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ICCA Resource

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Volume 23 - October 2008

Social & Viral Marketing in an Internet Age

By Alec Walker-Love, Marketing & Communications Manager, MCI Brussels

A billion people are now online
1. It’s a staggering figure, and a number that not only continues to grow; but comprises an increasing number of people that are comfortable with internet use and interaction. Attractive, isn’t it? How can associations get a slice of this pie?

Myspace, facebook, Second Life and a variety of smaller, active - and often more focused – online communities have entered our daily vocabulary. The internet today, in particular, provides a platform for likeminded and active citizens and consumers to connect, group together and excerpt influence. Try making a search for your association area of interest in a professional networking site, such as LinkedIn or Xing and you may well find that your members, prospective members and event attendees are already doing things for themselves (and they may even be paying a membership fee for it). Influential website trendwatching.com2 coined the phrase “Crowd Clout” to describe this trend of behaviour.
Websites enable users to create and experience social networks that are transparent and quick to mobilise. Information can travel exceptionally quickly and ‘online thought leadership’ has become a more mature concept. Online crowds, it seems, can be incredibly well informed, dynamic and intelligent. This is fertile but challenging ground for marketers and associations.
Even a few short years ago, many of us may not have held the internet in such high-esteem. Many association membership groups may have heard some of the following statements - “members don’t have the time”, “our demographic is too old”, “we lack control online” - or had explored a short-lived legacy of failed message boards.

For all the allure, associations are right to have some reservations about moving into the online arena to create a community around interest areas, specific events and campaigns. There can be a fine line between success and failure. However, to a large extent all organisations need to be considering very carefully about how to more into this online space. You may even be forced to, as existing or potential members and delegates fulfil their needs online; where your association no-longer has a monopoly on knowledge and networking.

Let’s look at some of the key channels available to reach out, connect and influence:

The Professional Network
Key players:,

Such sites avoid the unnecessary clutter of more informal networks, and largely help users to extend business contacts, relationships and interests. LinkedIn has around 150 million members and is a little more geared towards finding your next job and finding potential clients. Xing claims 6 million professional users daily, and an approximate membership of 40 million users. The community and message boards can be dynamic on both and give access to high quality users. Because of their ‘trusted network’ way of connecting individuals and direct messaging, responsiveness to initiatives you create in these two sites is high.
Creating an interest group on Xing, a recent healthcare client quickly grew from 70 to over 1000 members within their online group. A regular e-newsletter kept members informed of the latest association developments and even translated the new ‘virtual’ community into a real one – with a cocktail reception for 50 persons at their major event. This proved to be a great way to familiarise interested parties with the organisation and increased delegate attendance as well!
The Grassroots Campaign
Key players: facebook, Bebo, YouTube, Second Life…
The most well known of the current batch of internet superstars, these sites can be a great source of visibility for public awareness and grassroots campaigning. If you have a cause to publicise and a story to tell you may want to consider developing a presence or content here. You may well have a facebook account and wish to use it principally for one-to-one relationships. Increasingly, it is being used as a campaign vehicle by individuals and organisations.
For an annual global grassroots campaign3, facebook and YouTube formed the backbone of a video drive alongside other websites and blogs – encouraging people to sign up, view it, and pass it along across the internet Already something we had experimented with in 2006, it was only in 2008 and the first steps of the 2009 campaign are beginning to see real results. The next campaign will look forward to ‘take off’ in the next few months and achieve real momentum; but it did take time. With a resident Second Life expert and addict on the staff it cannot be long before this avenue is tested. For many, it is a step too far! Using video as the key content is certainly an effective way to attract attention to key messages.
The Blogs
Key players: Senior management? Members? Volunteers? You?
A 103 year old blogger recently passed away, causing a huge wave of news items and online comment. Hey, even large amounts of senior management are getting the hang of it! An undoubted buzz-word we have all become familiar with, blogs have created an army of amateur journalists, commentators and curiosities. Why have they been so popular? They are a great way to deliver small, digestible pieces of insight, news and material in a transparent and easily accessible way.
In order to drive event attendance, consider using a blog to track the progress, developments and rigour of your event preparations. If your high-level programme committee have just looked at a really great set of papers, let people know about it. Regular blog entries can add dynamism to the event website and give users a reason to return and spend more time on the site. Copy created for the blog can also be used as a basis for news items across more traditional communications channels. In the model of internet transparency, you might allow leading stakeholders to have author’s rights to add their insight or open the blog up for comments. A final marketing advantage is that by having your own blog – and the quality is high enough - you may become ‘one of them’ (it can be a fierce peer-to-peer environment where you have to prove your credentials). This will give you greater access to fellow bloggers who may be more sensitive to reporting your pre-event marketing, onsite news and post-event reporting. Looking ahead, you may even want to micro-blog to event participants direct to their PDA using Twitter4 or Pluck5.
The Onsite & Post Event Experience
Key players: Onsite audio visual, videotographers, blogs, event and organisation websites, print magazines, web-streaming
What is more social that the actual event itself? If your marketing plan has incorporated social marketing tools to get you there, continue to use them during and after the event. Encourage keynote speakers and selected attendees to make an entry on the blog or speak to camera on site for instantly quotable material and top-level content that can be used throughout the year across print and electronic channels. Ambitious marketers may want to use video shot during the day one of the event to be shown on screens in high frequency networking areas during day two. This will demonstrate a high-level of engagement and create an experience for attendees that they will want to share afterwards.
Top tips for application
After a brief look at some of the possibilities and their application, a quick summary on this exciting new world of social & viral marketing and community:
Social networking - it’s a great feedback opportunity (never enough of that). Smart organisations are listening, responding and embracing the capacity to engage audiences more deeply and thereby transform communication into dialogue… and experience.
Ensure your organisation’s expectations and culture is prepared to engage with social media and marketing channels. This is not a corporate communications exercise. The concept of social marketing is empowering to users, but won’t achieve anything if you don’t let them.
Integrate social and viral marketing properly with your traditional marketing activities. Allow the nature of these tools to offer variety, interest and options for the undecided attendee, or the prospective member.
Maintain and invest in quality to deliver online ‘thought leadership’. Throw-away copy and lack of insight will not suffice in a world of over 200 million blogs and just as many websites.
Know your limits, stay focused and don’t get over powered by the possibilities.
About MCI
Founded in 1987 and with offices in Abu Dhabi, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Belfast, Berlin, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Dublin, Dubai, Geneva, Gothenburg, Lyon, Madrid, Mumbai, Paris, Petersfield/London, Prague, Rome, Shanghai, Singapore, Stockholm, Stuttgart, Tokyo, Vienna and Zurich, MCI is the foremost global association, communications and event management company. MCI are thought-leaders in building community around brands, products and services for companies and institutions. MCI employs close to 750+ people and its budget under management by year-end 2007, was 181 M€. – main website - a resource for global strategy, regional planning and local execution

About the author
Alec Walker-Love is a UK national with a background in Political Sciences and Public Affairs. He spent time as a policy research assistant for a Member of the European Parliament and assistant in European and International Affairs for the City of Birmingham Council before making a permanent move to Brussels, Belgium. After joining a consultancy specialised in marketing and communicating programs of the European Commission, Alec developed pan-European marketing and content for events and multimedia initiatives in Research and Development and eGovernment. Before joining MCI, he worked with an international trade association marketing a portfolio of events in EMEA, Asia- Pacific and Latin America. He has additional experience in exhibition marketing and sponsorship
programmes. He has lived and worked in UK, France and Italy and speaks French and English fluently, and some Italian when offered wine.
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