by Michael J. Shapiro | November 01, 2010

Social media activity at one of the world's largest trade shows skyrocketed this year: Ten times more people contributed information and commentary through the handful of active platforms than did at the previous event. Was it a show known for its youthful crowd or cutting-edge consumer gadgetry? Not at all: It was September's International Manufacturing Technology Show.

"Traditionally, manufacturing has been an older crowd that was slow to adopt social media," admits Monica Haley, marketing communications manager for the Chicago-based Association for Manufacturing Technology, which owns the trade show. But this year, according to Haley and co-worker Lee Anne Orange, special projects manager for exhibitions, something changed. Watching the discussion unfold on Twitter, in particular, caused many to reassess their perception of these forums. Social media went from "things their kids did" to effective business and marketing communications tools.

Haley has worked with AMT's social media initiative since its inception in 2006 and helped to debut several platforms at the 2008 IMTS (the show is biennial.) She didn't think the association should be limited by the increasingly outdated notion that social media only caters to a younger demographic. "That inevitably would change, as we knew it would. And we wanted to get out ahead of the curve," she explains, adding that this year's success in large part was driven by the proliferation of mobile technology.

Social Media chart"More people are walking around with smartphones and iPads and using them at the show," Haley points out. Plus, there's the popularity of the platforms themselves: Facebook grew from 100 million users in 2008 to more than 500 million in just two years -- while increasingly gaining users a good deal older than the college crowd for which it was originally created. Twitter's community exploded from about three million just two years ago to more than 160 million in 2010. LinkedIn grew nearly 350 percent in the same period and now has more than 80 million users.

Clearly, the masses have embraced social media; for trade show organizers, it's just a matter of learning how best to use it.