How to Use Social Media to Knock Your Event Out of the Park

How to Use Social Media to Knock Your Event Out of the Park

With so many people now using social media, event planners have taken notice.

Are there any people left on the planet who don’t use social media? A few, certainly. But even the most reticent are dipping their toes in. Event planners and marketers have taken notice: There’s almost always a way to reach prospective attendees through their social networks.

“Most events that I’ve been to or seen have at least some social element, even if it’s as simple as using Eventbrite for tickets and to get information out,” says Martha McCarthy, CEO of the Social Lights, a social media and digital marketing agency in Minneapolis. “I was at a financial convention last winter where they were kind of hesitant to dive into social because of all the [regulatory] restrictions and everything, but even they had a [Twitter] hashtag.”

McCarthy says nowadays almost everyone at least has a Facebook account, although in practice they may or may not use it heavily. Generation-Yers are especially fond of Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and other very visual sites; and Twitter has become almost ubiquitous at conferences and other professional get-togethers.

The trick to using social media well, says Jennifer Kane, principal of Minneapolis-based Kane Consulting, a marketing and social media company, is to take your audience’s cues. “Recently I spoke to an association that was rather low-tech, and I noticed there were no smartphones around the table,” she says. “However, when I asked for a show of hands, everyone around the room was on LinkedIn.”

Once upon a time, Amy Zaroff, principal of Amy Zaroff Events + Design in Edina, was a stationer. She still prefers to use social media in conjunction with a paper-based marketing campaign for an event. But she says she’s becoming a minority.

“There is something to be said about opening something in the mail and being able to touch it and feel it,” she says. “However, more and more corporations are doing away with that, because the cost-effectiveness of social media can’t be beat. So the challenge now becomes, in 140 characters or less, how do you call that same audience to action in an engaging way?”

The Ramp-Up

Using social media to promote an event should begin long before the event takes place. Kane says many clients think they should wait until a conference starts to designate a Twitter hashtag. But the hashtag can be a critical component of pre-show buzz. To wait until the last minute is to lose momentum.

“One way I’ve used these conversations really productively in the past is to directly crowdsource production questions that I have about the event,” Kane says. “You’re in charge of catering, and you’re [trying to decide] between the pasta primavera and the chicken. You put that out there to the Twitterverse and say, ‘What would you guys like to have for lunch, the pasta or the chicken?’ You should never have to show up at an event and be saying, ‘I hope people will drive to the city to come to it. I hope people will eat the chicken.’”

Tenessa Gemelke, manager of communication and events at Brain Traffic, a content management firm in Minneapolis, has taken this idea one step further. She’s part of a team that puts on a content strategy conference called Confab, and she uses direct-intervention tweeting that has gained her firm quite a lot of attention.

“The Tweet My Boss service was a big hit,” she laughs. “When we see people [on Twitter] saying ‘I hope my boss will let me go to Confab,’ or ‘I’m not sure if I’ll get the budget,’ we try to chime in and have a conversation. And at one point, somebody said, ‘Will you tell my boss that this is worth going to?’ And so I sent the boss a link to the program and an assurance that we’d take good care of her employee. That spawned the idea. I said, ‘Hey, we just tweeted someone’s boss. Let us know if your boss needs a tweet.’ I don’t believe we’ve had a boss turn us down yet.”

Of course, Twitter is not the only social network in the event world. “If you’re not really sure what the audience uses, you can use the general players, Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn,” Kane says. “If you’re finding that one of them seems to be really hot—that there’s a lot of advance buzz and questions and discussion—then you can decide to put a lot of emphasis on it. The marketing helps you source the channels.”

Gemelke finds that LinkedIn’s niche groups are helpful in her marketing. “For example, there’s a higher-ed content strategy group on LinkedIn,” she explains. “We happen to be hosting a new higher-ed conference, and we have some partners who are helping us with programming who just posted about us on their discussion board. It gives people a chance to talk about it or ask questions.”

Facebook has its own personality, Gemelke says: “One thing that we’ve noticed about Facebook is that we get more attention from the people who already love us. For people who already see us as a good thing, it’s sort of a fun place to get excited about the events that are coming up.”

On the Spot

Once attendees get to events, hashtags really tend to take off. Zaroff says it used to be considered rude to be on your cell phone during a talk, but now it’s almost expected. The difference is people are sharing the event message with the world.

“At the conferences that we attend, people are literally on their iPhones or iPads the entire time . . . tweeting quotes and important ideas that they’ve learned throughout the day,” Zaroff says. “Sometimes you feel that you are virtually at the conference based on what you’re seeing on your feed.”

