Last week, when a discussion on LinkedIn essentially posed this question — “Social Media: All Hat, No Cattle?” — Texas author and blogger Stephen Manning was poised with a fresh-off-the-presses example of social media’s effectiveness.
Manning’s case study? A just-completed conference for writers hosted by DFW Writers’ Workshop, a non-profit association in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
A DFWWW board member and past president, Manning serves as the association’s volunteer webmaster and resident social media strategist. A history buff, Manning has authored two books on World War II-related topics. By day, he’s webmaster for Cook Children’s Health Care System.
Manning says social media were directly responsible for helping DFWWW significantly outperform attendance goals and achieve profitability in the second year of its conference.
Last year, the two-day event attracted 144 attendees, including 110 paid (the rest, guest speakers and literary agents, were admitted free). For 2009, DFWWW set a goal of 150 paid and wound up with 160 (a year-over-year increase of 45 percent).
A Social Media Trifecta
What drove the attendance surge? “In the past year we’ve become a lot more sophisticated about social networking,” Manning says. “A year and a half ago, only a very small percentage of members were on Facebook, and there were maybe two or three of us on Twitter. That’s changed a lot. We were a lot more aware of what we could accomplish with these tools.”
While DFWWW markets its conference heavily to current members via e-mail and during monthly meetings, Manning says Twitter, Facebook and blogging we’re essential to creating awareness and capturing registrations among non-members, including several from states outside of Texas.
How exactly did they do it? To hear Manning tell it, the approach was very straightforward. No deep, dark social media magic here. Consider:
- Blogging. Frequent blog posts in weeks and months prior served to educate members and other blog visitors about the upcoming conference. Whether the post focused on another speaker recruited or an occasional countdown of days left until the event, “Every little excuse we would have an item on there,” Manning says.
- Twitter: The handful of experienced Twitterers among the membership were encouraged to answer “what are you doing?” with frequent tweets about the upcoming conference. Each tweet included the association’s URL
- Facebook. Similarly, a few members of the conference planning committee regularly prodded attendees at the monthly meetings to add DFWWW membership to their profiles, put a mention of the upcoming conference in their Update fields, and mention the event in any “what’s new” kinds of messages added to their pages.”That’s something where you just basically have to ask 1,000 times and every once in a while somebody will go do it,” he says. Manning also took advantage of a widget that automatically generates tweets as a blog post is published, fast-cycling the process of keeping both channels regularly updated with conference news and promotion. DFWWW now has more than 400 followers on Twitter.
How Did You Hear About Us?
A survey of conference attendees bore out the fact that online social media, along with word of mouth from members, were the key to attendance gains.
Of 135 survey respondents, 55 heard about the conference because they are DFWWW members, while another 55 heard via the Internet (including Twitter and Facebook) and e-mail (Manning says they contacted a number of writers groups by e-mail, asking them to forward the news to their contacts, which he considers a form of social networking). Seventeen survey respondents heard about the conference through word of mouth.
By contrast, Manning says the association spent about $1,000 on a single, fractional-page ad in a national writer’s magazine, plus printing and distributing fliers to local book stores, libraries and coffee shops. By his calculation, only three people came to the conference as a result of these more traditional marketing efforts and channels.
Where’s the Beef?
Based on his experience promoting the 2009 DFWWW conference, Manning says the true power of social media comes in its ability to leverage the networks and connections of people who already have an affinity to your organization, brand, event — and through them reach fresh, high-potential prospects.
“Executives who are still asking ‘where’s the beef?’ are wasting time,” he says. “I think when you say that you are trying to treat these tools the same way you would treat a big media buy, traditional media.
“You do not use these tools as just another way to mass market. You use them to target specific segments in an increasingly fragmented market. It’s a good way to reach people with common interests. Not large numbers of people, necessarily. But people who are very likely to have shared interests.”