The reality-meets-virtual-meets-reality hybridization taking place in the ever-growing maelstrom of social networking Web sites presents challenges and; if used effectively; great rewards for meeting professionals.
When Richard Markel, 67, needed to book a space for a professional mixer he was organizing in the San Francisco area for February, he used his MySpace page to solicit venue suggestions. As president of the 650-member Association for Wedding Professionals International (AFWPI), he is always looking for new venues for the 30 networking events he organizes each year.
Shortly after he made the post, a local Four Seasons Hotel representative asked to join his network of friends. Markel told the rep that he was trying to develop a community of members in the hotel's region. Although he was prepared to pay for a room, the hotel rep offered it to him for free, with refreshments, for 2.5 hours. Given that he plans to send 2,000 printed invitations with the hotel's name on them and about 6,000 e-mail invites to wedding planners on his mailing lists, the representative saw it as a good way to introduce viable prospects to what the hotel had to offer.
"If they book one wedding [from an AFWPI member], they'll make a profit on what it cost her for food for our event," Markel said.
Markel is among a growing contingent of meeting planning professionals-including increasing numbers of seasoned Baby Boomers-who are sold on social networking sites because of experiences like this.
"I'm probably on eight or ten of them," he said. "The opportunities they bring are literally unending."
Markel uses MySpace on a daily basis to spread the word about the AFWPI and its events. On a separate MySpace page, he promotes BridalExpo shows he runs privately to local brides-to-be. His other social networking favorites include Facebook; I-Meet.com, a worldwide network for people who plan meetings and events; Ecademy, a professional networking site with a strong European presence and particularly the U.K.; and ZoomInfo, a directory of professionals' contact information. All have helped his goal to connect with potential members of the AFWPI and meet valuable professional contacts, such as wedding planners in Cyprus whom he encountered on Ecademy and a show promoter from Texas who just became his latest MySpace friend.
"There are so many opportunities to stay in front of people," said Markel, who is constantly searching the Web for new social networking sites that will help him build the AFWPI. "I keep thinking that if Google was available to me in high school, I'd have a different title: Emperor."
A Growing Market
Markel isn't alone in seeing tremendous business value in social networking sites. These sites have had explosive growth since they first established a serious presence in the late 1990s. According to comScore, social networking sites had 580.5 million unique visitors worldwide in June 2008, a 25 percent increase over the same month in 2007. And it is hard to ignore the benefits that they offer in terms of increased exposure and career connections-usually for free or at very low cost. Demos, a London-based think-tank, released a report in October 2008 that suggested that those who use the sites help their companies by enabling them to make new contacts, keep in closer touch with clients and stay current on industry trends.
"The homepage to your online presence is a Google search," said Cece Salomon-Lee, senior marketing communications manager at ON24, a worldwide virtual events planner that works with many corporate planners. "That's why being active on these sites is important. At the end of the day, you have to hang up your shingle in places that are relevant to your business."
A JupiterResearch study in August 2008 suggested that social networking sites can be particularly helpful if you use digital marketing to generate business. The report, The Social and Portable InBox: Optimizing E-mail Marketing in the New Era of Communication Tools, found that 22 percent of e-mail users are using social networking sites to communicate with professional contacts, where they think there is a better chance of reaching contacts overwhelmed by cluttered inboxes. Because many marketers are paying attention to this trend, social networking sites can be a valuable source of information about event locations. For instance, Experience Columbus, the CVB for Columbus, Ohio, has established pages on Facebook, Twitter and the photo-sharing site Flickr, which it interconnects with its blog to spread the word about what the city has to offer to meeting planners, its main audience.
"Social media are another communications channel for us to promote Columbus," said Pete McGinty, vice president of marketing for Experience Columbus. McGinty estimates online social networking sites have a role in about 650 events in the city each year.
C.D.E.F. Holding in Utretcht, the Netherlands, one of the nation's largest meeting and convention center management companies, even launched its own online social network for meeting planners, Seats2meet, about a year and a half ago to keep its offerings top of mind for this core audience, says Ronald van den Hoff, director. The company uses the site, which publishes material in Dutch and English, to attract planners to free professional development seminars it offers in Utrecht on subjects such as online trends in the industry. Van den Hoff says the social network has helped to raise the profile of the company and build its relationships with planners.
