Q & A

Elevate Speaker: Erik Qualman on Social Media Strategy for Events

The best-selling author and social media strategist shares his thoughts on effective engagement, why planners should give up some control, and what’s coming next.

By Mitra Sorrells July 8, 2014, 7:15 AM EDT

Photo: Albie Colantonio

Erik Qualman is best known as the author of Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business. Qualman, a professor at the Hult International Business School, also has written Digital Leader: 5 Simple Keys to Success and Influence and What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube. Thursday Qualman will give the keynote address at Elevate D.C., a one-day conference BizBash and Eventbrite will host at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. (More information on Elevate D.C.—including how to register—can be found here.)

You speak at dozens of events every year. What are you seeing as far as social media integration?
The event industry didn’t change much till about 2012, and now I am starting to see a radical shift. There are about 20 percent that are really in the know, that are on the cutting edge. They are the guys that know their hashtag months out, not just, ‘Oh yeah, we need a hashtag.’ They are socializing the event during the event, whether that’s live-streaming, whether that’s live posts of what’s happening, and then enabling the folks that are there. They are leveraging the speakers ahead of time, like you are now. You are starting to see more people offer mobile apps. They are still doing redundant stuff right now, but you can see the writing on the wall that in a couple of years you’re not going to have that printed agenda. Right now we are in that transition phase. But I still go to a lot of conferences that do the same old stuff they’ve been doing for the last 15 years.

One of the biggest fears expressed about social media is losing control over the message. What are your thoughts on that?
You can look to other industries—whether it’s entertainment, travel, automotive—and see they’ve gone through the same challenge. It’s the same movie but different actors. Let’s get control out of our language and understand we can utilize these folks as an asset. Three years ago I’d laugh when I’d get on stage because the person before me would say, ‘Please turn off your mobile devices.’ And I would get on and say, ‘Please turn on all your mobile devices, because I want to make sure people outside of this room have access to this.' A good way to sell yourself and promote your brand is to understand everyone in that room is a little media beacon. Those that want to have control are going to lose. You will look at another conference and they’re telling everyone to turn on and share. And you’re wondering why their conference has three times as many attendees next year, and you’re losing attendees. It’s because they are understanding you’ve got to get rid of the word control and turn this power over to those folks in the room to let them become partners with you to help grow your brand and your events.

Tell us your top tips for successfully using social media at events.
Something that is often overlooked is free and easy Wi-Fi access. If you don’t have a password on the Wi-Fi, that’s preferred. I can’t believe how many conferences I still go where it’s difficult to get on the Wi-Fi or it’s not working properly. The second piece is to make sure you understand what hashtag you are going to use and make sure it’s lasting beyond those two days. It should have longevity. And then how do you engage with folks? First of all remind them about the hashtag everywhere. Print it on everything, announce it at the show, make sure your speakers are aware of it. You can’t over-pimp your hashtag. Then you need to assign someone who is the socialization person for that event. There will be so much activity there needs to be a point person to curate the best of the best and also to respond to the folks who are posting. They are posting publicly because they do love a response. You don’t have to respond to everybody, but if you see someone who seems to be very popular and is getting re-posted, those are the people you should reach out to and answer their questions first and then go down the line. But make sure you have that point person for the socialization at the event. They are going to be the busiest person at the event itself.

What would you say to folks who are still concerned that if they embrace online engagement, it will devalue their physical event?
If your in-person experience is the same as the digital experience, then you have a problem with your in-person experience. These are tools you are leveraging when time and distance are an issue. You can’t replace that face-to-face experience, that networking experience, but these are tools to augment it. I can give a keynote—and occasionally I do—remotely, but it’s not the same experience.

Give us a peek into your crystal ball. What’s coming next?
There will be more ratings around the whole industry—who’s the best caterer and there’s a rating and review, who’s the best audiovisual company and rating and review, who’s the best event coordinator and rating and review. That full transparency. If you are solely reliant on just having that distribution pipe, that’s about to get disrupted just like other distribution channels in other industries, whether it’s music or books, where that disruption is happening. So you have to make sure you are the best of the best, because soon we’ll have that transparency on who’s the best and the brightest. We’ll see it play out just like TripAdvisor for travel and hotels. That’s coming. It’s what the book I’m writing is about—ratings—coming out in a few months. Everything in time will be rated, and people will be rated as well. So if it’s not in your industry today, it’s coming.

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