Thursday, August 21, 2008

Social Media Case Study: Creating a Buzz without Delivering

Many of us are experimenting with social media, so I believe it's important to discuss when an effort doesn't deliver. Especially when the effort intentionally engages association execs and bloggers. How else are we going to learn?

Case Study: Apparently ASAE authorized the creation of an "ASAE Secret Session" (coordinated by social media staff in a national association) to be held during its San Diego conference to show how well word of mouth marketing can work with social media. I'm assuming authorized because the Facebook site used the term ASAE in the name, the conference logo, meeting space authorized at a headquarters location, and noted on the ASAE blog.

Other association bloggers were asked to join the Facebook group and to promote the "secret session" through their own social media networks. And did. The hook: the session was held out by the organizer to include a debate among "two way high profile speakers which I have the honor of moderating." But their names weren't disclosed. Naturally, using the term "way high profile speakers" creates both an expectation and a buzz. A big buzz.

I had planned to attend the ASAE conference and the "secret session." I joined the Facebook group and considered asking on a discussion board if they are serious about "way" big name speakers, but didn't. Part of my problem with social media is there's this ongoing thing where it's supposed to be essential to be "honest" and yet there's "tongue in cheek" stuff that really colors way outside the lines of what would otherwise not pass a straight face test (and I could give you another great example of it but already slammed for it in the past). So I've lost my barometer in being able to tell if what is said in social media is authentic - because in the social media world authentic does not have to mean literal - or even anything close to literal.

Because I needed to cancel attending, I watched in anticipation from my couch at home as the "buzz" unfolded. ASAE routinely hires big name speakers for its conferences - including celebrities. So who would it be? Over 270 had joined the Facebook group waiting for the big announcement. Some even asked if it would be taped so those not attending could be sure to get the info.

The big day arrives, and so does this message: "Well today is the day for the secret session and there is definitely a huge buzz going around which is great (mission accomplished). Since many people do have conflicts and are trying to decide which event to attend, I figured it's about time I spilled the beans and gave some more details. As you've probably guessed, the whole idea of not disclosing details was more of a marketing experiment than anything else. Well both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both send their regrets ;-) but luckily our very own [names] have volunteered to take the stand .... p.s. I’ve cancelled the additional security detail ;-) "

What else happens in social media? Nothing. One blogger posted a picture, but appears the organizer and the conference bloggers who had promoted it (that I'm aware of anyway) didn't post any details or takeaways of the debate (granted, they may not have attended as the "secret" speakers were available in other sessions). [*See note at bottom.] The Facebook group (with its hundreds of joiners) sits silent with absolutely no update about "what happened" from anyone there - including no response to someone directly asking. Wouldn't "a debate" seem to naturally fit into extending it to the online space too?

Points to consider:

1. Say what you mean. The buzz was likely created due to the promise of "way high profile speakers" by an organization known for having celebrity speakers. Any organization can generate buzz by holding out the hint they have someone really big planning to show up. Especially if they have a reputation for big names. But what if the plan all along had been to use "one of our own" - is it okay to use social media this way - and to ask social media contacts to help do it? Is it supposed to happen next time too? Clearly the organizer heard what the buzz was saying loud and clear too or would not have needed to joke about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and security. Clearly "our own" speakers can be excellent too, but if that's what it is, say it that way.

2. Trust, then verify. I have a great deal of regard for ASAE, but frankly if anyone says they have a big name coming, want my help promoting it, and I'm the organizer I absolutely verify the info before allowing it to be marketed that way. We have an exhibitor who hires big name sports figures to sign autographs in his booth and likes to surprise attendees with who it is. There's a 0% chance I'm going to promote it unless I know the name in advance, even if no one else will know in advance. Associations should know what is going on at their own conferences, especially if attendees using their association brand, promotion outlets and meeting space.

3. Don't stop half way. If you bring a social media crowd together, like on Facebook, then don't stop at the end of the event marketing - even if it was just a marketing experiment. Someone could have spent 5 or 10 minutes doing a recap shortly after the event - but it's now many days later with nothing. If the point of social media is "the conversation", why just stop cold the second the marketing is over?

4. Experiment at your own peril. There should be a big label "don't try this at home". I'm not sure the members would be as forgiving of a social media experiment as association execs may be of their own colleagues. We can't just make big promises to prove something - especially to the members.

5. We're trying to sell social media as authentic. I still believe the masses in all industries don't take social media to be legitimate. When we use it for association purposes the potential should not be discounted that many who read it or participate may be trying out social media for the first time. Give them a complete experience - the before, during and after. Not just the before. And to go back to first point - why can't we mean what we say?

Social media has great marketing and organizational potential. But like other forms of communication, if you create a buzz, deliver the buzz.

* Note: Association Trends, a subscription-based publication recently reported on the event. Indicated nearly 100 attended and the audience voted their belief that social media is more likely just another tool than life-changing for organizations.


David Gammel said...

Good analysis and recommendations, Cindy.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis Cindy. I just stopped by the Facebook page today and was also surprised at the lack of commentary.

