In today's hyper-connected world—one where we’re more likely to connect online than in-person and are just as concerned with our digital shadow as our carbon footprint—social media’s become serious business. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram are still perfect for posting pics from your latest adventure and connecting with friends, but they’ve also emerged as critical business tools for digital marketing in most industries, especially meetings and events.
Event professionals are probably more familiar than most with the importance of social media in the workplace. But savvy planers know that social media for events isn’t just about likes, retweets and mentions. It’s not enough to have a presence; planners need a strategy.
A solid digital marketing strategy has the potential to make or break an event, to build buzz, boost attendance and connect a community or to ensure it falls flat. But how can busy planners go about putting a successful strategy in place? We tapped social media experts and local planners for the key concepts and helpful tips to keep in mind when crafting a winning social marketing strategy.
GET SERIOUS ABOUT SOCIAL
For planners still drafting the obligatory but rarely used annual hashtag, foisting social media duties on the company’s resident millennial intern or questioning the need for paid social programs and tools, it’s time to get serious about social media.
“You can never underestimate how much time and how many resources should be put toward event social media coverage,” says Libby Benda, director of accounts for local social media marketing agency The Social Lights.
Benda finds that while most planners know social media can be a critical part of the event marketing process, they’re not always “addressing it as a top priority, from that big-picture perspective like other elements in the planning process.”
“Social media tends to be something that is slapped onto event plans that have already been baked. It needs to be one of the first things addressed in planning and top of mind throughout,” says Benda.
Alex Plaxen, founder of digital marketing consulting firm Little Bird Told Media, agrees. “Social media is a business tool with plenty of potential, but if you and your team aren’t making it a priority in your planning, you’re only scraping the surface.”
IDENTIFY THE ROI
While embracing the need for a full-fledged digital strategy is one thing, securing the tools and resources needed to implement that strategy is another. Whether your needs include hiring additional staff, renting video equipment or budgeting for web analytic tools, Plaxen stresses emphasizing your strategy’s potential return on investment to sway decisionmakers and secure the resources you’ll need.
Plaxen, who originally launched Little Bird to help clients implement digital strategies, has found that his work often involves a bit of education for key event stakeholders. “It seems that even if event organizers understand a strategy’s true value, they’re having trouble explaining that value to their higher-ups. Those benefits need to be highlighted before you can get that buy-in,” he says.
General benefits of a successfully implemented digital strategy include providing a means to promote your event and build buzz (teasing to new and exciting elements to be unveiled at the event, spotlighting speakers, etc.), cultivating and engaging a community (creating a place for potential attendees to connect, interact and bond before the event), and tackling general event communications (sharing venue updates, logistical details and more). A strong strategy can also benefit your event customer service efforts, enhance and engage attendees throughout the live event (and those following along remotely), serve as a source of candid feedback and much more.
But, most importantly, a well-executed digital strategy will deliver data—and lots of it. “Data is one of the clearest benefits of a digital strategy,” says Plaxen. “Through that digital work you have numbers and details and a wealth of information you can give your team. That’s information that can offer invaluable insights over time.”
From web impressions and social media interactions to the breakdown in demographics of your event’s Instagram followers, the data that can be mined from your digital efforts will not only help to guide future events, but can also help inform sales and executive initiatives. Plaxen recommends using customer relationship management tools like HubSpot and Salesforce to track digital interactions through the event process and beyond. “Tracking your event in the digital space could reveal how those interactions impacted buying or purchasing decisions down the road. You can see that someone engages with you at your event, then follow them through the purchasing cycle for the next year. That’s a major win,” he says.
KNOW YOUR GOALS
Though the thought of coordinating an event marketing plan in today’s ever-changing digital landscape may seem like a daunting task, digital experts have good news: It’s likely you and your team are already familiar with the basic concepts.
“Social media changes so quickly. Even once you’ve found a groove, your tools and platforms will change,” says Martha McCarthy Krueger, co-founder and CEO of The Social Lights. “Luckily, the basics are likely to stay the same.”
“At the end of the day, you’re using a lot of the same principles you’d use to traditionally market an event. You’re just applying them in a digital space. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” says Plaxen.
Arguably one of the most important elements of your digital plan will include clarifying your overall marketing and event goals and remaining mindful of those goals throughout the planning process.
“I always stress to my clients that for any event you work on, you need to know your goals … and your goals can’t be to gain more followers and impressions. Those are vanity metrics,” says Plaxen.
Rather than crafting ways to boost your event or organization’s social media followers or webpage views, Plaxen emphasizes striving for goals based on engagement. “You can have millions of followers, but maybe only five of them are engaging with you on a regular basis. Those five are your audience and those interactions should be your focus,” he says.
The Social Lights also prioritize engagement when marketing events. “Events are inherently social, so it only makes sense to focus your efforts in engaging your guest throughout the [planning] process … especially online,” says Benda. When assisting clients, “we always want to be quick to respond and as helpful as possible for guests. That engagement really taps into the customer or guest experience that should always be a priority in events.”
