Traditional, Web 1.0 Conferences to The Web 2.0 Social Conference.

And what social elements would you add to your next conference or event? Share your thoughts, comments and additions with us!

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  1. Awesome Jeff! I actually have a little post-it on my desk that says “Stop using Twitter for events.”

    We shouldn’t think of it as “using” Twitter. When interacting in the Twitterverse, we spark conversation and meet new and fun people. Twitter is not “for events”, it’s for fostering new relationships and learning more about a person or the persona of a business. It’s for sharing insight and making friends…creating a living community, and certainly this applies to the idea of a social conference.

    Oddly enough, my commitment in 2010 has actually been to reduce screen2face time and improve my face2face time. To clarify, this means that my goal is to learn how to better use social media to generate more face time with kindred spirits and business prospects alike.
    I wonder if anyone other early adopters are feeling this way…I had a great conversation with Mike McAllen and he shared the exact same sentiment.
    With that being said, this is me doing less screen time – so signing off for now 🙂
    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl
    Pulse Staging and Events, Inc.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great feedback. I like what you have to say about better using social media to generate time with kindred spirits and business prospects alike. For me, it’s about building authentic relationships using whatever tool I can to do that. I have different degrees of relationships, some nutured online, some on the phone, some face-to-face. Yes, ultimately, I like to be face-to-face with those relationships that I call friends but time and space often keep me from doing that. Like my relationship with you for instance…I’ve never met you face-to-face but I consider you a kindred spirit and friend. And I yearn for those times when we can be in each other’s presense. Without social media, you and I would have never met!

      Thanks so much for adding to the conversation. You’re so right that people want some tactile steps on how to transition from the traditional conference model to a more social model. If there was any tip I could give someone, it would be take some cues from the education industry and read current education thought leaders on how to create more engaging learning environments.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeffhurt: Screw Your Ole Event Resolutions. Do You Conference Social? #eventprofs [Includes PPT]

  3. Sam Smith says:

    Great Jeff!

    Yesterday, I was telling someone that while many people agree that conferences need to change – most people don’t know (or don’t agree) what to change too. They need a roadmap. Your PPT presentation starts building a roadmap to this new type of conference world. I like it!

    To me, the shift in content creation and consumption that you outline in Slide 3 is very, very important. I hope that all readers read this slide closely and consider the impact. I believe that the shift here will drive some of the other transformations that you identified.

    – Sam

  4. Nicely done.

    I’m beginning to wonder about the implications of all this for people who are less “social” as you define it, much as we consider the learning style of introverts or extroverts in workshop design.

    Introverts who are asked to extrovert too much often need to go off and get their batteries charged. If participants have to become more social to get the most value out of a conference, and technology enables that socializing to more easily occur 24-7, what are the implications for unplugging, recharging, distilling, making sense of it all … both on-site and when people are returning to their workplaces?

    It’s natural that we think about this from the conference design and logistics standpoint, but I hope we keep the conversation alive for what it means for the participants as well.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts.

      In my opinion, all of these social changes are for the participant and attendee, not for the logistics. Actually, they are harder for conference organizers to plan and implement. It’s about moving to an attendee-centric conference. Traditional conferences are speaker/presenter/organizer centric.

      For me, I don’t equate “social” with extrovert or being the life of the party. For me, being social can be chatting with one or two individuals. It’s about the quality of the engagement, not the quantity of discussions. It’s as simple as setting a room in rounds instead of theater, and the presenter providing adequate time for eight people at a table to discuss the content. With a table moderator, even introverts feel accepted and welcomed to share their opinions.

      I’m an introvert by nature yet I know that for my brain to retain information, and for me to learn, I have to engage with content and engage with others about that content. It’s when I’m really excited about learning something new that I find myself telling others about it. I also totally agree that there needs to be down time and that is something each individual must initiate for themselves.

      If people don’t get excited or passionate about content at conferences and events, then the organizers and presenters are not connecting. Humans are not made to be lone rangers, void of emotional connections. We crave connections and relationships. Passive, listening at conferences does not translate into learning and retention. That’s a fallacy and a nod to the industrial revolution style of learning: come into the room, sit down in lined up rows, shut up, listen, do as you’re told, everyone give the same answer, leave room, enter factory and create widget. That’s not how the brain learns. Nor does that serve today’s professional in service and creative economy.

  5. Jeff- it makes me very happy to read posts like yours. So many people are throwing all this new media at conferences and meetings and it is just making them worse.

    I believe the real issue however is lack of collaboration at the personal and design level. Conferences are supposed to foster collaboration quickly, efficiently and that is why we all go to them. However what is collaborative or social about looking at the back of a persons head sitting in front of you- while both of you are more interested in your super-phones than anything else.

    I just did an interview about Trust and Conferences/Technology/Collaboration with the leading Trust Blogger Charlie Green. Check out the interview.

