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November 24, 2009

CONTENT KINGS 2:The search for engagement

Digtal content is an incredibly powerful way to build a thriving online community – and it's not just a tool that should be restricted to big brands. Many events organisers have audiences that are crying out to be engaged in this way. Pete Roythorne looks at how the sector can take itself to the next level.

Using social media to publicise and drive delegates to your event is one thing, but by using a mixture of digital content (from blogs to video, from podcasts to in-depth written articles) organisers can create an active online community, which can take the event to another level – a 24/7/365 level.

“An active online community is a fantastic way to build awareness, connect with your customers and prospects and to get to know them better,” says Janine Maxwell, associate director at PR and marketing agency Kinross+Render. “Meetings and events organisers can use them to gather feedback on their events – from what worked and what didn't, to what people want to see more or less of next time. They can also be used to share details of forthcoming events.”


Community spirit: Digital content can build thriving online communities


We’re increasingly used to seeing these sorts of methods employed by brands to engage consumers, but the business-to-business events sector has been slow to catch on. It’s important to remember that we are all consumers, even if we are attending a seminar or conference. As Hugh Robertson, chairman and founding partner at experiential agency RPM, points out, consumers are more likely to stay loyal to a brand they have developed a relationship with over a period of time, and online communities are a perfect platform for this.

“Fan groups can create a real sense of ownership or empowerment for consumers to share their own content and views, and provide a voice for communicating directly to the brand or event owners and raise the level of influence they potentially have over brand activity,” he says. 

Setting the tone
Robertson also warns that it is crucial to build online communicates with the right tone, where the onus is on members to steer the direction and content.

“If they are done right, the communities will breed on their own and create a strong medium for brands to communicate directly with their true ambassadors,” he says.

Jonathan Emmins, managing partner at fellow experiential agency Amplify, believes that while creating a live event is an emotive and effective way to reach people, it’s only one part of a much bigger conversation.

“By creating a property that gives your brand or event a reason to talk with its audience on an ongoing basis, you have a platform not only to amplify your upcoming events and showcase your previous ones, but also to communicate that message to a huge pool of consumers who won’t be part of the event itself,” he explains.

“These consumers can still experience the event through the communities built around it. Plus, it gives you a reason to talk to your audience on a broader level by providing related content, opening relevant debates or pointing to other events your audience would be interested in.”

Today, there are any number of channels you can use to drive these communities, but the most important things is that they are relevant to their target audience.

“You probably wouldn’t see maximum benefit if you created a group around a consumer event on Linkedin, or if you built a Facebook Fan Page for a B2B event,” says David Miller, creative director of content marketing agency Three-Sixty. “It’s about the appropriateness of the channel to the market; get this wrong and no matter how good and engaging your content is you’re throwing good money after bad.”

In terms of channels, Kinross+Render has used Ning (www.ning.com) to create its own social media 'club' to sit alongside a series of social media events.

“It's early days,” says Maxwell, “but we're working hard to ensure that we're providing new and interesting content on a regular basis. We've included an RSS feed to our blog and created our own social media news area which aggregates content from various online sources, so that new material is being added automatically.

"We're also about to publish a series of guides on social media – on subjects including micro blogging and social networks – so that's something we'll be sharing with our community members and asking for their feedback on. I think it's really important to ask people for their opinion, so that it's a proper community with people chatting and sharing information rather than a sales tool.”

Knowing what to say

Picking up on this point, Emmins says that, before creating an online community, events organisers and brand owners need to think carefully about what incentives there are for an audience to join it and remain an active part of it.

“There is no point in creating a Facebook page or Twitter feed if you have nothing to say,” he explains. “It’s also important to consider how your audience are going to find the site. Creating an entirely new property might not be appropriate. You might be better off creating a microsite with a media partner to benefit from their brand, demographic and traffic.”

Again, it’s all about relevance and understanding the needs of your audience. “There has to be an incentive for your audience to sign up,” Emmins continues. “It doesn’t have to be big, but it does have to be relevant to them, and ideally free and exclusive. It’s also key to make your audience feel part of the decision-making process and able to influence the direction of the campaign through competition, opinion and debate.”

Digital content is one of the most important ways of engaging your audience and keeping their attention adds Miller. “If you’re producing content that your target audience wants to read, view or listen to, then you are creating a sense of belonging; a sense that your brand or your event is somehow on the same wavelength as the reader or visitor. If you crack this, then people will keep coming back.”

Events are perfectly placed to build, extend and engage their existing communities, indeed many delegates are crying out for the sort of added value that would come from an active digital community. But while it’s naïve to underestimate the importance of digital, it’s also important to do what is right for your audience, and this means understanding who they are and what they want. The events industry preaches this to the brands it works alongside, and it's time that it started following its own advice.


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