Van den Hoff calls the site "a pretty local affair so far" but notes there are plans to roll out a European network.
Seats2meet is local at the moment-and that's key since the social media boom is indeed a global phenomenon. There were 131.2 million unique visitors to the sites from North America in June 2008, up 9 percent from the previous June, according to comScore. Asia saw 23 percent growth, to 200.5 million unique visitors, in that same time frame and the European audience grew by 35 percent, to 165.2 million. In fact, in some countries, ignoring these sites can leave you out of the loop of many professional conversations. Consider the U.K.-a 2007 comScore study showed that 78 percent of its online population frequents social networking sites. The average U.K. visitor devoted 5.8 hours a month to the sites in August 2007 and made 23.3 visits, higher than in any other part of Europe. A similar picture holds true in South Korea. Marketing research firm Ipsos Insight found in a 2007 study that more than half of all adults there had visited a social networking site in the past 30 days. And about 30 percent of South Korea's population-or 18 million people-had accounts with Cyworld, one of the world's oldest and largest social networking sites.
"Social networking sites have emerged as major factors in the culture of communication for adults globally, which is underscored by their popularity with Internet users even among the lesser developed markets," explained Brian Cruikshank, executive vice president and managing director of Ipsos Insights Technology & Communications, in a statement released with the research.
Social networking sites are likely to become even more vital to professionals with global career networks in the future. In the war for market share, major sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are adding translation tools to make them handier for cross-cultural communication. Take Facebook, which had more than 132 million unique visitors in June 2008 according to comScore and is currently the world's largest social networking site. Although the company has its core audience in the U.S., its introduction of natural-language interfaces in several markets has propelled exponential growth in Europe. After making it possible to use the site in Spanish, Facebook's internationalization team is now working with translators to make it available in 16 additional languages. Facebook reported in June 2008 that it fully supported Chinese, French, German, Italian and Japanese. LinkedIn is following suit. With more than 32 million registrants worldwide, it has traditionally had a strong presence outside the U.S. among English-speaking countries such as the U.K., Canada and Australia, says Allen Blue, the company's vice president of product strategy. Thanks to new Spanish and French interfaces introduced in the past few months and translation tools that let users post profiles in multiple languages in late 2008, he says, LinkedIn is rapidly building a bigger network of professionals who are native speakers in those languages.
Effectiveness for the Industry
Mark Amtower, 58, is a good example of the seasoned pros who are building a strong presence on LinkedIn after learning that it contributes to his bottom line. His company, Amtower & Co., produces meetings and seminars for firms that do business with the government. After seeing colleagues using LinkedIn and building a page that helped his business grow, he became a convert. Now registered on about nine social networking sites, he estimates that he brings in about US$60,000 in new registrations a year through LinkedIn alone.
It's not an accident. His LinkedIn profile traces his many years of experience working with clients such as Dell, IBM and General Dynamics, spanning 30 pages if printed out. It also includes extensive recommendations from members of his 1,100-person network.
"You're judged by the company you keep," Amtower said. "It's very important for people, when I'm trying to sell a coaching program or a seminar, to see the kinds of people who are linked to me and the number of recommendations I have from these people. There are lots of people on LinkedIn who have more connections than I do but not many who have more recommendations than I do."
To continue to build his reputation on the site, he actively participates in LinkedIn forums that include many potential contacts in his field. He regularly answers questions other professionals pose and sometimes posts his own, to highlight his unique expertise and, sometimes, to drive visitors to Web sites for events he is planning.
"We've been able to fill seats at live seminars this way," he said.
Although Amtower also spends time on Facebook, he finds it less useful in making business-building connections in his niche.
"Facebook is bigger, but it doesn't have the people I want in the quantities I want them in," he said.
Because of its business-minded approach, LinkedIn is a good place to connect with GenXers and Baby Boomers in more senior roles-a selling point worth mentioning if you are trying to persuade veterans on your team to try social networking. When social media research firm Rapleaf studied the audiences of 15 major sites, it found that 51 percent of LinkedIn's users were in the 25-to-34-year-old age group, giving it the largest representation of that demographic, according to data released in June 2008. LinkedIn also had the highest percentages of users from 35 to 44 (just under 25 percent) and from 45 to 54 (just under 9 percent). While those percentages may seem small, it is important to realize that most social networking sites are dominated by the 14-to-24-year-old crowd, according to Rapleaf's findings.
