If you're using social media in your business, don't overlook the power of incorporating it into event planning and management.
Using a structured social backchannel allows for real-time participation and engagement, not to mention encouraging activity by attendees. More compelling is the fact that many who are not attending but remain interested now have a path to staying in touch with the event, serving as de facto brand ambassadors as they extend the backchannel through their own networks.
Your backchannel should be an extension of your overall social media strategy. Just as you have coordinated the team, topics and tools for managing social media, this same discussion should occur for each event, live or virtual, where you seek to foster an active social conversation.
What is the backchannel?
It starts with a Twitter hashtag. The hashtag itself is quite simple — as in #hashtag. That simple pound sign prior to those characters makes it a clickable link on Twitter (and the many apps used to interact with Twitter outside the official site). Likewise, it can be discovered when searching on Twitter.
This backchannel occurs in several key areas of an event.
• The human element: As peers, friends, competitors and influencers gather in person, this conversation spills onto Twitter and gives a "slice of life" look at the event.
• Agenda sessions: During main stage and breakout sessions, attendees will offer their own soundbites from the speakers, as well as a running narrative of opinion and photos that brings your event to life for those not in the session or even at the event.
• The exhibit hall: When attendees are socializing in the exhibit hall, feedback will find its way onto your backchannel. This is an area where exhibitors should invest time and resources to explore the sentiment, questions and criticism they could learn and gain from.
Getting engagement on your backchannel
Insuring you get wide engagement on all of those fronts requires a need to plan and promote the hashtag. For instance, once you've settled on a hashtag for your event, you can:
• Ensure your internal team knows it, and knows how to engage it. This can be simplified by providing talking points to your teams or even example tweets to get them started
• Promote the hashtag to your exhibitors and sponsors to ensure as they announce participation and specials for the event, they include the hashtag
• Make certain your key speakers and special guests are aware of the hashtag, especially since attendees will be providing play-by-play commentary on their talks. However, like sponsors, they may want to promote their participation using the tag as well.
In addition to the direct communications above, especially in the final 30-45 days before your event, factoring in content via your blog and other digital properties gives you the opportunity to further publicly promote your hashtag.
Tips during your event
Once you've promoted this backchannel leading up to the event, you can also further promote it during event activities. One of the simplest ways to do so is to place large displays around highly trafficked areas that showcase the backchannel.
1. Display the stream
A major value of Twitter is its fast-paced, short burst capability. This allows for many layers of "chatter" to be captured via that hashtag for ease of review and presenting.
One of my favorite tools for displaying the event backchannels is Visible Tweets. It has an extremely approachable, economic model for a higher level of access to the Twitter API in case your event has thousands, or tens of thousands of tweets occurring. Likewise, it can also be white labeled if you would like to use branding across those screens.
Once a hashtag is entered, screens will scroll through tweets in near real time in a readable format. It's fun to see attendees' reactions when they see their Twitter image and tweet pop up while they watch.
It acts as a powerful attractor to those stopping by to monitor the virtual conversation onscreen to post and get their own feedback displayed.
2. The meetup
An under-leveraged component of the social media backchannel at any event is the opportunity for a meetup. If the event draws from the industry and includes known personalities, sponsors and service providers alongside attendees, a live meetup of a select segment that is active on social media can be very valuable.
This is a chance for folks who've developed great rapport digitally to meet in person and further deepen their relationships. This burst of activity filters onto your social backchannel with pictures and offers a real slice of behind-the-scenes chatter. This adds a way for those attending and those observing from a distance to make an emotional connection to the event.
In some cases, discussions from this meetup will provide topics to potentially follow up on post-event in media relations, new posts for your blog, or even as possible prospects for new business.
3. Post-event wrapup
Don't neglect to study the backchannel you have created. The vast number of conversations, questions, issues and feedback throughout the event are a gold mine of information you may not get on surveys.
The data can help you decide what to post to your event's web site after everyone heads home: key presentations, blog posts addressing feedback, or questions. If you've recorded sessions, the post-event website is a great place to offer audio and video on demand.
Remember, these follow up activities make your next event even better, potentially helping you win new attendees who sat out past events.
Blane Warrene speaks and writes frequently on technology and the intersection of marketing and compliance in financial services. He co-founded Arkovi and QuonWarrene, the former acquired by RegEd in 2012. He produces the Digital Well podcast and is focused on helping financial advisers and institutions explore and define what being a digital business means to them.