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Create and Connect Your Community with Social Media

Traci Browne explains how participating in a community is a wonderful way for customers and exhibitors to get to know each other year round, not just at a three-day event.
This chapter is from the book

I know this because I am one of those buyers at shows. I produce independent, for-profit conferences and trade shows. As a buyer of show services and booker of venues, I attend at least four meetings, industry conferences, or trade shows each year. Like any buyer, I am there to network, find out what’s new, and get answers to my specific questions from vendors. I also attend and speak at Exhibitor Media Group’s EXHIBITOR as an influencer to learn the current issues of my customers.

Up until 2010, these shows were very lonely events. I would meet other attendees from year to year but never really had the time or the ability to stay in touch. The only vendors I really knew were the ones I had used in the past. I would do my research before the trade show and make a list of vendors I wanted to see on the show floor. There was my A list of must-see vendors, and then a B list of those who looked interesting and might have something to benefit me. If I had time left over, I would wander around and perhaps stumble on something interesting.

In the weeks leading up to the event, I would receive hundreds of postcards and emails. Most were promoting exhibitors’ give aways, so I really didn’t connect with what they were actually selling or what solutions they were providing. But more importantly, they were not connecting with me as an individual. I was receiving the same solicitation thousands of other attendees were receiving. What was lacking was a rich, personalized experience.

Upon arrival, I would check into my hotel and get ready for the opening reception. Because I do not have an easily recognizable Fortune 500 logo on my business card, I don’t have vendors flocking to me. I am exactly like many of the potential customers at your shows who fly below the radar. We are customers who have healthy budgets but who do not appear on exhibitors’ wish lists because they may not have heard of our companies. I would arrive at the opening reception and navigate the sea of strangers, desperately hoping that the next person I introduced myself to would be somewhat interesting. After about half an hour, I would head back to my room bored.

The next day, when the show floor opened, I would make my rounds with list in hand. It was very methodical and all business. I would attend a few educational sessions, go to the dinners, pack up, and go home. And then I would forget about it until the next year rolled around. Yes, I may have discovered some interesting products or venues, but there was no personal connection made. Nothing to entice me to purchase from any one exhibitor over another, other than a comparison of features and benefits. Even in a business-to-business transaction, people still buy from people—and you cannot build a relationship in a 5- or 10-minute booth visit.

Late in 2009, I discovered Twitter. I was skeptical at first because it seemed like a waste of time. I, like many others, wondered what business benefit was to be gained by people tweeting about what they had for lunch. But friends encouraged me to give it a go, so I did. I stumbled on a small group of event planners who showed me how I could meet and follow along with other event professionals through weekly chats. This group used Twitter to exchange relevant information among the larger community.

This turned out to be a very active community with members who are passionate about events and event innovation. It is made up of event and meeting planners as well as vendors who supply products and services to the industry and members of the media. When a community member comes across an interesting article online, he tweets a link out to the group under the #eventprofs hashtag. Those who have their own blogs tweet links to their most recent posts. Other members retweet (Twitter’s way of allowing users to share information they see with their followers) the links, giving the original article a much wider audience. After I joined, I learned more in that first month than I had learned in the past year by reading all the information that was being shared.

This particular group also holds bi-weekly tweet chats for members of the community to discuss a particular topic for about an hour. Topics range from selecting a venue, event design, trade show best practices, and brain-friendly learning to creating a thorough risk plan. Mixed in with the abundance of great advice being given is plenty of friendly banter. In no time, I felt like I was getting to know this group of strangers.

I was meeting not only other event planners like myself, but also a lot of vendors. I have been exposed to vendors through this channel I would never have taken notice of otherwise. I was noticing them because of the valuable information they provided, either created by them or forwarded from other sources. They were proving how much they really knew about the industry they served. I could ask a question and within hours I’d have 10–20 members of my community either offering an answer or pointing me to someone who could help.

Many of the vendors in the community, as you can imagine, are competitors. The smart ones embrace one another as part of the community, and it’s not unusual to see them joking with one another online. It does not go unnoticed how they conduct themselves. It provides a lot of insight as to what it would be like to work with them as vendors.

But there are those who don’t get it. All they do is constantly push information about their company onto the community. They interrupt the conversations taking place with self-promotion. Self-promotion is not bad in itself—it’s expected that people are there to promote themselves. It’s just good to follow the 80/20 rule. Talk about others 80 percent of the time and talk about yourself 20 percent of the time. Those who do not add value to the conversation but only talk about themselves earn a bad reputation.

Eventually these conversations I was having on Twitter spawned phone and email conversations with people I particularly connected with. As relationships grew with some of the vendors, I began to recommend them to others or hire them myself. I trusted their opinions from what I learned about them through all these conversations. I felt very comfortable making referrals on behalf of these community members.

But What About Face-to-Face Connections?

Soon just talking online was not enough for this group, and a conference was spawned called EventCamp. People wanted a forum to meet in person and expand on some of the new and innovative ideas we were talking about online. What is important to point out here is that the community goes by the name eventprofs. There is no delineation between suppliers and planners. Every member is valued because of what he brings to the table. You are not an eventprof planner or an eventprof supplier. You are an eventprof.

The feeling I had when I arrived at this first EventCamp was amazing. I checked in to the hotel, dropped my bags in my room, and rushed down to the bar where everyone was gathering that night. People had arrived the day before just so they could spend more time together. I met people for the first time, but it felt like they were old friends. I actually looked forward to meeting many of the vendors in person and learning more about their products and services. I was not alone in this transformation. Everyone who had gathered there credited their involvement in social media with this sense of community.

The conversations taking place on social media for months prior to the event had already broken the ice. Now attendees were free to spend their time building stronger business relationships. Vendors didn’t have to rely on a quick sales pitch. They already had the attention of their potential customers and those customers were ready and willing to listen.

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