Not so long ago, when we attended meetings, we went to sessions, collected handouts, made connections over coffee or at receptions, and then returned to our homes or offices and shared what we had experienced with our co-workers. Our community was centered on family, office mates and people in the area where we lived and worked.
Today, communities have become virtual realms where we are never out of touch -- a fact of modern life with many ramifications for our industry.
In the not-so-distant past, those who didn't attend a meeting might have caught up by reading someone else's handouts or listening to recordings. Today, a meeting is an event that can span months preceding and after the dates of the physical gathering, aided by online communication.
Some organizations start talking about the next meeting during the current meeting, so attendees can begin contributing ideas for content and activities. There is no better time to get feedback. In this way, attendees are invited to take some ownership of the meeting, and they become a valued part of the community that shapes the event.
As the meeting takes shape, discussion boards or blogs can be used to fine-tune the agenda and build buzz. As more people join the conversation, they typically begin planning additional activities. This might even result in special-interest groups springing up that either meet in conjunction with the meetings or become a part of the core agenda.
At The Meeting
Tweeting has become the fastest-growing way to stay in touch with others at an event. For example, HSMAI's Affordable Meetings has a Twitter account (twitter.com/AffordableMTGS), from which the organization shares information with more than 1,000 followers, ranging from agenda changes and special exhibitor tweets, to comments on presentations and events. When no event is happening, HSMAI stays in touch with Twitter followers by way of trivia contests and the like.
Through the Twitter site or by downloading various free applications, you can arrange to have Twitter messages, or tweets, delivered to mobile phones, one's own Twitter page, free programs such as TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop, or instant messaging services. You can pose a question, provide a response or just keep people informed instantly. Think about the many uses to promote events, build buzz about a general presentation or send an alert about news or changes. You also can quickly respond to issues about temperature in a room or malfunctioning audiovisual equipment, to name two examples.
If everyone is tweeting, who's paying attention? And who monitors the tweets? For the Twitter account to be effective, someone from the host organization must be consistently monitoring and responding when appropriate -- and fixing simple problems that can crop up, such as faulty A/V or cold coffee.
Some meetings have begun to ban texting, tweeting and messaging during sessions, but that is really difficult to enforce. Show organizers are better off participating in a Twitter conversation than denying its presence.
Pressing the Button
A new option for building community at your meetings is the MingleStick from Mingle360, a device that combines a USB thumb drive, wireless connectivity and software that lets attendees share their information with one another at the click of a button. Later, they go online to see who they met and decide what they want to share with each contact.