Want to set up a messaging network just for your event team? Check out Yammer (yammer.com). The basic, free version of the microblogging service allows users to send Twitter-like messages to each other, share files and integrate mailing lists. Team members can follow messages on their desktops, iPhones or BlackBerrys. The Silver version ($3 per person, per month) and Gold version ($5 per person, per month) offer a host of other capabilities, such as more robust security features. -- S.B.
Social-networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have become popular repositories for event-based communications almost by accident, as attendees have found each other online on their own and individual event pages have sprung up as if by spontaneous combustion. Still, attendees have to wade through a lot of general web chatter to find pertinent conversations, and event hosts have little control over participants.
The following four companies have developed services that help organizations create event-specific social networking communities where attendees and exhibitors can connect in a private, more targeted setting.
"What we're going for is a miniature Facebook, where the members are the conference attendees," says Tony Stubblebine, CEO of San Francisco-based CrowdVine. The service was created just for events, with the aim of helping organizations corral conversations before, during and after their meetings.
CrowdVine offers three privacy options. The network can be totally public, where anyone can join and see the activity, or planners can choose a semiprivate option, where the members have to be approved but anybody can see the conversations. Then there is the totally private option, where only approved members of the network can see the activity.
An event-specific site, CrowdVine also can aggregate all related outside conversations. "If there's some discussion on Twitter, Facebook or out in the blogosphere, we'll bring that into the network," says Stubblebine.
Event hosts can set up the network themselves, choosing CrowdVine's free option (for events of under 500 people, with limited customization options for the design; the hosting server is supported by limited advertising through Google's AdSense). Adding more customization to the self-service option can bring the cost up to $799 per event of up to 1,000 people.
Going the full-service route allows for fully customizable design; session calendars; a mobile version of the site; communication support, where CrowdVine helps get the word out about the event; community management support to help the host organization stay in control of the network and keep members focused; analysis of the network's demographics; importing of speaker profiles and pictures; and integration of major sponsors into the design and navigation of the site.
Formerly called CollectiveX, Groupsite is a service allowing groups to set up social networks that can be public, completely private or a mix. In July, the company partnered with ACT, providers of Expocad convention tools, offering its easy solutions to add social collaboration to large events at groupsite.com/expocad.
Groupsite offers organizers options to break attendees into subgroups, create forums and blogs, and send out e-mail blasts. Groupsite representatives help get the collaboration going, after which host organizations can add photographs, embed videos and more on the fly.
Three tabs are at the top of every Groupsite, according to Shaun Callahan, chief involvement officer for the Columbia, Md.-based company: communication, share and networking. Users communicate through discussion boards, group blogs and e-mail blasts. Under "share," users find calendars, documents, PowerPoint presentations and photos. The networking tab offers up member profiles, member objectives and key connections, where members share resources they are connected to that aren't necessarily part of the group.
"We have a free version that has 90 percent of what you would want, but it's ad-supported," says Callahan. "You can add on features for $9 a month." In some cases, the extras are more of what you get for free, such as more subgroups -- the free version supports five subgroups, and unlimited subgroups are available for $9 a month. In the documents section, for free, you get 250 megabytes of storage; the $9 upgrade buys 3 gigabytes.
"Something you don't get for free is content customization, allowing you to add as many additional pages as you want," Callahan adds. "And for free, when you create your groupsite, it has your group name at the top; for $9 a month, you can play with the appearance and branding."
A Groupsite Pro version eliminates the ads and is priced on a per-user basis. For nonprofits, the fee is $2 per user per year for a minimum of 250 users; the corporate cost is $4 per user. In buying the pro version, hosts can replace the ads that show up in the free version by selling the space to their sponsors.
"One of the frequent questions we get is how these kinds of communities are different from LinkedIn or Facebook," says Jordan Schwartz, CEO of Pathable in Seattle, a set of online tools to help attendees, sponsors and event organizers form more genuine connections. "The biggest difference has to do with ownership. On LinkedIn and Facebook, you can connect to a huge readership, but the ability to control the feel and the message is lessened because you don't own the system. We're able to provide an integrated, branded community that fits into the event website that goes a long way to getting the attendees involved and engaged."
Pathable, which was used by Meeting Professionals International for its February MeetDifferent conference and July's World Education Congress, recently partnered with four top companies in the registration and meetings-management arenas: Cvent, RegOnline, Certain Software and Omnipress. With the first three, Pathable syncs with attendee registration data; as soon as someone signs up for an event, a Pathable account is created that is prepopulated with the person's data. It's then up to the attendee to become an active member of the conference community. Through Omnipress, the content management system integrates with Pathable to make all materials available along with the session calendar.
"One of the challenges we have had is getting people to sign up," Schwartz notes. "We saw our adoption numbers leap when we integrated with the registration systems. Completions of the final registration page, which asks people to join the community, jumped, catching people in the work flow and addressing their needs when they were already thinking about them."
Pathable's features include messaging tools; integration with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn; survey services; conference calendars; and customizable badges, adding attendee interests to the usual name, title and company. Host organizations have the option of keeping the information private or allowing the networks to be totally public.
This young, next-generation software for conferences and trade shows is an end-to-end solution for managing events, including registration, and for creating a public or closed social network. It offers features for attendees, exhibitors, speakers and organizers.
One fun feature is "People Like Me." After filling out their Zerista profiles, users can click the people tab to be matched up with other attendees with similar interests. "It's like eHarmony for events," says John Kanarowski, president of the Denver-based tech company. "The more details you ask from your exhibitors and attendees, the better the matching works."
Other services Zerista provides include series networks that link a number of related events; year-round networking solutions; personal event scheduling and networking portals; the ability to add a virtual event to a live event; complete event websites, and year-round networking solutions for associations. Customers are charged a flat fee based on the number of attendees at the event. As with the other services, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter feeds are integrated into the networks. Exhibitor pages can display a constant Twitter feed from company representatives, so whenever attendees visit the page, they can see what the exhibitors are talking about.
Kanarowski says the goal is to help attendees streamline their time at meetings, connecting them with the exhibitors, speakers and other attendees they need to see, and enjoying a very personalized event experience.
Can a host organization leave all the social networking details to the technology company it has hired? To get the event-specific community to work most effectively, having one or more person in the organization monitor and feed the conversations is paramount.
"The more you put into it, the more you're going to get out of it," says Jordan Schwartz of Pathable. "We have found that the more involved the planner or the owner is in the community, the more active and healthy it's going to be. You have to model the behavior."
Tony Stubblebine, CEO of CrowdVine, agrees: "It's not a chore as much as an opportunity to engage with the attendees. Normally, you don't really get a chance to talk to attendees until they show up on-site, or you didn't at all in the past. With the network, you do. You have discussions going on."
Schwartz adds that events that have a leader in the community or a dedicated, titled manager whose responsibility is the care and feeding of the network is the most successful scenario. "They have the skills and background needed to support the community," he says. "And having multiple people involved is even better, because you get multiple viewpoints and reach different types of attendees." -- S.B.