In fact, The Social Lights prioritized engagement for one of its biggest and most visible clients to date. In 2016, The Social Lights were selected by the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee to lead and coordinate the organization’s social media coverage. Throughout the 10-day media blitz, digital engagement and customer service were key goals that influenced attendee interactions big and small.
While The Social Lights team gathered social content from the daily events that made up the pregame festivities, plenty of time was dedicated to assisting attendees with requests like tracking down one last trading card for the daughter of a Hallmark Channel Kitten Bowl attendee or securing an Uber ride for a few guests who found they were stranded after completing the zip line that ran across the Mississippi River.
“You can talk all day about strategy, but when it comes down to it, we really see the impact come through in one-on-one digital engagement,” says Benda. “We created reports each day for the host committee, but what they really heard back on, what really trickled down, were those small wins. Those small interactions do actually make a difference, build brand loyalty and spark the connections you want to have with your guests, and those are big victories.”
PLAN WITH PURPOSE
Like Plaxen and The Social Lights team, Kelly Bollis, owner and creative director of local event production and design house Maven, and co-founder of Styled For Good, a local annual charitable wedding showcase, emphasizes the importance of keeping event goals top of mind throughout the social marketing and digital planning process.
“In planning Styled For Good, we clearly define each of our event goals before doing anything else. We want the event to be a truly interactive guest experience that showcases the actual work of every vendor involved, establishes trends and inspires attendees. We want to design cohesive concepts and make sure we’re purposeful in who we are partnering with,” says Bollis. “We think through every part of the planning process with the digital side in mind to make sure we’re being intentional and staying true to the event’s mission in-person and in our presence online. They should sync with and reflect each other.”
To achieve their goal of showcasing each vendors’ unique capabilities and gifting a wedding to a couple in need, Bollis and Jennae Saltzman, Styled For Good’s co-founder and the owner and senior lead designer of local wedding planning and event design house Blush & Whim, begin planning nearly a year in advance. The pair create and design the event’s vision, which is then carefully and clearly communicated through videos, slideshows, mood boards and color palettes to participating vendors who will later put their own spin on the theme in the work they’ll display for attendees. To ensure the event showcases each vendor’s true work, the “no-booth wedding show” encourages vendors to use their creativity (rather than promotional materials), and vendors are teamed up to collaborate in creating styled vignettes for guests to explore. To ensure partnerships remain purposeful, participating vendors are selected on an invite-only basis in consideration of criteria laid out by the event’s board of directors. Each event element, from vignettes and dance floors to runway shows and striking floral walls, is also physically laid out to create a purposeful guest experience, guiding attendees from one station to the next.
The end result? A naturally interactive and cohesive experience filled with Instagram-ready backdrops and an organic atmosphere for snapping, tweeting and streaming, where guests are encouraged to engage digitally while exploring each station in real time.
FIND YOUR AUDIENCE
Styled For Good events are not only designed to encourage live social media engagement, Bollis and Saltzman also work diligently to connect their followers and potential attendees online in the months, weeks, days and hours leading up to the event.
“Jennae and I both grew our businesses quickly through social media, so we’ve seen the power it can wield within the industry,” says Bollis. “The Styled For Good community and the event industry as a whole are very active on social, so we knew that’s where we needed to reach our audience.”
Bollis and Saltzman have found success in their social strategies by identifying and engaging with their audiences on Facebook and Instagram, in part by harnessing the power of their online networks. The pair created content calendars including posts to spotlight each participating vendor, which they shared with vendors in advance. “Vendors were able to look out for those posts and promote them to their networks. It was a win-win that shared the Styled For Good message and brought our community together on the online platforms they organically use most,” says Bollis.
Hayley Matthews-Jones, founder of the Minneapolis Craft Market and vice president of communications for the ILEA Minneapolis-St. Paul board of directors, has also boosted the impact of her social marketing efforts by searching for and getting to know her online followers.
After tracking social media interaction and online engagement across the multiple platforms she manages in both roles, Matthews-Jones has identified at least four distinct audiences her digital efforts are reaching and are meant for, including the market’s makers and the shoppers who buy their wares as well as current ILEA members and nonmembers alike).
“I’ve discovered that the audiences I’m trying to reach are on Facebook and Instagram. With market events, my main audience is made up of women ages 25-50, and based on our analytics, those channels have proven to be the best place to reach them. The bulk of our ILEA audience seems to fall in that category as well, so it’s been most beneficial to focus my efforts on those platforms,” says Matthews-Jones. “If we were hosting a different kind of event or had a different target audience, other channels might prove more effective, but I have to pay attention to and consciously focus my efforts where we’re gathering traction.”
Over time, Matthews-Jones has also tracked the impact of her digital marketing efforts to find the content that resonates most with her audience and the focus her future social marketing efforts. “Our audiences really respond to the content that helps them learn about those in their community and their peers.” Matthews-Jones has since started posting “Meet Your Maker” people profiles, introducing followers to specific crafters who sell at the market and has continued to post highlights and updates from ILEA members. “This is content that’s really been informed by tracking our online audience. But better still, this is the content that’s visibly boosted interest and engagement in our events,” she says.
