For all conference organizers, regardless of industry, there are events that simply do it right. For politicos, economists and world leaders, the Aspen Ideas Festival (run by the Aspen Institute) has been a red-letter event since its inception in 2005.
As one snarky Salon writer put it, “The festival … is like South by Southwest for people who are willing to pay Thomas Friedman money for his thoughts.”
One snarky Salon writer said it best: “The festival … is like South by Southwest for people who are willing to pay Thomas Friedman money for his thoughts.”This year’s event featured over three hundred speakers, ranging from cyclist Lance Armstrong to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to Arianna Huffington to Evan Williams of Twitter.
What’s more, the event is hosted in a gorgeous campus in Aspen, Colorado:
Aspen leverages its picturesque location, mountainous seclusion, and open-air venues to inspire global thinking and sharing.
Aspen is not only successful because of a star-studded speaker list and unbelievable location; it is one of a very few conferences where social media plays a starring role. [Others might include for example TED and the aforementioned SXSW.]
How did AIF take a small, elite event in the mountains and make it boom on social media? Well, the answer lies in a combination of the things we always focus on here. Aspen emphasized the content, and enabled the conversation. It achieved this by not only setting the high-level strategic goal but also recruiting up-and-coming technology trailblazers like Eric Kuhn who helped create CNN’s social media strategy and now works at United Talent Agency.
A few examples from the great article on The Next Web:
Aspen made the physical space super-friendly for social sharing.
“The first step to optimizing your conference for social media sharing, [said conference organizer Jeffrey Harris], is to ensure that people can actually log on to the Internet. “We’ve made efforts to extend the regional wi-fi across the entire campus.”
These efforts have paid off as the volume shared and searched for about Aspen Ideas has grown exponentially since the large-scale adoption of social media. Look at the Google Trends results for 2010 and 2011 versus the practically non-existent search traffic from 2005-09.
After facilitating organic sharing from live attendees, Aspen made the event as real as possible for those who weren’t able to be there.
“[W]e really want to make sure that we’re spreading what’s going on here to as many people as possible. To do that we want to get the festival present as many places online as possible.By that, he meant covering the event on multiple platforms.”
Aspen’s branding and message was everywhere on social media during the event. A Facebook page let users Like the AI Festival and get daily updates through the most popular network. On Tumblr, organizers posted up-to-the-minute quotes and pictures with a bit more control over formatting and presentation. Finally, a Twitter account and official hashtag (#AspenIdeas) allowed users to interact in real time as talks happened - tweeting and retweeting prominent remarks is becoming very common at these events. All of these sites would be great inspiration for conference organizers looking to lend a professional look to their event media.
The team took it up another level by partnering with Foursquare - another reminder that location-based check-in services are going to be big in the near future, particularly at large networking events. We’re working on a blog post helping you look at some great options in the near future.
But location-based check-ins and timely hashtags can also help you direct the content, as the opportunists at Aspen knew:
The benefits of using festival-specific hashtags and Foursquare check-ins is twofold, Harris said. Obviously, it encourages conference goers to communicate with each other, but it also allows his staff to sit back and watch the burgeoning trends that emerge from the conversation; if a speaker says something newsworthy, for instance, Harris will see a sudden flurry of tweets, and his team can focus on that particular session when they’re deciding what speeches to highlight on the festival’s website or its Tumblr page.
Getting conversation to drive content in that way is an organizer’s dream. Give your attendees what they want - not next year after collecting feedback, but live.
Another content-to-conversation tool - less cost effective but an option for those with larger budgets - was AIF’s partnership with video-sharing sites such as FORA.tv to offer streaming speeches to those who couldn’t make it. While a FORA.tv subsciption cost some money, the more budget-conscious could watch the constant clips being posted to YouTube and the official AIF web site.
Finally, Aspen is strategic in its aims for social media. They are not necessarily creating new content, but rather improving the speed and reach of conversation about the top-notch content they already have.
“The past couple years, we’ve seen news coming out of here at a faster rate. Not necessarily more news is being made, but we’ve seen news coming out of the festival a lot quicker and from a lot more sources.”
Will a great social media strategy make a bad event a good one? Probably not. You still need great content and an engaged audience. But can well-executed social media take a good, small event and help you raise your profile exponentially? Absolutely it can.
Thanks to TNW author Simon Owens and to Hugo Van Vuuren, an Aspen attendee, for forwarding this great summary.