Every year, the Content Marketing Institute runs two major conferences as well as a bunch of webinars and workshops. But, 2020 being what it is, both conferences have gone virtual – at least for the foreseeable future. Last month, CMI successfully ran its first virtual conference: ContentTECH. Next month, CMI will celebrate ten years of its flagship Content Marketing World conference with an even bigger virtual event. (Full Disclosure: I’m one of the speakers, but don’t let that put you off.) So, this in-between-time seemed like the perfect opportunity to chat with Monina Wagner – CMI’s social media and community manager – about the importance of social media to their events, what has changed to support a virtual conference experience, and what lessons she can share to support a very different conference experience. JC: While most event hashtags are quickly forgotten, the #CMWorld hashtag and related groups remain active all year round. How did CMI turn an event that only runs one week every year into a thriving online community all year round? MW: Joe Pulizzi [CMI’s founder] really believed the hashtag should be a commodity. He didn’t put a year at the end of the hashtag like many events do. Instead of #CMWorld11, #CMWorld12, he left it as just #CMWorld so that, throughout the year, people would be able to find fellow attendees. A prospective attendee could meet people who had been or were also planning to go. And if a content marketer saw an article that might be relevant to someone else, they could attach the hashtag to it. The more touch points a community member has with us, the more likely they are to attend the events. Everything is planned around that hashtag. Is there a different strategy for how you use the various social platforms during an event compared to the rest of the year? Social media is really fluid. Leading up to an event, we’re heavily active on Twitter. We find that a lot of the marketers in our community see Twitter as their go-to for networking and knowledge sharing. So, we have a lot of conversations with them there. And that’s the same during the event. However, on Instagram we might only post two or three times a week outside of an event. But during an event we’re curating stuff from attendees, doing Instagram Lives and Instagram Stories. It’s the same with LinkedIn. LinkedIn has never been a large conversation driver for us – but it is a traffic driver. We aren’t as active on it during events, but only because we’re concentrating on other platforms. We do put event photos on Facebook, or video highlights. So, some stuff will live on Facebook as well. But we don’t usually turn something around quickly for Facebook like we do for the others. CMI has just hosted its first completely virtual conference. How has going virtual changed the social media conversation? The need for social media has grown even more with virtual events. Even with a chat function integrated within the webinar or event platform, it takes away from the experience as opposed to trying to enhance it. There’s no threading available. It’s one long scroll. Whereas on social media you can thread conversations. In the chat function of a streaming platform, no one’s going to read it if you type more than three lines. The chat stream keeps moving. It’s too much too quick. But with a tweet, or a discussion starter in a LinkedIn or Slack group, you’re able to pause and read it and consider what your response will be. So, with ContentTECH, we invited people off the platform and into social media to have those robust conversations. Slack became a bigger part of the social mix at ContentTECH. How did that work? Slack is another social platform we’ve begun to concentrate on. We already had it set up with general content; we have a channel for general content marketing discussions, we have a spot where people can share items they’ve written, we have a spot for job opportunities. For ContentTECH, we created a channel specifically for the event, so those in attendance had a spot where they could network. And we would seed that with questions to make sure there was always some kind of conversation taking place. We were very methodical about inviting people. I didn’t want to open another channel just to have another platform for attendees. I wanted to make sure it was an avenue that provided some kind of value for the attendees. And it really ended up that way. It was nice because it wasn’t just attendees. You’d see speakers in there asking closing questions after their session and providing resources. Also, with a virtual workshop, for example, I don’t want to be on an email chain with 20 other people. But it’s more intimate in Slack. Only workshop attendees are allowed. I can ask my questions and they won’t get lost in a larger group. I can also easily find documents within the Slack channel. That’s a great way to use Slack within a virtual event. It’s still a new platform for a lot of people, but because of this movement towards working from home during COVID, more people have been interested. For virtual events, I think that’s what you’re up against. To watch your event, they’re using a platform they may not be used to, and then you’re going to introduce them to a communications channel they may not be used to. Like, at what point is the attendee at ease? I guess you have to gauge where your audience is. With so many people attending an event or involved in an online community, there will be times when disputes break out or things go off the rails. How do you ensure the community stays positive? We’re really fortunate in that we haven’t had many of those instances. Fortunately for us, when you have brand advocates, when you have a strong community, they will go to bat for you. That’s one of the strengths of a good community is when you know that you don’t even have to say or do anything. They will make sure the person knows we are one community and we stand together. That’s number one. Number two is I remind myself to fall back on the social media playbook. I always have a social media playbook for the brands I work on. It tells you; who you are, who you want, what to do if something happens, who to turn to if you can’t answer. It basically has your decision tree. Falling back on that reminds me what our mission is and how we approach it – and reminds me why I love the job that I do and the community that we serve.