Joining professional groups on sites like LinkedIn isn't just a way to build your reputation-it can help you win business. Jennifer Collins, CMP, president and owner of the Event Planning Group, which plans meetings for corporate, nonprofit and government clients, belongs to several groups on LinkedIn that are oriented toward meeting planners, including Event Planning & Management and the Corporate Communications Executive Network.
"I think it's important to be as involved as you can with industry organizations," said Collins, who frequently joins online conversations. "It can be a way for you to demonstrate your capabilities."
Thanks to such efforts, she just got an inquiry from a company looking to use her firm as a preferred event supplier. She has also used the site to build buzz about a book she is writing on the lighter side of meeting planning and to solicit stories of amusing faux pas from members. Recently, a blogger contacted Collins, saying she wanted to mention the book on her blog. Collins, 36, acknowledges she has pushed herself to make the most of social networking sites, which weren't available when she first entered the working world.
"This is second nature to the twentysomethings," she said. "It's just something they know and do. I understand it and embrace it. I understand how the world is changing. But it's not second nature."
Despite Amtower's reservations, Facebook can still be as useful as LinkedIn, especially in promoting events to a general audience, according to Beth Schillaci, founder and CEO of VillageWorks Communications, a marketing firm that helps clients build their presence in social media.
"For more of a consumer show or event, Facebook is a good place to reach those audiences," she said.
Meeting professionals who work with younger groups report particularly good results from Facebook, of which 66 percent of users are in the 14-to-24-year-old demographic, according to the Rapleaf findings. Kelley Spencer, director of alumni relations for the Hofstra School of Law in Hempstead, N.Y., has focused many of her social networking efforts on the site, as she has worked to attract alumni to the 10 major networking events that she is expected to organize each year. One of her first strategies, since coming from New York University several months ago, was building an official alumni community.
"The younger alumni will be on Facebook," she said. "The more experienced alumni will be on LinkedIn."
Spencer credits much of the recent attendance at an alumni networking event she held with the information she posted on social networking sites, and she believes Facebook message boards that let participants RSVP publicly were especially helpful in persuading others to come.
Once you've built a presence on the sites with the biggest worldwide presence, you may find that local networks can add depth to your networking. If your goal is to connect with professionals in Europe, popular sites such as U.K.-based Ecademy, Xing in Germany or Hyves.net in the Netherlands can be good resources. Targeting an Asian audience? In Japan, Mixi is the most popular.
"Facebook has a lot of equivalents in other countries," said Marieke Hensel, founder of Branding Personality, who started out in Internet marketing in the Netherlands and now runs her business in Los Angeles. "Usually people who are into social networking use their local languages instead of going to Facebook."
Unlike LinkedIn, which many professionals use to stay connected to those they already know, the culture of some sites fosters meetings between professionals who don't already know each other, Hensel says.
"Ecademy, for instance, is about connecting with people worldwide and making new, random connections," she said.
One of her clients recently asked her how to find an event location in Copenhagen. She suggested he contact the "country leader" on Ecademy for Denmark, who directed him to local sites that he included in a proposal now under review.
"She hosts events and knows exactly which places are available," Hensel said.
To bring such members closer, some sites facilitate in-person networking. E.Factor, an international social networking site, helps its members in 110 countries connect online and at well-equipped lounges with their own conference rooms in New York and the Netherlands for networking events, says Marion Freijsen, the company's co-founder and co-author of The N-Factor, a book on social networking. The company plans to add 100 more lounges in 2009, so members can easily notify contacts when they will be in town and get together.
With social networking sites proliferating, it's obviously not possible-or productive-to try them all. But, as Freijsen says, they're a fact of life in business today that many of us can't afford to ignore.
"People will have to come to grips with the fact that there's value to being on a social network," she said.
By investing time in a few, your professional opportunities are truly endless.
ELAINE POFELDT is a freelance writer based in Jersey City, N.J.