Climbing the Social (Media) Ladder

Social media has left its place at the lowest end of the ladder and moved up a few rungs—having a comprehensive digital networking strategy is no longer just an idea event planners are flirting with, it is now a valuable and central part of the tradeshow and exhibition industry tool kit. Reaching core bases of attendees through social platforms provides not only brand extension by way of year-round engagement, it enables key exhibiting clients to reach their most coveted and valuable audiences.

Enter social media, a communication medium that the International Association of Exhibitions and Events called “the most rapid innovation to overtake the exhibitions and events industry ever.” Rapid it is, and with the proliferation of so many new avenues for digital networking, idea exchanges and community connections, event planners can no longer afford to ignore its market dominance.

Online community marketing and interaction has shown itself to be an important and inexpensive tool in generating not only awareness of tradeshows and events, but increasing revenue.

Here, three different event stakeholders—UBM Built Environment, the New York Business Conference and Expo, and The Wedding Salon—weigh in on the best practices involved in climbing the social media ladder.

UBM Built Environment
UBM Built Environment is UBM’s specialist media division focusing on the construction, architecture, interiors and commercial property industries. The company produces a variety of events, including Decorex International, INTERIORS UK and Ecobuild China, just to name a few. To help reach its audience and boost stakeholder ROI, the company looks to build a robust social media following and outreach.

“Social media forms part of a wider digital strategy that we have,” says Liz Stanley, digital community manager for UBM Built Environment. “Our social media strategy is to use collaborative social platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook to grow our audience by reaching new users, increasing engagement and driving conversion. That’s what social media is all about for any event business—the end conversion of someone who is thinking about attending an event to becoming an attendee on site.”

In 2011, UBM Built Environment’s Decorex event executed a campaign that was nominated as a finalist in the “Best Use of Social Media” category of the UK’s Association of Event Organizer’s (AEO) Excellence Awards 2012.

According to Stanley, the 12-week campaign ran in the form of a social media competition to find the best UK design blogger. Entitled “Decorex Loves Bloggers,” it was created to target the design community gathered around blogs, Facebook and Twitter. The prize for participants was to become the official Decorex blogger, receive backstage event access and blog live from the show. Nearly 20 percent of the event’s Web traffic was driven through social media during the campaign. Twitter followers increased by 117 percent and Facebook fans by 230 percent. There were 2,292 social media mentions and 109 by bloggers.

The big bump in activity, says Stanley, was the result of a focused plan. Strategy, she adds, depends “on the market and who the audience is. You have to tailor the content for each individual audience because they differ per platform,” she says. “In our market, (the subjects of) sustainability, architecture and interiors get the highest levels of engagement across the board. These people are very engaged and passionate about what they do and are in markets that are open to social media interaction in comparison to, say, traditional markets focused on property or construction or something else.”

LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are currently the biggest event drivers for UBM Built Environment’s portfolio. Each of the events has its own dedicated pages to cater to the needs of each unique audience. The social pages each heavily promote their specific events.

Decorex’s Facebook page, for example, prominently features information about the event. The page’s cover photo has the date and location of the event along with the question, “Are you visiting DECOREX this September?” and an arrow pointing directly to a “Visit DECOREX” tab that will then lead individuals to a designated registration landing page.

Blog posts and photos from exhibitors, information about the event’s iPhone app with links to iTunes, and industry information is pushed out on the event’s timeline to its almost 4,000 fans. Similarly, the show tweets information to its 7,000 followers.

“Our more traditional or discussion-heavy events see LinkedIn driving the most traffic. We see different levels of conversion—we may be getting less traffic from LinkedIn, but the percentage of conversion coming from LinkedIn and landing on the initial registration may be much higher than from somewhere like Twitter,” adds Stanley.

Pinterest, while a growing platform, is a bit more unfamiliar to event planners of all industries. For UBM Built Environment, its Decorex event has its own Pinterest page with almost 300 followers.

The Wedding Salon
Since women are more active in social media than men are, different networking platforms have been a key touch point for the b-to-c bridal show The Wedding Salon.

“Brides are a very targeted niche and the main difference between wedding shows and other shows is we have to find a new customer base every single year, where a consumer electronics show will have a huge repeating customer base, so it’s always challenging to market to the bride,” says Tatiana Byron, producer of The Wedding Salon, a high-end bridal expo with multiple shows.