    Also- I suggest a few ways to incorporate or de-corporate social aspects at conferences- and more specifically about Panel Discussions

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion and for the concrete, tactile tips to apply “social” to the conference environment. I love your comment, “Conferences are supposed to foster collaboration quickly…what is collaborative or social about looking at the back of a person’s head sitting in fron of you.” So true, so true. Great tips on on how to de-corporate social aspects at conferences too. Glad you shared them with us.

  6. […] Not sure about the “Social Conference?” Read this post on “Screw Your Event Resolutions. Do You Conference Social?” […]

  7. davelutz says:

    First of all, I wanted to say thanks to those that commented and added to the discussion. It’s kind of funny, Jeff needs to write a post entitled “Screw this…” to get real smart people to jump into the conversation! Not sure if it’s that or the thought provoking powerpoint, but hey we’re trying different things and really appreciate your help talking about making meetings and adult education better. Our industry needs it!

    For me, I’m getting pumped up about going to PCMA next week and plan to be a social butterfuly. My brain always races with new ideas and my cash register always rings best after major industry shows and PCMA is one of my top 2.

    Our industry is evolving faster than ever and we need lots of thought leaders out there trying new things to increase the value of face2face meetings and adult education. Keep us up to date on what you’re hearing and we’ll try to push the envelope as best we can on our side. If we fail to deliver, call us on that one!

    Dave Lutz – @velchain

  8. John Badger says:

    The content is great and the idea is even better, but it forgets one thing in my mind. You are talking about behavior and changing ones behavior. If your audience does not blog, chat or even frequent a computer you have little chance getting them too.

    At many conferences your audience does not use a computer on a daily basis. How are you going to get them to do for you? They don’t need too, and it is not part of their routine. Take doctors for instance, they don’t use their computers to register, their assistants do. Dentists are the same way. Many of your manual labor type shows are made up of people who spend their days in the field or working face to face with clients.

    My question to you is how do you get these people engaged? It is easy to say build a site that has relevance and they will do it, but that is not the case. It is not in their nature to use the internet, let alone socialize on it. The tool is not part of their routine and is not natural to them. I have been part of the IT world at conferences and trade shows for over 11 years and have spoke at length with people about this idea.

    In my time I have seen companies try to link the social network with registration, with online tools, through direct marketing after registration, with association websites and by just putting it out there and hoping they will come. Look at companies like A2Z, BDMetrics, Experient, Compusystems and many others. They are all trying to do it and failing. Not because the ideas aren’t good, but because the audience does not naturally network through social medias. They do it when outside of the job and at a place meant for networking. Most of you reading this article naturally use the computers, maybe network and therefore can see it working. Speak with those who are actual attendees and see if they actively network through electronic means daily. If they don’t, they won’t.

    In 30 years I can see this working, but the 20 year olds of today have to be the seniors of their profession befor this will happen.

  9. ‘@JohnBadger – If you look back over the many posts and ideas that Jeff Hurt and Velvet Chainsaw consulting discuss, the concept of a social conference isn’t focused on sitting in front of a computer and digging your head in. (Check out his Purple Cow post for some goodies).

    He is a major advocate for adult white space/downtime for the absorption of knowledge…maybe having a comfy lounge or mingling area where attendees can loosely gather and do what it is they need to do to meet and process their new ideas. (I love the idea of an illumination gallery from Jay Smethurst for this

    I would also add that there are several other ways that attendees can be involved or aware of social media without actually having to sit at a phone or computer. Interactive kiosks, digital signage and strategic projection can simply increase awareness.
    With that being said, there have been many times where I (as the AVGirl) want to spring all the technological solutions on our eventprofs crowd, but usually the response is let’s keep it simple and provide innovation in the way an attendee interacts with a session (ie group activity, perhaps the oldest, most non-technological trick in the book). I really LOVE what @Brandon Klein says about not looking at the back of someone’s head – even something as simple as seating arrangements guides the transformation to a social conference!

    I think my long-winded point is that it doesn’t mean we have to bury our faces in a computer to garner the benefits of a social conference…
    btw, Jeff, my inbox has made me laugh several times today as the subject line only reads “New Comment On: Screw You…” 😀

  10. davelutz says:

    ‘@avgirl Thanks for helping clarify the intension of the post! You wrote a better reply than Jeff or I could!

    @johnbadger I think the point you make about a2z, BdMetrics, Experient and CompuSystems is valid. Many of the networking, matchmaking and social media solutions have been intended to help exhibitors pinpoint and engage with key buyers. I think all of those solutions didn’t realize that the attendee/buyer is in control and we need to build solutions that help them (not solutions that help the people trying to sell to them). Classic case of chasing revenue vs. adding value. In 2010, the attendee rules!

    The world is changing pretty fast as more attendee focused solutions are being made available via mobile devices. Instead of pushing info on the attendees, attendees are now doing more pulling of what they want.

