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April 4, 2008

Elling Hamso: The face to Facebook business

I was inspired by Izania Downie’s opinion on Facebook in her recent EVENTS:review column, and thought that if this really is the biggest social phenomenon since rock’n' roll, her piece deserved a sequel… so here is my take.

I received a phone call out of the blue some weeks ago from a student in South Africa doing a PhD in sustainable meetings. She had come across my name and wondered if I could give her some guidance. She didn’t really sound like a young student, she sounded more mature, but you don’t ask a woman her age, I have been taught, so I was left wondering. It wasn’t a good time to talk anyway, so I gave her Fiona Pelham’s [director of OrganiseThis] contact details, and we agreed to talk again at a more convenient time.

In the meantime, I looked for her on Facebook, as I routinely do with strangers. She promptly accepted my request for friendship and after five minutes of reviewing her profile I knew she was indeed a mature student of 34. I had seen pictures of her family and friends, what books she reads, what music and films she likes, what countries she has visited or lived in, what Facebook groups she belongs to and I’d seen her really cool 1958 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia sports car.

Getting to know you

When we spoke again some days later, I felt that I knew this person. I suspect that she had also checked my Facebook profile, so we knew a lot about each other even though we were almost perfect strangers. This is a paradigm of the Facebook generation, and I am not sure what it really means, but when I think of my many good business friends who I have learned to know over the years, there is not one of them that I know as much about as my five-minute Facebook friend. We used to say that meeting people in Cyberspace is one thing, but to get to know someone you have to meet face to face, now I am not so sure any more.

What does it mean to know someone? Why do I think of some people as business friends and others just as acquaintances? Common interests, values, age and background, something more intangible perhaps, just ‘liking’? What is the probability of me liking someone who is of similar age and background, a member of the same groups or societies, enjoys the same music, films and books? Probably quite high. I take particular interest in what people read, didn’t someone say: "Tell me what you read and I will tell you who you are"?

Facebook is just one example of many social networking tools and all are part of the so-called web 2.0 phenomenon where we have become active contributors to web content, not just passive readers. Where does this leave our traditional meetings and events? Out in the cold I reckon – unless we understand and adapt.

The right experience
I believe it is no coincidence that ‘experiential’ is the hot trend for meetings and events as we enter the Web 2.0 era. I was in Copenhagen last Saturday for a board of directors’ annual retreat. We went to this fabulous dinner cabaret show in the old circus building and it annoyed me that we had decided not to bring our spouses, as this was an experience I would have liked to share with my wife. I spent all of last week in Brussels with 13 meeting planners learning return on investment from Jack Phillips. E-learning could never have been the same. On the other hand, why would you go to a conference with a string of presentations, when speaker/audience interactive sessions are much better on the web?

As an industry, we need to exploit the uniqueness and the opportunities offered by face-to-face meetings. But we also need to exploit the uniqueness of Web 2.0: the 13 participants from Brussels now have a secret group on Facebook, nobody will know that it even exists without being personally invited. Some have pictures to share, others follow-up questions or experiences when putting learning into practice. So web 2.0 has a lot to offer our industry, particularly in terms of building communities.

I have registered for ‘Learning 2007’ in Orlando next month and I know that I will meet some very interesting people. I know because I have already identified them in the pre-conference online community. I have shared some information about myself, what I am interested in and what I have to offer, and the application returns a chart showing the distance between my profile and that of other participants. For all I know, someone has already developed this kind of application as a Facebook plugin – there are hundreds. It would save me entering personal data in yet another application and I could look for others to meet based on a much richer set of information.

The Facebook business

Did you think that Facebook was just fun and games for the young generation? The largest and fastest growing segment of its 34 million membership is 35+. If you think that relationships are important in business, then Facebook gives you the hard business data. If you think that keeping in touch with friends and family while you are hard at work is important, then you need Facebook. If you have lots of time on your hands, then you may try using only telephone, email and face-to-face meetings, but even if you spend all the hours of the day doing this, you will not be able to develop and maintain relationships like the Savvy Facebook Professional (SFP).

Poke me on Facebook, I’ll poke you back and we can see each others’ profiles for a few days, maybe we’ll become friends.

Elling Hamso is a meeting management consultant and managing partner of the European Event ROI Institue.

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OPINION Izania Downie: Online networking – gathering an audience

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