The Wedding Salon has three shows a year in New York and annual events in Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. Representatives say the shows each average around the same number of attendees and exhibitors—about 1,000 brides come to each event to see the 100 vendors on the 10,000-square-foot show floors. In total, there are more than 8,500 Facebook fans and 18,500 Twitter followers.

“We are very aggressive in utilizing social media because the bride is around 27 years old and she’s online,” says Byron. “We use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. We run a lot of raffles, contests and promotions, and we’re very active in trying to reach the bride where she lives.”

In order to gain traction and attendance for their events, and to connect with attendees on a deeper level, Byron and her team have used social outreach to engage not just the bride, but also the people around her. The Wedding Salon’s Twitter account, for example, sends out messages like, “Not a bride? Be the best dressed wedding guest,” with links to articles and tips for dressing for someone else’s wedding. Raising awareness among this demographic is equally important because when a bride attends an event, she generally brings parents and friends.

“I believe social media is very important for us,” says Byron. “Our bride is on Facebook, she’s on Twitter and Pinterest has become a huge thing for us. A lot of our brides are creating inspiration boards for their weddings. Social media is a great way for us to communicate with our brides and vendors consistently without being intrusive.”

The Wedding Salon has 14 Pinterest boards around topics that range from Celebrity Inspiration to DIY wedding tips. There are about 600 Pinterest followers that re-pin the images onto their own boards that are then pushed out.

“With Pinterest, our strategy is to create inspirations with gowns, cakes and table decor, and utilize images from our shows as well as images our clients like to give us,” she says. “We post our clients’ work from our shows or any of the events that they’ve participated in. Brides can look at that and say, ‘Wow, this is what I want for my wedding, let me pin this and then show it to all of my friends.’”

The New York Business Conference and Expo
Having a presence on established social platforms is key, but building your own social network that is specifically geared toward an event is also a highly effective way to engage attendees and please exhibitors.

“In our neck of the woods, we cater to an overall demographic of small and medium-sized businesses from an assortment of different industries, backgrounds, platforms and educational environments,” says Devin H. Cleary, senior vice president of Event Management LLC, which produces the New York Business Conference and Expo. “One of the challenges we face is really creating a custom experience for each person walking through the door—the sponsor, exhibitor or attendee.”

In order to help its various demographic groups optimize the event experience, Cleary’s show has developed its own custom social networking platform that is designed to court not just attendees looking to make connections, but exhibitors and sponsors looking to reach those groups as well.

“The whole concept is focus and filter,” says Cleary. “Attendee ROI is the foundation of any successful event—if the attendee is getting what they need out of the program they will be more engaged with sponsors and exhibitors, and they’ll have a better experience and write more positive comments and tweet more positive things, ultimately creating a better overall impression of the show.”

For the first half of 2012, Cleary’s event worked with ConnectFu, an event social network developer, to build the NY-XPO social network. The 10 educational areas that are the focus of the event were integrated into the social platform through the creation of 10 micropages. When attendees register, they’re asked questions about why they are attending the event—from there, the data is filtered to deliver a custom social experience. Once online registration is complete, attendees are immediately redirected to their specific NY-XPO social networking site.

“If they answer they’re most interested in sales, we’ll dump them into the sales page,” says Cleary. “In the ‘Who Is There’ section of the site, it will show every person that is coming to the event that said their goal is to learn more about sales. We identify a common interest, and we also list exhibitors to visit—those that offer products or services that are relative to sales. We also list the seminars we offer that help create sales growth. We’re creating the filter and focus—focusing on one theme, and filtering out content that is not necessarily showing them what they care about. This way, we’re taking a large-and-in-charge conference and bringing it down to a level that feels customized.”

In addition to showing attendees with similar interests and exhibitors targeted to a niche, resources and special offers are also integrated into the social platform, as well as a list of relevant on-site educational sessions that attendees can use to create a custom agenda. The event’s Twitter feed is integrated into the page, along with widgets for its other social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn. When siloed into a specific micropage, attendees can also have group discussions through a chat-posting feature.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the attendees,” says Cleary. “Everyone will create their own profile, showing their titles, company names, what they’re responsible for and what their interests are. Keywords are available that attendees can select from to help identify common interests, in addition to searching based on criteria. Filtering and focusing is what we’re really trying to get across. At the end of the day, you can’t meet every person walking through the show, so this software allows you to connect.”