The un-networked Network

Last week, during two-and-a-half days in Spain (with a client) focused on a conference event run by the European BIC Network (EBN), it became clear that not all organisations that profess to be concerned with information-sharing and collaboration yet actually practice what they preach. Moreover, potential PR and marketing opportunities were also being missed before, during and after the event through lack of participant and other stakeholder engagement via Web 2.0 tools.

(Please note, though, I am not singling out EBN for particular criticism (hopefully, constructive) – indeed, the EBN congress had some positive aspects that could be consolidated at future events. But like many other organisations (and I could list a good number within the UK architecture, engineering and construction sector in particular), this body has yet to make a concerted transition from Web 1.0 techniques and technologies towards Web 2.0.)

Low social media engagement

From the perspective of an experienced PR and marketing professional with some years of social media expertise under his belt, perhaps I was naive in expecting the EBN Congress to adopt some of the practices that are increasingly common at UK-based events. However, for a conference attracting over 200 delegates (many of them working for EU-backed and/or other publicly funded organisations: BICs, or Business Innovation Centres, or related businesses deploying cutting edge ICT, technology and other solutions), I was expecting there to be a real online buzz about the event, and a concerted effort to show value-for-(tax-payers) money by sharing content and helping attendees and others get the most from the event.

However, the public EBN website offers little or no interaction (apart from email and form submission) and almost no social media presence:

  • website content cannot be easily shared or bookmarked
  • no RSS feed of news or other updates
  • there are no online discussion forums (at least not in the public-facing pages; there is a members-only area) or blog(s)
  • the organisation doesn’t appear to have any organisation or group presence on LinkedIn (despite many conference delegates having active LinkedIn profiles) or on Facebook (could be useful given the frequent links to universities)
  • no Twitter account
  • No YouTube channel (conference proceedings were recorded extensively)
  • No Wikipedia page (EBN is briefly mentioned in a page about Berytech, for example, and other BICs also have pages).
  • No event presentations shared on SlideShare (some past event presentations are available in PDF format – update (9 July 2010): this year’s presentations were also shared via PDF)

On a (slightly) more positive note, a dedicated website was established for the conference in Burgos, and it included some simple ‘share this’ capabilities allowing users to post a link to the event to Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. However, speaker profiles were shared as traditional website paragraphs (again, shared via PDFs – how simple it would have been to include links to their LinkedIn profiles, for example), and there was no official conference Twitter account (no hashtag) nor details of the event on any social sites.

People were travelling to Burgos from all over Europe (and some from even further afield) so one could envisage some simple use of mapping tools to help people visualise the spread of attendance, and perhaps use of Dopplr, TripAdvisor, FourSquare, etc, to share travel, accommodation and socialising ideas.

Did anyone notice?

EBN annual congress, Burgos, SpainThe absence of an official Twitter account dawned on me (and a few other attendees) during the first full day (another positive note was the ready availability of wifi across much of the Hotel Abba used for the EBN event).

A handful of delegates (me included) searched Twitter for mentions of the event – meeting for some real-life conversations and demonstrating the networking power of Twitter. Otherwise, our respective use of Twitter was mainly restricted to sharing pictures and comments about the event to our respective followers, helping spread the word to non-attendees about the EBN congress and – in my case – about the event’s Awards competition (my client was shortlisted for an award).

The 2010 EBN conference, for the first time, incorporated a competition to showcase entrepreneurial endeavour among businesses supported by BICs. One might have thought that this would be something worth shouting about, and perhaps worth relaying some live coverage. I have run numerous events over the past couple of years where proceedings have been shared via live video stream (eg: Ustream), live-blogging (both CoverItLive and conventional blogger platforms) and Twitter (sharing words, photos and weblinks), with Twitter also providing a convenient ‘back channel’ for attendees to chat and provide feedback to each other, to the organisers and to other people following the event online (the total online audience often exceeds the number of actual real-life attendees).

But to me and a few others, any EBN official event channels were conspicuously absent. (Three award candidates – Broker Inc, SliderStudio and Fishing Cactus – did blog about their shortlisting ahead of the event so it may have been frustrating for their friends not to be able to follow the event.)

Government departments do it

Some people might say that sharing online content via Web 2.0 platforms is something best done by media organisations or companies pushing youth-focused consumer brands, but that is no long the case. Newspapers and broadcasters are increasingly using the full range of social networking platforms, as are public bodies and companies engaged in business-to-business (B2B) transactions. They are recognising that getting the message out – either via the media, or direct to their target audiences – will increasingly require new tools and techniques to use alongside conventional PR, marketing, investor relations, customer service and other stakeholder engagement processes.

This is already happening in UK government circles. For instance, the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (probably the ministry most relevant to EBN-related activities) has a @bisgovuk Twitter account and numerous RSS feeds; official photographs of ministerial visits, conferences, etc are now routinely posted to bisgovuk’s Flickr pages; and there is a bisgovuk YouTube channel updated with new videos almost weekly. EBN commissioned both photography and video of the Burgos event so perhaps we might yet see this content shared online?

Why it’s important

Some organisations may feel that they do not need to do more to engage with their stakeholders online; for example, their work may be narrowly focused, much of it may be confidential or sensitive, or they may have extensive and regular personal contacts. Others, though, will have mission statements that commit them to being open and communicative. It is instructive to look at EBN’s values and guiding principles and the mission statement and see how frequently ideals of sharing, connecting, communicating, collaborating and the like are described; I have highlighted some of the key words below:

Values and guiding principles

  • To be truly pan-European and internationally connected
  • To be responsive and customer-oriented
  • To be membership driven
  • To represent our members collectively, and individually at European, national and regional levels
  • To be non-profit-making, transparent and democratic
  • To be participative with members of the Association, in close cooperation with national groupings of EBN members
  • To bring added-value services to the Association’s members
  • To conduct the Association as a vibrant and open community, adequately positioned and partnering with other specialised European and international networks

EBN Mission

  • To create and strengthen a vibrant community of entrepreneurship, innovation and incubation practitioners
  • To provide a framework for encouraging the development of innovative entrepreneurs
  • To connect with the global environment, public sector and industry leaders
  • To be the respected voice of BICs within European institutions
  • To ensure network quality and top class professionalism
  • To seek out business opportunities for SMEs across and beyond Europe
  • To provide expertise, benchmarks, best practices and guidance to its members
  • To increase the competitiveness, the efficiency, the credibility, the reliability and the impact of BICs, and of the BIC label
  • To initiate sector-specific and thematic networking
  • To act as the idea lab and project factory of the community
  • To enable partnerships with economic players acting in the periphery of the BICs’s supply chain
  • To stimulate innovation by all means

It’s not just EBN

As I said at the outset, EBN is just one of a whole host of organisations that have yet to start making the transition from conventional approaches to marketing and communications to embracing Web 2.0 tools and techniques.

Only a relatively small handful of attendees at this year’s event were active social media users, but the numbers will doubtless grow at future congresses, and – in my view – it is important that EBN takes a strategic and pro-active role in engaging with these people, and with others who are interested in its work and events but are unable to attend. Moreover, rather than being seen to be lagging behind the times, embracing this increasingly important range of communication tools will be a practical demonstration of EBN’s own commitment to innovation and technological advancement.

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  1. Yep. Couldn’t agree with you more Paul. It was remarkably un-networked but it’s not that unusual is it. I was at another event yesterday that was exactly the same. But we need to campaign for more connectivity and your blog post is a great start. Thanks for writing what I was thinking 🙂

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