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Is social media hurting face to face meetings?

As we all know, there is more and more top-notch information being shared online, especially through all of the social networks. Twitter seems to be the hottest for now and the number of links to good, and not-so-good, information I receive on a daily basis is overwhelming. Social Networks now give us almost instant access to many of the experts that we used to have to attend face to face meetings to hear speak. Is this good or bad or both for associations?

My experience at the face to face meetings I have attended most recently is as follows—great networking, lots of good people to meet and connect with but the content was just average. A lot of the presentations were people talking about things I had already heard, or read before, poorly hidden sales pitches or just “performers” up on stage keeping the audience entertained but not really providing much value. Overall the education did not make it worth my time and money to attend. Fortunately the networking did.

Has the purpose of having face to face meetings changed? Should they be all about “entertainment” and networking? Or do associations need to do a better job of really getting fantastic speakers who share information you cannot get online or at almost any other meeting? Since many associations derive a good amount of revenue from face to face meetings I think this is something we need to figure out sooner rather than later. What do you think?

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Comments

Scott -
Thanks for a really interesting post. I have found, for the most part, that as I become a repeat attendee, it is almost always true that the value of the content declines as the value of the networking increases (there's some name for this phenomenon in economics, I'm sure). That's not to say that I don't find nuggets here and there that are valuable - but I tend to find them more in the dialogue that takes place during or at the end of a session or in the hallway afterward. For me, I see two ways that speakers bring value: 1) by facilitating/leading discussion that interested individuals engage in and 2) (and this is more applicable to the "star" speakers) by customizing the content of their presentation to the audience - presumably something I would not get from their book, writing, celebrity, etc. Information is a commodity, but the specific knowledge you can gain on a one-to-one basis is not. I think associations need to think about their meetings as opportunities to serve members as knowledge brokers... they provide the space, they bring in the "right people" (and I am always looking to make sure the "right people" are going to the meetings I go to), they facilitate. For instance, one tactic I used in a prior position was to market the list of organizations registered for the meeting (not individuals, just companies) to show who would be "in the room." And it helped. If nothing else, it helped some make the case that they needed to be there. For some, seeing that their competitors were coming was enough. For others, they wanted to hear from and be associated with the prestigious institutions who had already registered.

But with this focus on networking, it can be difficult to demonstrate broad, tangible outcomes that apply to every attendee. When networking is your focus, how do you sell it to those who need to demonstrate value in order to register? I don't think networking and continuing ed are mutually exclusive, so this is where I think a diverse set of offerings is important.

Scott~
You ask if social media is hurting face-to-face meetings, and I feel that the answer is "no." Social media can be supportive of, and even fuel the desire for, meeting in person. Online networking creates anticipation for meeting people face-to-face - perhaps someone you have come to admire from reading their tweets or blog posts; or someone with whom you have enjoyed healthy and challenging discussions online. Social media also adds value to the connections you make in person by being a convenient medium for staying in touch, maintaining the relationship on a regular basis instead of seeing it fade into the past.

While connecting online is a great substitute when you can not physically meet, nothing replaces the personable handshake and smile of a respected colleague.

It's a great question Scott, and one that I think we might want to reframe as, "what's the impact of social media on face-to-face meetings?" It's a question that likely has lots of answers depending on the nature of the meeting and those who attend it. And lots of folks seem to be experimenting with how both can mutually reinforce the value of the other.

I am beginning to get a tad concerned about the digital divide that the great social media options at conferences can create. I think we have to be careful to not inappropriately bias a conference's value toward those involved in its various social media options. Put more bluntly: if folks have to follow the Twitter feed to access some of the best info, we'll lose some desirable attendees, I think.

We're going to need to mine and harvest the Twitter feed and other technologies being used, extract some of the insights and value, and then repurpose that into other formats (i.e. conference dailies, etc.) much as we have done with listserver conversations becoming newsletter and magazine content.

Kristi makes a great point about being able to assess the value of networking, which everyone agrees is one of the key benefits of face-to-face meetings, but no one knows how to quantify. This is an area that needs to be explored. Research, anyone?

Scott, I think all too many meetings tend to fall into a rut of getting the same speakers to talk about the same topics year after year. It's a tough balance, because there will always be new folks who need that info, but for repeat offenders, it makes the education seem stale. I don't think that's a social media thing, though. Just laziness in programming.

