May 25, 2011

For Conferences, Nothing Beats Tweets

Ah, poor Twitter, the chronically misunderstood, black sheep of the social media family. And it's no wonder. For starters, many social media gurus who advise lawyers don't know how to use it themselves; focusing on quantity of followers rather than quality of contacts. Other lawyers dismiss Twitter because it didn't work for them, or worse, because they simply assume, without direct experience, that it won't work for them.

I'll admit, it can be tough to get the hang of Twitter - partly because the platform itself is as mercurial as its 140-character mode of interaction. Since my co-author Nicole Black (@nikiblack) and I published our book, Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, Twitter has morphed from a platform for sharing status updates (what are you doing now?) to serving many other functions: a traffic-driver for blogs and other online publications, a source of current events, a way for users to make themselves indispensable to followers with interesting news tidbits and a way to keep in touch with, or joke around with friends.

I use Twitter for all those purposes (don't ask me my ROI but I'm certainly having fun) - but it's probably been most useful for a very narrow and specific purpose: conferences. So for those of you who can't figure out how to get value out of Twitter, this post is for you.

But first, let's back up a bit and talk about conferences generally. I don't know about you but for me, conference attendance represents a huge cost. Even if the conference admission isn't particularly expensive, there are opportunity costs. When I'm at a conference, I'm out of the office and I'm not working. So if I don't make contacts at a conference, I'm not just out of pocket the cost-of-entry but foregone billable hours as well.

At the same time, getting the most out of conferences requires advance work (finding out who will be at the conference and setting up meetings) and follow-up (sending "nice to meet you cards or emails" and keeping in touch). Moreover, if I'm able to speak at the conference, I'm likely to have more visibility and make more contacts than if I simply attend. Pre and post-conference legwork can be time consuming, while snagging a speaking engagement is a crap-shoot. But Twitter can help with all of these activities. Here's how.

Pre-conference:

*Use Twitter to let others know that you'll be attending a conference and to find out who else might be attending. If you learn that one of your followers will be at the conference, DM (direct message) them and make arrangements to meet face to face. Or organize a Tweet-up for conference attendees and others you know at the conference destination.


*If you're able to get a list of attendees before the conference, start following a few of them before the conference. What you learn about other attendees through their tweets can serve as an icebreaker if you bump into them at the conference.


*If you're lucky enough to be speaking at the conference, try to arrange for someone to attend you session and tweet it. You'll get extra exposure from your talk.


*If you haven't been chosen as a speaker, or the conference is outside of your budget, approach one of the organizers and propose to tweet the conference sessions in exchange for complimentary or reduced-free admission. Most conference organizers would appreciate the on-going exposure provided by a stream of tweets. And you'll get to attend the conference for less, plus gain visibility by serving as one of the conference's real-time reporters.

During the Conference:

*If you decide to tweet the conference, first determine whether a "hashtag" (#) has been assigned to the conference. A hashtag is used to mark a topic so that all tweets about that topic - no matter who posts them -- can be easily located simply by following or searching the hashtagged term.


*If you're tweeting at the request of conference organizers, keep your tweets professional. Don't insult or criticize speakers or other attendees. By contrast, if you're tweeting on behalf of yourself, you can take more liberties in expressing your opinion or making jokes.


*Keep an eye out for other attendees tweeting the conference and track them down at the break. A great icebreaker.


*Though I can't say I agree, at least one of my colleagues has suggested giving out your Twitter handle (e.g., @carolynelefant) instead of a business card at conferences. At the events that I frequent in the energy industry, no one would have a clue what I'm talking about (I've met colleagues who still don't have email), but depending upon your target audience, it may be worth a shot.


*Don't limit your Twitter usage at the conference to business only. Use Twitpic or another similar service to post photos of the venue and surrounding location. If you're away from your home turf, tweet out questions seeking tips on not-to-be-missed bars or restaurants or the best way to get from one place to another.

Post Conference:

*Follow all of the new contacts you've met at the conference - and check in every so often with a DM or a phone call. It's a great low-key way to keep in touch.


*Throughout the year, look for opportunities to meet face to face with contacts you've met at the conference.

If you're going to go to the time and expense of attending a conference, you might as well get your money's worth. Twitter can help you do that - and it won't cost you anything at all. Though it may not work for all types of marketing, for conferences, nothing beats tweets.

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