When the National Speakers Association (NSA) considered social networking platforms to enhance their 2009 Convention, they compared private and public options. Platform features, cost and attendee preferences were among the top considerations.
The main goal for NSA was to build community. “Community is a huge part of our organization. We look for ways to learn from each other and connect. [A social network] was a way for our attendees to learn who was coming to the conference in advance and get to know people ahead of time,” says Cara Tracy, director of professional development for the Tempe, AZ-based organization.
The private platform that NSA reviewed was full-featured but relatively expensive (fees were based on the number of anticipated users). Because the organization had never used a social networking platform for a meeting before, it was difficult to predict usage.
The NSA compared the features and costs of the private platform under consideration to Facebook, a public platform with fewer event-centric features but free to use for the association, its members and conference attendees.
Facebook carried with it the added advantage that many NSA members and conference attendees were already on Facebook and would likely continue to use the platform long after the conference concluded (unlike the private platform that would eventually expire).
NSA’s IT department set up a Facebook group called “National Speakers Association 2009 Convention Attendees” several months in advance of the convention. 387 people joined the group. The convention was held in Phoenix from July 18-21. The most recent post on Facebook was August 22, 2009.
“People were using the Facebook group for things we hadn’t anticipated like calling for volunteers or searching for room mates,” Tracy says. Although NSA didn’t establish any goals for usage in advance, they were pleased with the outcome and plan to establish a group for the 2010 convention as well.
NSA also set up an “event” in LinkedIn asking attendees to RSVP for the convention even though formal registration was still required. “We used LinkedIn to get an idea of how many people were planning to attend the conference. It also gave us a way to communicate with those that responded on LinkedIn but didn’t actually attend. We think our members sometimes tune out email. This is another way to reach them,” Tracy explains.
For more immediate communication with attendees, NSA set up a Twitter hash tag as a way to communicate updates and reminders before, during and after the conference (for example, “the early bird registration deadline is coming up,” book your hotel rooms now,” “wear your name tags to the opening reception,” “the bus is leaving from the ballroom foyer” and “don’t forget to complete your evaluations”).
The Takeaway: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other public platforms are ways for associations and other non-profit groups to become acquainted with social networking at low cost (the manpower for setting up and monitoring the groups should be considered as a cost) and relatively low risk. Although private platforms provide many more benefits, for some associations such as NSA, the value proposition isn’t as solid as private platform providers would like it to be. It may be that once sponsorship opportunities proliferate on private social networking platforms and become low cost revenue streams for event organizers, that the return on investment of private platforms will become obvious and the adoption rate for more budget-conscious associations will accelerate.