Attendees at many conferences will tweet of their own accord, but Zaroff says it’s useful to remind them by printing the hashtag on cocktail napkins or placing it in a display at trade show booths. Many event organizers also like to have a “tweet wall,” or a live feed of tweets with the event’s hashtag. However, Kane warns that this should be used with caution and only under certain circumstances.

“I don’t mind them in a social area or for a cocktail party,” she says. “They’re very handy, and people do love to stand in front of them and be like, ‘Oh, Joe Schmo is here! I didn’t see him!’ And they’ll go and wander off and find that person. Great for social. But an absolutely horrible choice to put on the stage behind the speaker.”

Kane explains that there have been many instances where tweet walls have gone sour behind a keynote speaker, devolving into criticism, mocking, and even misogyny. Even when it doesn’t go that far, it’s distracting for speaker and audience alike.

“The possibility for that conversation to get hijacked by people who are not going to be appropriate is huge,” she warns. “I’ve seen it happen many times. As a speaker? That is my worst nightmare.”

For a social event, Twitter can provide a sense of unity and make anyone not attending madly jealous. This past fall, the Social Lights monitored the Twitter feed for the Zombie Pub Crawl in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and McCarthy says the #zpc hashtag went crazy even before the 30,000 attendees left their houses. Participants were tweeting pictures of their costumes and their makeup, using Twitter and Instagram.

“During the event, we had these kiosks set up,” McCarthy says. “Everyone’s admission wristband had an RFID tag in it, and people could check in at the stops along the pub crawl or certain destinations, and they would just wave their wrists over this kiosk and it would check them in. Then it would auto-post to Facebook or Twitter, whichever one they linked it to.”

Monitoring the Twitter feed gave the Social Lights a way of running interference whenever something didn’t go to plan. If the beer ran out, or someone was upset, or there was potential for a fight to break out, it showed up on Twitter, and McCarthy and her crew could inform the event organizers so that they could handle it.

This kind of information is incredibly powerful, Kane says. Now that social networks exist, there’s no reason an event producer should ever have to find out after the fact that attendees were unhappy.

“If there’s a light flickering in the back of the room, or the food tastes horrible, or there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom, people increasingly are putting that down on their Facebook page, putting it down on Twitter,” she says. “And this is in Minnesota, where everyone’s passive-aggressive. They’re never going to go up to the conference director and be like, ‘Uh, there’s a humming noise in the back of the ballroom that’s really annoying.’ They’re going to tweet that. And if you are running an event, this is like amazing intel for you. You can become the event fairy who just pops up in places and fixes light bulbs and takes things out of the room and hands a person a pencil because theirs just broke.”

A Twitter feed is also a handy tool for enlisting the help of facilities managers, she says. In the past, for example, her reports of climate-control problems were often brushed off. But no one can deny a laptop screen full of hashtagged tweets that all say “This room is cold.”

In Living Color

Many of the most popular social networking tools are photo- and video-centric. It’s during and after an event that these really come into their own. “[Recently] in Los Angeles, we had a pre-opening party for our new City Target location,” recalls Evan Miller, a senior publicist at Target Corporation “It was a couple hundred, if not a thousand, people there, our most loyal Target guests in the L.A. area, as well as some VIP Target partners. The theme of the night was Hollywood, so there were impersonators like Marilyn Monroe, Cher, and the Marx Brothers.”

But the biggest draw was Target’s spokesdog, Bullseye. Guests had their pictures taken with the canine and posted them to Twitter, using the hashtag that the company provided.

“Most of our events are attended by media or influencers in the community,” Miller says. “So a lot of times, it’s a way for us to help generate organic buzz about our event. It’ll be an editor of Vogue who’s at our event and is tweeting something about what she saw. Or it’s a reporter from ESPN that’s with our NASCAR driver and Bullseye at an event at the Daytona 500.”

Photos and video can play a key role in generating excitement for the next year’s event, Kane says: “If you have a live stream, you can be capturing [footage] during the event itself. You can be recording some of those sessions, and you can put up a highlight reel on your YouTube channel of what the event looked like. That becomes the bulk of your marketing for 2013.”

Gemelke says Brain Traffic’s Flickr group plays a significant role in the Confab marketing effort. She says attendees enjoy contributing their photos and are thrilled when the Confab organizers use the photos on the conference website. But it’s attendee write-ups and recaps that help keep the momentum going between shows. Gemelke and her colleagues collect all of these and link to them under the event’s Twitter handle.

“People are writing blog posts either about a specific presentation that they’ve seen, or about the event itself,” she says. “Like I said, we get a lot of love, which is nice, but we try to pay attention to whatever people are saying, whether it’s positive or negative. And you know, sometimes we take it offline. We don’t just communicate on Twitter. If someone asks a question or raises a concern that is bigger than 140 characters, we just try to say, ‘Hey, will you send us an e-mail and let us have a bigger conversation?’”