Wednesday, September 16, 2009

7 ways Twitter improves an IT conference. And 2 ways it makes things worse.

This week, VMware announced that the presentations from VMworld 2009 were available for download. And they, of course, used Twitter to do so -- a much used source of "data center dialog," if I do say so myself.

It's been a few weeks since VMworld, but I'm amazed by the engagement still going on with that show via Twitter (check it out for yourself at #vmworld). As Andi Mann from EMA pointed out prior to the event, the VMware folks seem to have this conference tweet-o-rama thing down pretty well.

Which got me thinking: since we're all learning about what to do and not do with Twitter in real time, it might be worth assessing what worked at VMworld -- and IT shows in general -- tweetwise. And, of course, it's always fun to list the things that didn’t work at all (free advice: let’s all try not to do those things next time).

Before I launch into this, I'll note that some of these tweet-enabled scenarios were planned methodically by the show organizers. It's a big part of what's called marketing these days. Other Twitter uses, however, were definitely not in VMware's plans and probably annoyed the organizers to no end. But such is world of Twitter. If you could control it, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting of a phenomenon. Nor as powerful.

So, here are the 7 things I thought worked out really well if you happened to be on Twitter during this show (and, perhaps, will be helpful at many other IT shows like it):

1. Pre-show Build-Up Using Anything and Everything: VMware themselves, I think, did a masterful job of building excitement for the event on Twitter. And the things they used didn't have to be inherently exciting. They showed off the hands-on lab set-up. They showed off the conference bag. They teased the band headlining their party (and many on Twitter teased right back when they learned it was Foreigner). Each of these items was mostly inconsequential, but was an excuse to connect with potential attendees to convince them to come. Or remind people to sign up or even just to plan their on-line calendars.

The best part: an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the event set-up.

The worst part: random folks each saying "Just made my plane reservations to VMworld! W00t!" Either way, it was hard not to be engaged and, yes, looking forward to the event in some way.

2. Crowd-Sourced, Spontaneous Event Idea Generation and Organization: Aside from the now-very-common tweet-ups that have become pretty easy to plan, I watched a 5K fun-run over the Golden Gate Bridge get suggested, accepted, planned, and organized on Twitter in the weeks prior to the show. Requests for volunteers to help organize went out the same way, and runners goaded non-runners into joining with just a few sarcastic tweets. The only downside? A few of the runners returned to the exhibit hall post-run in their commemorative t-shirts prior to taking a commemorative shower. But that's not Twitter's fault.

3. A Way to Deal with Unexpected Logistical Snags: Many of the most popular sessions at VMworld (which, as you might guess, had "cloud computing" in the title) were fully booked pretty far in advance of the show in the pre-show reservation and agenda tool. Very frustrating. But they announced the magical "clearing of waitlists" as they were able via Twitter. And, on-site, the organizers were able to communicate about the hands-on labs when they crashed and were subsequently restored on the first day.

4. An Ad Hoc Meeting Planner for Attendees: We attendees used Twitter to find people we knew were going to be around somewhere/sometime during the week, and alert the world to our presence in general -- or even our specific location. I found CNET blogger and Cisco cloud guru James Urquhart blogging in a random hallway, exactly where he tweeted he'd be. People ID'd me from my Twitter avatar picture and made business connections. I found people I'd interacted with only in 140-character bursts, but never met (for example, it was going to be hard to recognize @beaker without his squirrel disguise, until someone sent a twitpic of him from the exhibition floor). And a few people were even sharing reviews of different parts of the big gala party as it was happening, presumably sending the twitpics and tweets with the hand not holding onto their cocktail.

5. A Way to Start Conversations to be Continued on the Show Floor: A couple vendors had booth staffers with a significant Twitter following. They used the event as a way to encourage folks to come by their booth and continue their on-line discussions. Notice I didn't give kudos for "using it to promote your booth & giveaways.” Sure, vendors used it for that, but keep reading. You get black marks for using Twitter that way.

On the positive side, Microsoft had fluorescent t-shirts identifying their tweeters, a great way to open a conversation with them. Twitter is a way to have a ready-made intro for talking to someone you're following (or vice versa). Suddenly the event is full of almost-friends and conversations can pick up where they may have left off on-line -- or take off from scratch pretty rapidly.

6. How to Get Around the Rules of the Show (AKA "The Rebuttal"): Sure, Twitter is a way to enable those not at the show to "listen in," participate, comment, etc. That's been well documented since Twitter showed up on the scene. But VMworld also featured "The Rebuttal" from none other than the Microsoft contingent. Sure, they weren't allowed to show their competitive products on the show floor, but they weren't shy about tweeting their thoughts throughout the keynotes and providing some reality checks of the hosts' spin machine. I'm not sure I agreed with all of their snarky on-show-floor commentary countering the VMware hype, but I definitely read it. It also brought up this odd situation: Microsoft as underdog. That's a bit amusing, when you think about it. Twitter's often seen as a great equalizer or content meritocracy, meaning people you've never heard of can get their two cents in. Microsoft proved the big guys can, too.

