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.