It has to be said: people have a way too romantic idea about consultants going to conferences. True, we are spoiled by the vendors (and our company), we stay in nice hotels, meet great people, food is usually pretty good but trust me… it’s pretty hard work! I recently visited the SAP TechEd 2008 conference in Berlin where we did a social media experiment and only a week after the conference I can say that I finally kind of physically recovered and caught up with work.
But what is so fun about spending 16 hours per day on the conference floor and catching up each night with 50 to 100 emails in your hotel? My answer is: the people! There are two reasons why we at Capgemini go to conferences: learning and networking. With over 300 sessions, SAP TechEd can be considered as one of the larger technical conferences and you can enter the first at 8.30 AM and finish the last one at 7 PM. The big problem is that you have often a couple of very interesting sessions at the same time, so every choice is also a disappointment that you can’t attend the other sessions. But we deliberately don’t fully book our agendas because we want to talk with colleagues from other countries, competitors, vendors, community and technical evangelists, etc. And this is where the real big added value comes from a conference that cannot beat the fanciest webinar!
Knowing this, we did a pretty cool experiment where we did a live coverage of the TechEd event with the use of the social media tools Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. As you can read here, here and here, we got quite an advanced cell phone from Nokia (N96 with amazing 5 MP camera) to take pictures and do video interviews with community and technical evangelists and upload them directly with UMTS or HSDPA connection to the WWW. Using the microblogging tool Twitter, we covered the sessions we attended and also engaged in discussions with members of the SAP communities.
Some interesting results:

  • For a lot of people, this was the first time that they got in contact with microblogging tools like Twitter. While I always have it difficult to explain why one could use a microblogging tool, now people started to sign up and follow me because they had a clear value in doing so. While following the event coverage, they started to see the benefits of getting in contact with other community members and some of them are using it as a daily knowledge sharing / discussion tool now.
  • Why are people at SAP TechEd using Twitter? Most of them are not using this for covering the event and send it to the outside world as we did. No, it is mainly used as a social tool to meet up and see where the other conference visitors are. When someone was chilling at the Community Club House, you simple put a status message “chillin’ at the clubhouse, drop by for a coffee and chat”, or “shall we meet up for lunch in main lobby at 1 pm?”. For the first time I saw people using Twitter as a replacement for push email, SMS or phone call.

We considered the experiment as quite successful since it almost didn’t cost us anything, but we got so much feedback and got in contact with great people we would have never known without using these tools. That’s why we are looking at expanding this initiative and do this for every major event so that we can interact much more with our own Capgemini community but especially with the other (vendor) communities. It’s what we call “from transaction to interaction”. Nowadays it would be a waste of opportunities to just set up a static site with the slide decks and some pictures, the tools are out there to directly engage and interact during and after the event with the community.
Last but not least, thank you SAP for the great rock concert with Steve Winwood! (also thanks to Florian Hollender for inspiring me for the title 😉 )