It would be interesting to see more associations use social media to expand their education, or to fine-tune it so even jaded repeat attendees will find something new and interesting outside of those hallway conversations (or, as happens more often these days, those backchannel tweets). Social media can add richness and value to a live event, but someone on the association side has to be paying attention to it, managing the association's response to it, and all that jazz.

I can see in the not-too-distant future that "social media director" will be as common on the staff listings as conference planner. Hopefully the two will work hand in hand when that time comes.

This last spam comment (from "Shortcuts to Internet Millions" in case it gets removed immediately) was hilarious and a great example of what I still distrust a bit for how the Internet's ongoing progression is affecting how we access and process information and initiate contacts.

In addition to Sue's point regarding lazy programming, we are also becoming lazy readers and learners over time, preferring a constant stream of lower-valued and sometimes self-generated content to the potentially longer and more thoughtful input from experts with more added value.

I was interviewing an electrical industry exec yesterday who was perhaps in his 60s now but he said "I don't read anything in print. I don't waste time learning about anything that might come in handy down the road. I focus on getting what I need today and nothing else." Admirable sentiment, but if overextended (and followed exclusively by, say, young professionals, it undermines the value of thoughtful/credible editorial content, presentations on foundational issues, preparing for a new position, and homework in general that supports the NEXT need rather than the one you have right now ...

BTW I still feel we attribute a strong halo effect FROM social media into our events and related networking, when it seems causation generally runs the other way; I'll meet someone in person at an event then become interested in staying in touch with them through social media--but I rarely find that Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter serve as the lead-in for a relationship: call me old fashioned but the attempts I encounter from others trying to push a new relationship initiated by those media feel either aggressive or furtive ...

The only exception might be blogs (or the older listservs). However these feel more like centralized media outlets to me--there are only a few I will follow, and fewer postings I read closely enough and value to want to contact and get to know the author in person at a conference or via phone, email or social media. I know in lieu of systematic research we all "extrapolate from a sample of one," but I will always find meetings valuable--even the ones that I spend in the hallway or a hotel bar as a refugee from the formal programming and/or driven by personal contacts!

Is social media hurting face2face events? Absolutely not! Contrary to popular belief, social networking sites tend to augment, rather than replace, offline interactions. One of the reasons why social media sites are so successful is their focus on supporting offline networks over online-only relationships.

Is it a good or bad thing that social media has provided access to experts? It's a good thing and there is no way it impacts the content of the meeting. Since when did access to information, education, or experts become a bad thing, even for meetings?

Has the purpose of face to face meetings changed? Depends. What was the original goal of the meeting anyway?

If the education content of the meeting is poor, that's the meeting planner's fault and ultimately the executive director for allowing poor speakers. As a Director of Education and Events for a nonprofit, it is my job to make sure the content is stellar to provide the best attendee experience for a range of attendees from beginners to novices to veterans. Mix the right speakers and sessions with some structured facilitated peer learning, ample opportunity for attendee-generated peer to peer learning because some of the best learning takes place informally in the hallways and around meals, and networking, and you've got the recipe for a successful meeting. This requires intentional and strategic planning on the part of the conference planners.

For me, social media provides the opportunity to extend the education and meeting experience. We use it to promote the event and engage the attendee with the speakers before, during and after the event through sharing content on blogs, in webinars, in online radio shows. It becomes an integrated experience starting with virtual to face to face to virtual again. It works and our attendees love it.

In his final paragraph Jeff Hurt hits on what I think we need to consider further: " ... social media provides the opportunity to extend the education and meeting experience."

What are the implications (good and bad) of extending an event and experience to/for people, many of who already see themselves as severely over-extended?

I generally like the opportunity to engage more before and after an event, but as Kevin Whorton noted in his post, some professionals are being laser-like in what they look to take from a learning opportunity and the more we offer, the more they may have to sort through. It can all seem like noise until they have the time(or we make it easy) for them tot une in the "station" they have been seeking.

I really appreciate Jeffrey's point about being overextended. On the one hand, I've personally gotten a lot of benefit out of pre-, during-, and post-conference discussions through various forms of social media. On the other hand, I can only participate meaningfully in so many online communities; past a certain point something has to give. And without sufficient participation, the online discussion around a conference won't have great value, since its value comes from participants--it can be a vicious cycle.

I guess social media is no different from a face-to-face meeting in the sense that we have to think about and establish what its value should be for participants, and work to facilitate and communicate that value proposition. The value may be created somewhat differently, but the importance of knowing what the real value proposition is and focusing on it remains the same.

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