In an effort to exploit every point of contact available, as well as to experiment a bit with the possibilities for mobile messaging, today’s more tech-savvy conference organizers are discovering the power of SMS.
SMS (“short message service,” for those of you still resisting the tug of cellphonilia) are those little text messages your kids send each other via mobile phone. While most text messages are sent from one mobile phone to another, they can also be written and sent from the Internet. New software and pay services allow senders to deliver text messages to entire lists of mobile phones at the same time.
So far, advertisers have known better than to spam hapless mobile phone users with text messages. Besides, unlike e-mail, SMS can be easily traced back to the original source. And, depending on the mobile phone and service, it can cost money. But many people are willing to receive messages from companies or organizations, particularly when they are immediately relevant.
For the event organizer looking to inform, welcome or otherwise communicate with attendees, SMS provides a new and highly effective point of contact. It’s so effective, in fact, that those using such a potentially invasive tool had better do it sparingly and carefully.
The absolute rule should be to use SMS only when e-mail would not have sufficed. When is it likely that an attendee just won’t have access to his computer? When is it likely that the message is worth interrupting an attendee’s experience?
At most of the events where I’ve witnessed SMS in use, planners have begun sending text messages to their attendees a few days before the event. They usually start as simple reminders, teasers and other introductory tidbits. Except for a test message announcing the service and offering the recipient a chance to “opt out,” these are entirely unnecessary and unwelcome messages.
The first set of messages should be held until attendees actually arrive at the airport. If you’ve got flight arrival times in their registrations, that’s easy enough to pull off—and a great way to demonstrate your effort to “host” them. Let them know where to get the shuttle and where to find the welcome desk at the hotel.
What makes that message appropriate for mobile phone delivery is that it is both location- and time-specific. The value of the message is dependent on where and when it is received. And that’s why it had to be sent to the mobile phone.
Throughout the event, any text messages should satisfy both of those requirements. If you send a message about the opening night party to people who are milling around on the exhibitor floor in the morning, you are not serving anyone. On the other hand, if you want to let them know that a special guest speaker will be appearing prior to the keynote in 15 minutes, you’ve got a good reason to reach them wherever they are, at that moment.
Of course, mistakes will be made. You’ll end up sending a message or two to attendees in different time zones that missed their flights—and waking them up. Or you’ll send one too many announcements about a party and get accused of favoring one sponsor over another.
What will save you from crowd wrath, however, is exactly what should save any conference from suffering the consequences of interactivity blunders: true audience participation. People must see themselves as active participants in any interactive media experience; this means, at least for now, letting them in on the decisions you’re making, how you are making them and how, tentatively, you are doing so.
First off, if you’re going to utilize any messaging beyond e-mail alerts, then make sure people understand they are opting in. Remember: A person cannot participate involuntarily. Since you are probably not going to have a way for people to SMS back to you, their opportunity to opt-in is the sole moment of technological interactivity your subscribers will enjoy. This must be a clear moment of choice, an extension of their agency and an act that is fully and clearly acknowledged—and reversible with a single response.
Second, and more importantly, participants must be made to feel they are part of an experiment in media—not just as lab rats, but as scientists. If you present the opportunity to receive messages as a chance to explore a new medium in a new context, then all mistakes will be forgiven in advance. It’s an experiment, after all. Part of the point is to push the boundaries, make mistakes and learn from them. Together.
Once people perceive of themselves as participating in a lab, modeling new behaviors and co-creating a new set of media protocols, their orientation to the whole conference will have shifted. Then, you will have reaped the real benefit of using interactive technology in the first place. It’s not about giving them information; it’s about elevating your attendees’ role from passive audience members to active contributors.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF speaks and writes about communication, values, culture and organizations. His latest book is Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. He can be contacted via www.rushkoff.com.
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