SET EXPECTATIONS AND STAFF ACCORDINGLY
Ideally, event professionals would have unlimited time and experienced staff dedicated to managing their event marketing efforts. Unfortunately, staffing is where the experts see planners challenged most in their digital strategy implementation.
“Often we see events being managed on the social side by just one person who also happens to be managing several other tasks. This really limits planners as far as what they’re able to capture, push out in real time and manage from the customer service perspective,” says Benda. “A successful social strategy includes filling the correct roles with experienced individuals. You can’t be afraid to staff a hearty team.”
If resources allow, Benda advises creating a “command center” specifically dedicated to social media management during live events. While managing Super Bowl LII social media coverage, The Social Lights team rallied staff and experienced volunteers with professional digital backgrounds to cover three shifts per day (manned by 10 people each) over 10 days. Each shift was equipped with two shift captains to approve all outbound content, post messages on behalf of the host committee and catch any red flags in engagement from attendees. Community managers were at the ready to manage proactive and reactive social media streams as well.
Should planners find themselves with a limited staff and budget, Plaxen offers a few suggestions. “I’ve found that the resources and team behind a 100-person and a 20,000-person event tend to be the same, up until the day of the event and after the event has passed,” he says. Whether you’re a one person jack-of-all-trades or you’ve got dedicated staff at your disposal, “the key is to set your guest’s expectations accordingly,” says Plaxen.
“If you want to post a livestream while walking the trade show floor, live-tweeting speaking sessions, managing customer service requests and monitoring your event hashtag, you should be staffing at least four people for those tasks alone. If you only have the resources to manage the hashtag throughout your event, that’s OK. But you need to communicate that to your guests. Don’t try to do it all without the resources to succeed.”
Plaxen also recommends planners tap their creative resources for possible partnerships or sponsorships that could provide for additional staff. “Joining forces with professional partners or peers can be a mutually beneficial route, but social media sponsorships are also a great way to ensure you’ll have the support you need,” he says. Social media sponsorships offer unique branding opportunities and plenty of value with high attendee visibility. “When social sponsors fund something like an on-site social media concierge to help answer attendee questions about the event app, the hashtag or anything in between, they’re gaining visibility while guests get the answers they need. It’s a great opportunity for potential sponsors to make a memorable impact on the guest experience.”
Last but not least, experts and planners agree your social marketing shouldn’t grind to a halt the moment you’ve rolled up the step-and-repeat, especially for those planning annual events.
“We see plenty of misses in post-event coverage, or lack thereof,” says McCarthy Krueger. “We all know there’s so much work, time and energy that goes into event planning. You’ve spent so much time building excitement for your event and you lose that momentum by going quiet,” she says.
McCarthy Krueger recommends mining the content your team’s already worked hard to capture to extend the lifetime of your event by days, weeks and months. Posting recap videos, event photos and interviews from key event participants, for example, can help can help keep an event top of mind for those who attended and can possibly attract new online followers who may consider attending in the future.
Plaxen agrees, advising planners to dedicate time year-round to cultivating digital event engagement. “Keeping your attendees interacting online post-event can solidify the connections they made in-person and online. That could make the difference in their decision to attend your next event or not,” he says. “Spending the time to foster that engagement may mean you’ve got a 365-day social strategy, but the reward, that online community you’ve built, is well worth it the wait.”
Tools of the Trade
While the perfect social media tools will vary by planner, event and company, social media pros have recommended a few of their favorites:
Bitly: A hyperlink shortening service for shrinking those pesky page-long URLs
Buffer: This social management tool creates a single dashboard, so you can schedule posts and track engagement across all of your social media accounts in one place.
Canva:Create your own digital images from scratch with this free, user-friendly design tool.
Google Analytics: The Cadillac of digital tracking tools helps aggregate countless forms of web data (including individual visits, pages visited, videos viewed, etc.) to be analyzed multiple ways.
Google Tag Manager: Used with Google Analytics, this application helps users drill down web performance statistics even further by targeting tags and key words.
HubSpot:A handy inbound sales and marketing platform to help users convert leads and connect with customers
Mention.com:This social monitoring tool tracks major platforms to inform you each time your event name, hashtag and other specified key words are used by others.
Sprout: A social management tool designed to help users engage with potential and current customers.
ShortStack: A popular platform for building digital landing pages, custom forms and contests.
Tips from a Pro
Frank Soukup III, director of marketing for Grand View Lodge (a previous winner in the Minnesota M+E Best Social Media Presence category) shares some of his team’s social strategy essentials.
Embrace Platform Versatility: “From the specifics of trying to hire estheticians in central Minnesota or finding available afternoon tee times to selling larger campaign packages, social media can reach any audience we need to, when we want to, and has contributed to the success of our companies.”
Get Specific: “With tools like Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences and psychographic targeting, we can reach large groups of like-minded people or laser target specific individuals based on what we are selling.”
Maintain a Targeted Reach on Multiple Platforms: “[Multiple platforms] will help you reach your consumer from every angle … That’s what makes social so immediately valuable.”
A Social Media Dashboard is Essential: “Find the one that fits best for your team. [Tools like] Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager are essential for measuring your success as well.”