This marketing approach was not simple advertisements. It was the promise of ongoing conversation.

Thanks for driving home the opportunity lost in the follow up.

Trust once broken is frustrating.


Jay Karen said...

But...for those of us active in various social media/networking outlets, who really expected there to be a real ongoing conversation after this "secrect session"? I heard about it through ASAE's newly updated "Membership Directory." I was intrigued by this idea of a rogue session, simply because there had been nothing like this at any of the past 8 ASAE meetings I've been to. Creative. Intriguing. And honestly, I never saw a promise from the organizers that there would be conversation after the fact.

The best case scenario indeed is when conversation takes place and endures beyond the germinating event, like this "secret session." If there was an expectation to have a real community dialogue about the session after the fact (even though I missed it), that was indeed a mistake to officially promote that expectation or hope. Conversation will happen if the involved people feel conversation is needed.

Who says that social media tools can't be used just to garner interest in an event that has a shelf-life of 75 minutes? It got my attention, and I was there at 4:30 that day.

I think we should give the organizers credit for making an attempt at something different, even if it ultimately fell short of what they (or others) hoped for from a lifespan standpoint.

Very rare is the case when one session at a conference turns into a live, enduring conversation. And, I think that will be the case even with these great, new social media/networking tools. Conversations and communities, while they need some sort of infrastructure to stay alive, cannot be forced.

I never really had an expectation that a household name would be part of this secret session. My impression was that it was organized by someone not on the staff of ASAE, and there was probably no budget for the session.

And, finally, is there really no conversation about the "secret session" after the fact? What is it that we are doing right now? While we might not be having this dialogue on Facebook, I think the experiment has realized some success.

Unknown said...

Hi Cindy,

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts - lots of thought provoking stuff. I've posted a "debrief" on the Facebook group - was a little late in doing so I'm afraid.

I wanted to set the record straight. ASAE really had nothing to do with this. They didn't endorse it and in fact were resistant to it but were good enough to allow us to use an outside space. At the last min we switched locations as it was just too hot in the Amphitheatre and ASAE were gracious enough to accommodate us with just mins to spare.

So in fairness, they were really nothing to do with the secret session. In fact they should be credited in my opinion for allowing us to move ahead with this little experiment (albeit at arm’s length).

Thanks again for your comments, very valuable.

Anonymous said...

The secret session offered a lively juxtaposition between the abstract theoretical opportunities that social media offer and the practical realities that associations face in devoting resources to this new phenomenon. Like nearly everything else in life, it boils down to the question of how much time members have to engage in social media networking. An important related question is how can the association leverage its brand through this networking. Most associations have trouble getting their members to even surf their Web sites, even when they offer compelling content. The culprit: limited time for such activities. That's a big hurdle we must overcome and there are no easy answers.

Dennis D. McDonald said...

Al - you comment about time is a great one. It's always a question of time versus perceived value, for anything an association does.

With respect to social networking, associations need to decide whether they have a responsibility to support social networking among their members in some fashion. I think that's a reasonable question since association members are going to "network socially" online and offline no matter what an association does.

Maggie McGary said...

I personally had a very different take on the session's success.

I think it's important to realize that the term "big name" is subjective, as are people's expectations when they hear it. Certainly, to many people, "big name" is synonymous with Bill Gates or Barack Obama; to others, like me, the term is relative.

In the context of a session on associations and social media, Jeff De Cagna and Terrance Barkan ARE big names. Not to sound like a suck-up or anything, but I'm surely not the only one to whom it didn't even occur to be disappointed because the speakers were "only" De Cagna and Barkan. Maybe my opinion doesn't hold much water considering I wasn't even in San Diego; but then again, maybe the fact that I wasn't even present and still feel strongly enough about this this post to respond proves that it does matter.

I think it's worth considering the possibility that, just as there are going to have to be different metrics to measure the success of social media initiatives, maybe the traditional measure of a session's success doesn't necessarily apply to this session. At least as I interpret it, your disappointment with the session seems to hinge on the fact that there was no follow-up or ongoing conversation on the Facebook page and, therefore, the experiment was a failure. I don't see it that way at all; in fact, I think the session was a success in two important ways:

1) The fact that it happened at all was a testament to the power of social media, as was the fact that even though the session was moved at the last minute it still drew a very decent crowd.

2) Even if there wasn't the traditional "recap" back at the Facebook table, the conversation most certainly didn't stop the second the marketing was over. The fact that you blogged about it and people are responding to your post and blogging about it themselves IS the recap and the continuation of the conversation. Not only are bunches of people blogging about it and tweeting about it, people are also talking about it offline.

Nobody at my association even attended the meeting but we're talking about it and taking the time to read follow up posts. And I think it's a pretty sure bet to say that many--if not most--attendees went back to their offices and started a dialog with their staff about the things they learned.

Maybe it's just me but I definitely think the session delivered the buzz it promised--it just delivered it in a 2.0 way rather than the traditional way ;)