by Michael C. Lowe | February 01, 2014
Not too long ago,  event designers and their clients had to rely on traditional press to get the word out. "Whichever reporter showed up would be the eyes and ears for the rest of the public, and that was pretty much it," says Cara Kleinhaut, left, owner and founder of Los Angeles-based Caravents. "Now with social media, every attendee is a reporter. It's like this big megaphone all of your attendees can use to shout about your event."

Encouraging attendees to share via their electronic communities is an effective and low-cost way for planners to extend an event's reach. "When your attendees engage on social media, they're broadcasting what's happening to an audience within their circle of friends and associates that you may not have been able to reach before," says Liz King, founder of New York-based Liz King Events. "Anyone who wants to grow their event has to reach more people, but organizers don't have the same reach as their 250 or 1,000 attendees do through social media."

When executed correctly, photos, videos and other posts from an event can make long-lasting waves through channels like Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, LinkedIn and the like. And a growing number of meeting planners are making it a priority to harness that power.

"When designing events, I make sure there are four or five touch points on the floor that will encourage sharing," says Kleinhaut. These points, places that draw people, can take the form of a dramatic décor creation, a fun photo booth or a decked-out food or beverage station. As Kleinhaut notes, "The trick is to make it enticing -- and easy -- for attendees to share."

Start Early
Inviting the use of social media well in advance is critical.

•  Email basics. For her popular PlannerTech conferences, King alerts attendees months earlier via email that the event will be active on Twitter, and to encourage even the most nascent social media users to participate, she sends a link with instructions on how to use the platform. "People aren't social media experts yet," notes King. "If you want them to be active, sometimes you have to walk them through it."

•  Set the hashtag. King's initial emails and invitations also establish the event's hashtag, used to identify tweets on a specific topic relating to the event. Determining the hashtag early and displaying it often is a subtle way to remind attendees there will be an active social media presence at the gathering, but it also tells them to use it when posting on their own social media channels once they're on-site. Hashtagged posts are trackable and will provide valuable analytics that can determine an event's online reach, says Kleinhaut. (For help with analytics, "Measuring Engagement," left.)

•  Seed the conversation. The city of Long Beach, Calif., harnessed the power of a hashtag for an event debuting the new Pacific Ballroom at the Long Beach Arena; "#sightsoundlbc" was introduced with the initial invitations. "We seeded out that hashtag very early," says Lindsay Fultz, president of Los Angeles-based Middle Child New Media, who developed the event's social media strategy. "From that point on, every post, every email and every piece of direct mail included it. It told people that there was a conversation taking place online, and that they could be a part of it."

The five-hour event saw nearly 800 hashtagged tweets garnering an impressive 6.4 million impressions, in addition to more than 440 Instagram photos and videos.