    I like the Packers on Sunday, but I’ll take AZ and give you a point. Deal?

    Dave Lutz – @velchain

  11. John Badger says:

    Dave and Midori,

    Is there any type of knowledge as to the average attendee and their computer usage on a daily basis? Of course this would have to be specified by industy because we all know that some industries are much more computer hands on then others. I ask because before a show the only method is going to be a pc. This could be a hand held, laptop, phone or traditional desktop…but a pc none the less (expect for the growing Mac world).

    I do agree with Dave that most of the solutions to date have been driven by the need to create revenue through the process and that is a lose/lose situation for everyone in this case. I do remember a few attempts with message type systems and threaded conversations that were driven by sessions, speakers, groups and exhibitors. They were completely driven by the user taking the initiative. Those seemed to be well received in the right conference, but not the more trade/prof. conferences.

    I do love the lounge and mingling aspect of shows and know that Dave and Velvet Chainsaw can pull those off extremely well. I have seen that first hand. I guess in my initial reading of the blog and the powerpoint I missed that concept.

    Dave, I will always take the Pack, and points are greatly appreciated. Good Luck with Cinci, I guess you need to stick with an Ohio team.

    John Badger

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for the comments and you’re raising some great questions. I’ll keep them in mind as I write future posts and try to address some of them as it would take too much space to address all of them here.

      Midori hit it on the head that I was referring to “social” in a much larger context than just online “social media.” I’m talking about conference organizers making a fundamental shift in conference planning from passive audiences, sitting in chairs for 8 hours listening to talking to heads, to mixing it up and providing opportunities for attendees to engage with each other, and engage with the content.

      In regards to your questions about how many people use computers, The December 2009 Pew Internet Study of Online participation in social media has some interesting stats:

      77%-79% of adults use the Internet
      63% have broadband at home (& thus computers)
      85% own a mobile device (thus texting components)
      54%-56% connect to Internet wirelessly
      2/3 use the “cloud”
      More than 50% of Americans have a Facebook page (from Facebook stats)
      80% of women in Facebook fan a brand or organization
      My primary care doctor, who is in her 60s, uses a iPhone to explain medical conditions and diagnoses to me. She also communicates with me through an online private eCommunity.
      My dentist uses an online appointment process, eCommunity to answer questions and has a Facebook fan page. More dentists are using technology and computers than you think.
      74% of the members in my previous job used social media daily, and they were C-Suite insurance executives.
      98% of the attendees at the national conference in my previous job texted from their mobile device or laptop during opening general sessions.
      350 attendees at a conference I attended this summer all had their laptops with them blogging, texting and tweeting from the event. (And the audience was very diverse representing all ages, races and split 50-50 men and women.) Imagine the WiFi and electricity needed at that conference alone.

      So, I think the online social piece for conferences is growing faster than 30 years from now. Yes, you’re absolutely right that some conference audiences will not be bringing their laptops to the event or engage online before the event. Yet, most conference attendees would like to see a focus of less talking heads and more engagement with each other.

  12. ‘@Jeff

    I don’t equate social with being the life of the party either and you and I are in sync about much of what you are proposing as any of my PCMA columns on related topics would suggest.

    But as you suggest social does relate to the human desire to connect and interact. People have very different levels of interest and preference for both the quantity and quality of how they engage in that manner.

    As they always have had to, planners can’t forget this. One persons’s engagement is another person’s exhaustion.

  13. John Badger says:

    ‘@ Jeff

    Those numbers are great to see. I am extremely surprised at how fast they have risen, but I guess when you look back at how fast internet registration has come along in just 12 years I shouldn’t be.

    I am very happy I got involved in this conversation as I missed a huge part of your presentation, that being the social part as it pertains to the actual time at the show. Thank you for helping clerify this for me and I look forward to hearing of more great ideas from you, Dave, Velvet Chainsaw and others in the industry.


  14. […] that implement more social strategies. Not sure what a “Social Conference is?” Read Do You Conference Social? and 6 Steps For The Social […]

  15. […] Screw Your Ole Event Resolutions. Do You Conference Social? (MidCourse Corrections) […]

  16. Mike Kemp says:

    Great article, it actually encouraged some thinking. You know in years past our annual conference was an opportunity to socialize, to advertise and to market. The overall theme was really the key to where the greater emphasis lay. Like all strategies your conference must follow a sensible path that leads from earlier conferences or strategies.

    Gaining control is to provide an air of no control, yet the underlying guide is controlled to achieve a collaborative agreement or outcome.

    The media has changed, however the methods employed remain as though people were sitting side by side in one room. The challenge is in the facilitation. It is best, in my opinion, to either employ or hire a consultant facilitator for the event. This will provide beneficial experience for your company employees to take the reign in small workplace events online.

  17. […] Not sure about the “Social Conference?” Read this post on “Screw Your Event Resolutions. Do You Conference Social?” […]

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