“Attendees as Mass Marketers” by Michael C. Lowe, Meetings & Conventions

Not too long ago, event designers and their clients had to rely on traditional press to get the word out. “Whichever reporter showed up would be the eyes and ears for the rest of the public, and that was pretty much it,” says Cara Kleinhaut, left, owner and founder of Los Angeles-based Caravents. “Now with social media, every attendee is a reporter. It’s like this big megaphone all of your attendees can use to shout about your event.”

Encouraging attendees to share via their electronic communities is an effective and low-cost way for planners to extend an event’s reach. “When your attendees engage on social media, they’re broadcasting what’s happening to an audience within their circle of friends and associates that you may not have been able to reach before,” says Liz King, founder of New York-based Liz King Events. “Anyone who wants to grow their event has to reach more people, but organizers don’t have the same reach as their 250 or 1,000 attendees do through social media.”

When executed correctly, photos, videos and other posts from an event can make long-lasting waves through channels like Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, LinkedIn and the like. And a growing number of meeting planners are making it a priority to harness that power.

“When designing events, I make sure there are four or five touch points on the floor that will encourage sharing,” says Kleinhaut. These points, places that draw people, can take the form of a dramatic décor creation, a fun photo booth or a decked-out food or beverage station. As Kleinhaut notes, “The trick is to make it enticing — and easy — for attendees to share.”

Start Early

Inviting the use of social media well in advance is critical.

•  Email basics. For her popular PlannerTech conferences, King alerts attendees months earlier via email that the event will be active on Twitter, and to encourage even the most nascent social media users to participate, she sends a link with instructions on how to use the platform. “People aren’t social media experts yet,” notes King. “If you want them to be active, sometimes you have to walk them through it.”

•  Set the hashtag. King’s initial emails and invitations also establish the event’s hashtag, used to identify tweets on a specific topic relating to the event. Determining the hashtag early and displaying it often is a subtle way to remind attendees there will be an active social media presence at the gathering, but it also tells them to use it when posting on their own social media channels once they’re on-site. Hashtagged posts are trackable and will provide valuable analytics that can determine an event’s online reach, says Kleinhaut. (For help with analytics, “Measuring Engagement,” left.)

•  Seed the conversation. The city of Long Beach, Calif., harnessed the power of a hashtag for an event debuting the new Pacific Ballroom at the Long Beach Arena; “#sightsoundlbc” was introduced with the initial invitations. “We seeded out that hashtag very early,” says Lindsay Fultz, president of Los Angeles-based Middle Child New Media, who developed the event’s social media strategy. “From that point on, every post, every email and every piece of direct mail included it. It told people that there was a conversation taking place online, and that they could be a part of it.”

The five-hour event saw nearly 800 hashtagged tweets garnering an impressive 6.4 million impressions, in addition to more than 440 Instagram photos and videos.

Measuring Engagement

The success of a social media amplification strategy is determined by the amount of posts, impressions and engagement. Here are a few low-budget tools that can help track the buzz being built online.

Hashtracking (hashtracking.com) allows users to track how many times a hashtag has been tweeted and by how many contributors, and helps identify the most influential hashtag users. A 30-day free trial version is available; paid options begin at $29 per month.

Keyhole (keyhole.com) is a more expansive tracking system that allows users to track a keyword, hashtag or URL across Twitter, Instragram and Facebook in real time. It measures the number of posts, users and impressions for each search term, and pinpoints the most influential contributors, locations where the posts are originating, and a demographic breakdown. Package prices start at $49 per month.

Facebook Insights (free via Facebook) analyzes key metrics from an organization’s Facebook page, such as the number of unique people who have seen any content associated with a page (known as “reach”), the number of unique people who have liked, commented on or shared your posts during the past seven days, and the number of total page likes.

Statigram (statigram.com) is employed by more than four million Instagram users. This free tool lets them measure their Instagram likes, comments and engagement. The service also can determine what time of day to post to receive the best responses from followers.

Spreading the Word Through Contests

The Specialty Food Association recently rebranded with the theme of “Specialty Food: Craft. Care. Joy.” Organizers wanted to raise awareness for the new brand while drumming up buzz for the upcoming annual meeting.

“The goal was to get their members to not only be aware of the new slogan, but to engage,” says David Haas, director of digital solutions with FreemanXP. Haas and his team created a contest that would get members involved and help spread the word.

First, FreemanXP looked at social engagement on the SFA’s social media channels and determined that Facebook had the most activity. A Facebook contest was created using the social media marketing software Wildfire, a division of Google. “Facebook has a ton of rules and regulations that can shut a contest down,” says Haas. “Wildfire helped us build the contest easily while adhering to all of the guidelines.”

Participants were tasked with sharing their passion for food and describing how that aligns with the SFA’s tenants of craft, care and joy in one paragraph, “no more, no less,” says Haas. “We kept it simple to encourage participation.” The team debated requiring a photo, but simplicity was the priority, says Haas. “Plus, about 95 percent of the entries had photos anyway.”

The field would be narrowed down to 10 finalists based on votes received on the Facebook page, and a panel of marketing experts would determine the winner, who would receive an ad in the Specialty Food national ad campaign and a three-day trip to San Francisco for the campaign photo shoot. “Most of our members are small mom-and-pop type shops, so this is a huge carrot out there for them,” says Haas.

Organizers hoped for 100 entries and got 375, which, over the course of the 30-day contest, received more than 70,000 votes.

“Many of the contestants really aggressively marketed their entries to friends and families,” spreading the association’s new branding and building buzz before the show, says Haas. “You’ve got this audience out there that can tie you to others like them. Why would you not want to leverage that?”