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April 19, 2009
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SOCIAL CLUB:Are social media and Web 2.0 really affecting the way our industry works?




A lot is said and written about the perceived impact of social media and Web 2.0 on our lives. While few would argue it’s had a dramatic effect on our private lives, are the business applications really that useful? And are these technologies having a real effect on the way the meetings and events industry works? In part one of a series of features seeking to answer these questions, Pete Roythorne looks at the actual impact social media and Web 2.0 are having on the meetings and events industry.

Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter. My life often seems a blur of social media… that is when I actually have the time to participate fully in them, which is not as often as I sometimes feel I should. Or, indeed, nowhere near as much as many of my industry colleagues.

So are these technologies a distraction from our lives or do they really have a business benefit? And are they really changing the way our industry works? And if they are, what of those who fear their impact? Where will this leave them? I decided to pose these, and other questions to a series of experts in the field.

“Social media and Web 2.0 technologies are becoming increasingly integrated into the meetings and event marketing industry,” says Ian McGonnigal, executive director, program strategy worldwide, for George P. Johnson. “But it’s important to point out that the fear of disintermediation – web-based communications outright replacing traditional communications channels such as events – is overstated at best.

Channel hopping
“Internet and mobility-based tools and platforms are ultimately a complementary communications channel to any live experience. Each channel plays its own distinct role in the overall integrated marketing mix, providing the right messages and touch-points to move customers, delegates or prospects through the sales cycle.”

McGonnigal believes that seasoned strategic marketers already understand the need to embrace these technologies. “Using all the tools at their disposal in the right coordinated mix builds trust and facilitates the relationships that drive business performance in today’s tough economic climate and beyond,” he explains.

Carina Bauer, marketing and operations director at IMEX, the worldwide meetings and incentive travel exhibition, believes that despite this, so far these technologies have had a limited affect on the meetings and events industry – but not for much longer. “We predict that this will change over the next three to five years; partly as a result of them becoming more mainstream and partly as a result of Generation Y entering the workforce and expecting to communicate via these applications. Meeting planners are increasingly learning how to use these tools to enhance their events and create interactive communities between delegates before and after an event. In addition, planners are quickly developing their understanding of how to use these technologies to improve their marketing and access thousands of potential new delegates for their events,” she says.

Application’s what you need
Most Web 2.0 technologies use open API (application programming interface) systems and this allows hundreds of new applications to be created each day around the world, and this enhances their power. “We are increasingly seeing applications created which are specifically focused on helping meeting planners to use social networking sites to their advantage – be that through the automatic issuing of event invitations to Facebook friends or Twitter followers (Twtvite), surveys on twitter (Twtpoll) or simply to monitor and promote what others are saying about the event (TwitterCamp),” concludes Bauer.

Corbin Ball of Corbin Ball Associates, agrees, adding: “Web 2.0 is changing meetings marketing and management with numerous benefits for meeting planners, exhibitors and attendees. And this is only going to gather pace. Thanks to applications ranging from Twitter to user-generated content sites, we are getting increasingly used to a level of interactivity and say in our online lives, and are demanding the same from our offline lives.

“This has a crucial impact for meetings and events professionals by, for example, shifting the balance of power from the speaker to the audience. So, whether you like it or not, your audience will increasingly demand a say in what they want to hear during presentations. They may even try to take control and demand it. Wise meeting and events professionals will recognise these trends and work with some of these tools to help direct this conversation.”

Dawn French, chair of education for MPI in the UK, believes that social media can make meetings and events much more efficient and therefore improve return on investment. “Social media cuts out a lot of needless networking, as you are able to check people out before you actually meet them,” she says. “While this can never actually replace the face-to-face experience, it allows us to filter people and it can make the whole process that bit more effective, which is a major consideration in the current economic climate.”

Sharing responsibly
She also sounds a word of caution: “The danger is we do need to be socially responsible about what we share. Each social media channel has its own dynamic. For example, Facebook is more friendly, and Linkedin is more professional. You need to be sure that the persona and information you display in each is appropriate to the channel and those that will be looking at your profile.”

McGonnigal concludes: “Social media is having a substantial impact on our industry and will continue to do so. Since the internet first took hold in the mid-90s, it has repeatedly created a great deal of change in one industry after another - at first seemingly upending the way an industry operates before morphing into a beneficial tool that creates new value. The same is true here, but to approach this change with care.”

He warns against being too quick to run exclusively to the social media “side of the ship”. “All forms of marketing are a constant balancing act and in some cases, the ship is beginning to list. If we do not rebalance the load, the ship will capsize and we'll all be in over our heads. Yes, these are powerful tools but must exercise caution, which always brings me back to the 80/20 rule: 80% of marketing should be against proven activities and 20% to experiment with new tools.

So yes, it seems that there are genuine benefits to be had from the use of social media and Web 2.0, but like all new technologies there are pitfalls. The reality is that face to face will not be swamped by the digital tidal wave, but it will be enhanced. We should all bravely embrace this new-found power, but move forward with caution as there will doubtless be more than a few red herrings along the way.

I’m off to update my Linked In profile.

Next week’s feature will look at specific applications and how meetings and events professionals can used them to enhance their business.


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