Using social media to engage your online audience with an offline event

Convocation season is approaching and IT teams are getting ready for the live webcast, etc.  Allyson recently mentioned to the Case Communications list-serv that her institution was considering integrating twitter into commencement this year.  Immediately this reminded me of Obama’s inauguration and the way CNN and Facebook brought the event to life online.

Screenshot of CNN's 2009 Inauguration coverage

Screenshot of CNN's 2009 Inauguration coverage

It’s estimated that 1.8 million people were actually on the ground at President Obama’s inauguration (January 2009), the largest number of people to ever attend an event in Washington, DC.  Nielsen reports nearly 37.8 million people tuned into TV coverage of the inauguration, the most since Reagan pushed the bar to 41.8 million back in the 80s.  Rough guesses put the online audience at about 70 million. 70 million! Imagine adding an audience more than 35 times your in-person audience, tuning in from around the world. Needless to say, there were some hiccups:

Screenshot of CNN waiting room during 2009 Inauguration (my wait was very short)

Screenshot of CNN waiting room during 2009 Inauguration (my wait was very short)

Now let’s add all the people that pushed the tag #inaug09 to the top of Twitter’s buzz list:

Screenshot of Twitter search for #inaug09 taken during the 2009 Presidential Inauguration

Screenshot of Twitter search for #inaug09 taken during the 2009 Presidential Inauguration

And let’s keep in mind that between the year’s start and the end of February, Twitter’s population jumped from 6 million up to 10 million, and has grown by another 131% in just the month of March.

I want to explore two things here.  The first is the potential to exponentially increase the audience of your event – be it convocation ceremonies, a guest speaker, or a football game.  The second is to use your event’s audience (both on and offline) to increase the viral visibility of your brand – making your audience even bigger when you host round 2.

Keeping in mind, that I am a “strategist”/user rather than a backend technology expert, my recipe for taking your event online is video stream + twitter + hashtag.  Many schools, as I said, are already streaming convocation and other major events online, so let’s write that off as manageable and look at how we are going to add conversation to the mix.  CNN partnered with Facebook to have that great side panel of status updates:

Screenshot of Facebook panel on CNN's Inauguration video page

Screenshot of Facebook panel on CNN's Inauguration video page

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find Facebook a little hard to get ahold of.  They’re very busy with redesigns and 200 million users, and plans for eventual web domination.  One great thing about Twitter, is that you don’t need to get ahold of them!  Sure somewhere around 10-20% of users have set their updates to private, but that still leaves you an absolute minimum 8 million+ (and that’s a conservative number) people who are blasting out their smallest thoughts on a digital soapbox.  And a #hashtag makes it all possible.  You’ll have to get IT to work some magic to embed Twitter Search results (especially with real-time updates/refresh) into a page beside a video stream, but other than that, there is no nasty coding involved in getting the actual content.  Pop over to search.twitter.com and type in your #hashtag (make sure it’s unique i.e. #UWOconvocation rather than #convocation), and instantly you’ll have access to an RSS of all the “tweets” that include your tag.

Step 1: Be very very nice to IT

Step 2: Pick a hashtag and tell people.  Push it out through every communication vehicle you have that goes to prospective audience members (i.e. alumni newsletter, commencement information/invitation packages, your homepage, signs at the event, etc).

Step 3: Cross your fingers!

Another reason why I’m pushing Twitter for this, rather than Facebook, is that even though FB’s recent redesign moves towards a twitter-esque approach, live commentary/rapid spur of the moment thoughts are simply not what the Facebook status field was/is made for.  People do not use their Facebook status the same way that they do their twitter account.  The Facebook newsfeed is almost entirely a one-way listing of current status, profile updates, comments posted and application activity. Twitter content is positioned much more responsively – most likely because the whole point is that everyone is reading every little word you say.  Facebook status updates are enabled for comments, but they are not as social as twitter posts. Bottom line, twitter users are already using the service for live dialogue during events.  Facebook users are not – give the users what they know and love.

Using past events to build your viral brand

This has gone on quite a bit here, so I will be brief on my second topic.  Just about a year ago, I attended the Social Media Summit conference in Toronto, and among other great presentations heard the founders of Whippersnapper Gallery talk about their approach to social marketing.  Like most arts projects, the marketing budget was pretty bleak, but with the help of free tools like Joomla (open source CMS), flickr and Facebook they were able to drum up some attention.  What really caught me was how they used past events to market future events.  Yes, it’s lovely when people RSVP to your Facebook Event and a little blurb goes out to their newsfeed.  Beyond this, WhipperSnapper made sure that the audience went back to Facebook after the event and posted pictures, commented on walls, joined their FB group, etc, so that not only would their networks see that friends had gone to the gallery, but that they’d had a great time!

I haven’t had the best of luck promoting recruitment events via Facebook, but a lot can be accomplished from sending your happy campus tour audiences back to Facebook with photos of campus, and status updates full of excitement about the school. And don’t forget to give them all your hashtag so that all their pictures and comments and tweets get caught in your twitterstream …

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