Using the Web and Social Media to Create More Effective Events

When two hundred journalists got together recently for an “un-conference” on the future of journalism, it was hardly surprising that the results were documented, minute by minute, through notes, wikis, photos, audio, video, blogs and an amazing number of tweets.

The organizers approached me to develop a web site to aggregate these posts in real-time before, during and after the event. In the process, I learned how such a site can reinforce the development of community.

I’m sure that you’ve been to events where good ideas are hatched and projects are planned, but often, despite the best of intentions, activity loses steam after the event is over, and nothing much gets done. It’s too early yet to judge the long-term effectiveness of this particular event, but I’m optimistic that it will make more of a difference than many such gatherings.

The electronic component of the event was relatively simple. We created a content-managed web site that would act as the hub for the many places that participants would post their contributions and reflections. We didn’t require participants to use a specific CMS tool (although they were welcome to use ours). Instead, before, during and after the conference, participants were encouraged to use existing technologies with which they were familiar to document their thoughts, and we then created links to their contributions.

Before the Event

The web site went live a couple of weeks before the event began. By that time, event announcements and registration had already been posted to a section on the sponsoring organization’s web site. Participants had been asked to interview another attendee as a “get-to-know-you” exercise. The results were to have been posted, but very few did so — I suspect because the CMS used by the sponsoring organization has a significant learning curve.

In the future, I would recommend creating the event-specific web site much sooner, and using a simpler CMS-, group-blog, social-network or wiki-based system for posting pre-event discussions and comments.

During the Event

The venue at our local university had limited wired connectivity, but it was sufficient for a video stream, an audio stream, and the web updates that I was doing. The video stream worked fine; the audio stream was less successful because the university had blocked the ports we needed. For the same reason, we had to use a MiFi connection to use FTP. Thankfully, this did not affect access to our CMS.

Participants were able to connect using Wi-Fi, which worked well, aside from some issues with entering passwords. I’m guessing that perhaps fifty people were connected at any one time.

The event web site included the following, all of which was updated frequently:

  • An attendee list, with links to participants’ web sites and Twitter feeds.
  • The event agenda. Since the event was an “un-conference” using the “open space” approach, much of the agenda was developed on the spot by attendees.
  • A Twitter statuses JavaScript badge showing posts from the event. These tweets were mostly done by me on behalf of event organizers, but other committee members also tweeted through the conference account.
  • A Twitter search widget showing a real-time feed of all posts using the conference hashtag. A full-screen version of this widget was projected in the room where most discussions took place, and it proved very popular.
  • A link to a Twapperkeeper archive of the Twitter hashtag feed.
  • A Facebook fan box linking to the event’s Facebook page.
  • A Flickr badge and links to tagged photos and videos. Flipcharts and graphs were scanned or photographed, then posted to Flickr and to the web site as JPGs and PDFs. We also put up a Picasa link at the request of attendees, but it didn’t get used.
  • A Ustream video feed. Video of many sessions was fed live into the site, then archived.
  • A link to YouTube search results tagged with the event’s tag.
  • An audio feed. Podcasts of many sessions were made available later.
  • Links to blogs of those attendees who were writing about the event.
  • A wiki for allowing attendees to post notes from event sessions. We chose to use a wiki rather than giving all users access to the CMS, although I think that in future we might go the other way, as some found editing the wiki difficult.
  • An RSS feed for tracking changes to all of the above.

After the Event

We had not created a LinkedIn group before the event. However, participants indicated that they wanted to have an electronic venue for continuing the discussion after the conference. We surveyed the room, and discovered that almost everyone was already a LinkedIn user. Since LinkedIn groups and subgroups can be created immediately, we chose to use that service. We could have selected another group conversation service, though, and participants may move to more sophisticated collaborative tools as their discussions continue.

Planning and Setup

If you are ever called upon to provide this sort of support to an event, it can be fun and educational. Here are some tips to make things go smoothly.

  • Get involved with the planning committee as soon as possible, and get an event-specific web site posted early.
  • Agree on the hashtag for the event, and publicize it.
  • Coordinate with the meeting venue to make sure that it has adequate power and bandwidth (both wired and Wi-Fi), and that it does not block ports.
  • Plan to bring your own equipment if possible, or make sure that you have everything you’ll need.
  • Set up a “tech table” in a convenient location.
  • Have a group of volunteers who can cover the full event.
  • Give yourself lots of time for setup and breakdown.
  • Have a dedicated laptop and projector for displaying the Twitter hashtag feed — participants will love it.
  • Consider what you’ll need in the way of cameras, scanners and printers. We had them all, and they were handy to have, but we could probably have done without them.

I found that attendees’ blogging, tweeting, recording and instant posting about the event reinforced what they were thinking and learning. Thus, the effectiveness of the event was increased, along with the potential for new learning and insights to cause change in the wider world.

How do you use social media and the web for events?

Images by Flickr users Choconancy1 and hajush