by By Tom Isler | January 01, 2009

blogsmallOn a Sunday morning last June, Maria Accardi, a librarian at Indiana University Southeast, sat at her computer and composed an entry on her blog, Library Praxis, analyzing her mixed feelings about attending the upcoming American Library Association Annual Conference in Anaheim, Calif. She had been underwhelmed by the 2007 meeting. "I'm not certain that the ALA annual conference is the best conference for me and my professional needs and interests," she wrote. "Still, I'm going anyway, because I'm willing to give it another shot."

A week later, after a full day at the conference, Accardi logged on again to praise two sessions she'd attended and to register a few complaints about logistics. Two readers who commented on the post echoed her frustration.

Things really fell apart at the Library Instruction Roundtable the next day. "I noticed a pamphlet on the floor," Accardi reported on her blog that afternoon. "It had fallen off the seat when I sat down. I was totally stunned and appalled that it was a pamphlet selling diet pills." She flipped it over and saw the sales contact was Michelle Sanderbeck, wife of the session's speaker, Andrew Sanderbeck, founder of the People Connect Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Her next post: "Please, tell me: On what PLANET is it acceptable to allow a program speaker to sell WEIGHT LOSS PRODUCTS to an audience of professional adults at a professional conference?...Yet another piece of evidence to add to the file of why the ALA conference is not a good match for me. I came here to learn, not to be insulted and offended professionally." A few days later, recapping the conference experience, Accardi concluded she would "likely never go to an ALA conference again."

It's the stuff planners' nightmares are made of -- and a proliferating reality. The Internet is teeming with commentary, and as the popularity of social media websites increases (research firms estimate the active audience for blogs and social networking sites in the United States is between 30 million and 100 million), the field of online reputation management -- monitoring, influencing and responding to what's being posted about individuals, businesses, products or events -- is exploding. And with good reason: Bloggers and social media users are building a growing permanent archive of commentary available to anyone with Internet access. In the world of meetings, this material is becoming prevalent online and can undercut official marketing or public relations efforts.

"In today's world, people can go out and comment, and it's there for everyone to see and can impact you as you go forward trying to promote the event," says Blake Cahill, senior vice president of marketing for Visible Technologies, a Seattle-based brand management firm.

"People new to this, who don't know what people are saying about them online, need to learn," asserts Rick Calvert, founder and CEO of Blogworld & New Media Expo, an annual convention for bloggers. "It's like not knowing what people are saying in newspapers or on the nightly news."

Monitoring what's being said online about meetings and trade shows offers benefits to planners beyond damage control: The posts and comments actually can help associations or event organizers improve customer service, obtain valuable market research and competitive intelligence, and even generate ideas to improve meetings or create entirely new events. And while dozens of companies offer online monitoring and consulting services, there are tools on the web that will let planners manage their online reputations for free.

The ALA way
The American Library Association, based in Chicago, is particularly accommodating to bloggers. It provides a lounge for them at its annual conference and a special quiet room for recording audio podcasts. Attendees are given free wireless Internet access, and ALA encourages bloggers to add their URLs to the conference's wiki, a website that allows anyone to add or edit content.

"Our people love to communicate with each other," says Deidre Ross, ALA's director of conference services. "They've totally embraced Web 2.0 tools."

ALA bloggers also embrace the opportunity to air their unvarnished opinions, and thus, along with ample praise for ALA, there exists a wealth of negative sentiment about the association online that has been accumulating for years. A librarian in Pennsylvania even created a group on Facebook called "I want a better ALA Event Planner" -- referring to an online tool that generates conference itineraries for attendees, not specifically to Ross or her staff. The group has 96 members.

Ross says the IT department of the association does monitor industry blogs for references to ALA, "but we usually don't comment on the blogs because we don't want a fight." She continues: "One of our core values is freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of information. For us to tell people they're wrong, it's just not the ALA way."

How ALA interacts with bloggers has been a topic of internal debate, says Jenny Levine, the association's Internet development specialist. ALA publishes its own blog, Marginalia, on which Ross (usually via Levine) can respond to misinformation or criticism about ALA's conferences. The downside to that method, Levine acknowledges, is most readers of the offending blog probably will never see ALA's response, unless they navigate to Marginalia independently. While staffers are effective at responding to individual complaints via e-mails and calls, Levine says most are wary of direct engagement with bloggers -- a method she prefers.

"I've been a blogger for years before I joined ALA, and I very much believe in openly communicating online," she says. "ALA, which has been around for 130-plus years, is still adapting to that idea."
(Marginalia does not have reaction to the "diet pill" incident, which caused a stir on Accardi's blog. Andrew Sanderbeck says It Works! Marketing, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company that sells weight-loss and wellness products, sponsored his roundtable session. He says his wife does occasional work for the company. ALA's Ross claims she had no hand in the session's planning and notes that roundtables are member-organized groups that create their own programming. Accardi says 125 unique users visited her blog on the day she posted about the roundtable, and she never heard from anyone at ALA.)

ALA's general approach to online reputation management, often referred to as ORM, goes against what most people in the field recommend. The best policy, many experts say, is for businesses or associations to join conversations respectfully, posting responses to positive, negative and misinformed statements in a timely fashion so that future readers will be able to see that response alongside the initial post.

ALA is hardly alone in its hesitation to jump into the fray, fearing further comment will exacerbate problems or the association will be viewed as a bully. Barbara Hyde, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based American Society for Microbiology, says her staff monitors the Internet for references to ASM, its events and its publications, but "generally, if there's misinformation on a blog, we tend to ignore it... The New York Times is one thing. Somebody's blog in Podunk is another." Other association employees report similar attitudes at their organizations, where policies for monitoring and responding to blogs are informal or nonexistent.

But ALA's silence on her blog further frustrated Accardi. "If someone from ALA had responded to my posts in a way that acknowledged, validated or attempted to engage my critiques, this would have the effect of making ALA seem less like a faceless, impersonal entity and more like an organization that cares about the ideas of its members," Accardi told M&C. "I know that an organization as big as ALA doesn't have the time or resources to respond to every last bit of feedback from a member, but if they were pushing blogging so heavily, then why didn't anyone from ALA read the blogs or respond to posts? Maybe they did, and my blog wasn't one of the ones they read."