7. The Continuation of the At-the-Show, “In the Club” Feeling Long after the Event Is Over: I'm still checking (and contributing to) the #VMworld hashtag two weeks after they finished sweeping the final blinking give-away pens out of Moscone. Sure, the message flurry is nothing like it was during the event, but it has kept going. The post-event content was slower, but filled with commentary (like this one...and my previous post) and (guess what) free publicity for the organizers. Sure, VMware used the after-show tweets to publicize what the virtual twitterati were saying about them and the event (especially the good stuff), but they also used it to shape the commentary, and remind attendees that they had a great time. All that sure beats the traditional post-show survey.

OK, so those were the things that Twitter seemed to improve. What didn’t work?

1. The Twitter Analyst NDA: VMware caused another phenomenon and debate: analysts attending their Monday pre-show pre-briefings were told that the event was under non-disclosure. And, yes, that meant no tweeting. There were a few meta-tweets about not tweeting, but most analyst attendees didn't use Twitter much at all on Monday. So when Tuesday's main-stage show began, the backlog of messages and content that the analysts had been stewing over for 24 hours flew by with wild abandon.

The meta-tweets sparked another discussion that I saw several people join in over the following few days: how much information was OK to disclose? Tweeting that you were at an event getting a pre-briefing under NDA meant you were acknowledging that the "secret briefing" event was happening, and that you were merely not talking about the specific content. Some other industry events and briefings are requiring that no tweets even mention that a briefing was taking place. This war has a lot of skirmishes to work out still. NDAs and Twitter require a lot of work on the side of both the briefer and the briefee to get it right.

To be clear, the NDA actually worked as VMware wanted it to, but I'm not sure if that qualifies as a good thing. Watch this space.

2. "Come by Our Booth" Tweets: Perhaps the most useless and annoying tweets of the week were those described by one person as tweets that went something a little like this: "Hey there! Be sure to come by Booth # ___ to talk to ____ [vendor name] about ________ [product being sold] and have a chance to win a ______ [expensive techie gadget]." These messages are antithetical to how Twitter can best be used. To me, they said, "Move along, skip that booth; no conversation to be had there."

Ending up with more to do at a conference

All told, I feel like I got much more out of this event than I had previously, but also walked away with a feeling that there was even less time to get everything I wanted done during the week. The connections I made were stronger and more robust, though, and I have to admit it's because of Twitter. I'm interested to hear what others who attended thought -- and what people who've attended other tweet-enabled shows have seen that works great. Or badly.

But of course, the real question is: when do I start watching the #VMworld2010 hashtag?


Jeff Mann said...

Useful comments about your experience. I love being able to watch an event this way, even when I can't make it to the IRL venue.

Matt Curtis said...

Great article. A good analysis of how to use Twitter effectively in tradeshow / conference marketing.

[talking about Twitter here] "If you could control it, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting of a phenomenon. Nor as powerful."

I think that this is a very insightful point and would be interested in hearing more about why this is the case.

I also really enjoyed the examples you shared from your experiences at the VMworld conference. Do you feel that the model they followed could be applied across different industries? What about this conference serving the IT services population may have helped Twitter as a marketing tool be more successful?

I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis of #2 on what didn't work ("Come by Our Booth" Tweets). I think that one possible reason for this is that its meaningless spam that has no personality - they're created based on a formula (which you derived, hilariously).

Jay Fry said...

Jeff: I think I'll probably start to add another criteria to whether I attend shows in person or not from now on: will I be able to get what I'd want out of the show over Twitter?

For events where I'm just looking for high-level content, I bet "attending" via Twitter will be enough. But there are definitely others that I want to be there for the full immersion experience. Sure, there are the sessions, but it's the hallway conversations that are not easily replaced.

Jay Fry said...

Matt: I think the power of Twitter is in lots of individual personalities able to express their individual opinions in a way that the world can get access to.

The blah blah blah of come-by-the-booth tweets is enough to make me want to switch off (or unfollow) for the reason you said: no personality. And it's not a conversation. In short, Twitterspam. Easily avoided, but still spam.

I think the things that the VMware folks employed are certainly valid across industries. But a critical mass of attendees (and wannabe attendees) have to be on Twitter for it to be interesting to watch/follow that way. That critical mass of tweeters may not be in place as commonly outside the IT industry. Even inside the IT industry, some events seem pretty sleepy still from a Twitter standpoint (Data Center World in Orlando this week, for example).

Michael said...

If your event is virtual then Twitter is even more interesting. That's why we have integrated Twitter with our ubivent virtual event platform.

We have also experienced that users get a lot more pro-active when they use Twitter during watching a streamed video or during a chat at a virtual booth. This attracts new attendees since they also want to watch this video or visit the booth...

If you're interested in virtual event platforms you could have a look at


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