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Conferences are Dead, Long Live the Social Conference

By Sander Biehn | Jan 30, 2015

You just plunked down $5 Grand to sponsor a conference. It is going to be nip and tuck, and you have your fresh-faced millennials ready to press the flesh by the booth.  The goal is to generate a positive ROI on attending the show, but lately that has been hard to do.

The average stack of business cards yields very few clicks or call backs regardless of the interest level shown at the booth on the day of the event. People are too busy and the familiarity you build with them today is quickly eclipsed by the next conference they attend tomorrow.

Some social media companies suggest that you stop attending these conferences and put the money into online marketing instead. They argue that online there is a 24X7 conference going on for any industry you can imagine. Tapping into that online group is as simple as plowing a bunch of money into Google AdWords and LinkedIn sponsorships. They point out that attendance at conferences is shrinking.

But I am not convinced that conferences are going away.

In fact, I think their place in business will continue to grow, but they will need to change.  Business people have embraced meeting online, but we all crave time spent with others. Our digital shells don’t necessarily cut it when it comes to human interaction.

For these reasons, I think that instead of meeting people for the first time at conferences, conferences are becoming the place where people meet for the first time face-to-face. Conferences will become a place to strengthen bonds of relationships previously created online.

This change in purpose demands that sponsors look at these events differently if they plan to prosper by them. Using social channels and online marketing, businesses can capitalize like never before on conferences and trade shows—before, during and after the events.  Here are a few things we will see more of on the convention center floor:

1) Pre-Conference: Figuring out who will attend and driving attendance are key aspects of pre-conference planning. Inviting customers and prospects was the old way of doing this. Social media now allows you to tap into the marketing efforts of the event planners online in order to amplify those messages and drive not only attendees, but the right attendees to the show.Reposting or tweeting the organizer’s content using the conference hashtag is only half the story. Creating your own content that describes what you intend to showcase at the conference will energize the event for everyone. Imagine if all the sponsors did this? The next step is using your salesforce and brand social handles to get that message in front of the conference planners and your prospects. Why is it important for planners to see it? Because they will help you amplify the call to action.You can create a buzz by coordinating your marketing and sales with the marketing and sales of the event organizers and other sponsors who are not your direct competition.

2) At the Conference: Using the event hashtag at the event to highlight customer conversations and new ideas has caught on recently. But what about including social handles of your prospects and customers in your tweets and posts from the event? Live tweeting, blogging and posting at conferences is in its infancy. Coordinating all the content at the event level for sponsors has not even been tried. This is an enormous opportunity for Social Advocacy tools. Creating like-minded ecosystems is their stock and trade. Expanding the thinking beyond companies to organizations, like-minded groups and industry events remains entirely untapped.

3) After the Conference: Instead of sending out emails, how about making social mentions of the work your prospects and customers are doing? Complimenting online and then replying to any mentions they make of the event cements the event’s value and therefore your value in sponsoring it. By being a little less insistent about getting your ROI from leads, visits, and proposals right now, you just might be able to create a real live relationship with your customers.

None of the above will happen without planning and strategy. If you are spending a significant amount of money to attend a conference, why not spend some money to make sure you get a return on the expense, effort and travel? If your marketing team doesn’t have the time or know-how, finding a partner to help execute may be worth the additional dollars. Don’t arrive home from another conference wondering why you bothered spending the money on it. Do something about it to drive the results you seek.

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