The 2010 National Arts Marketing Project Conference took place in San Jose between November 12 and 15. I attended on behalf of Fractured Atlas and presented during the Monday morning session, “Big Lists, Low Costs: Using List Cooperatives as Powerful Research and Advocacy Engines.”
This was a well-done conference. Unlike some that try to pack so many concurrent sessions into the same time slot that each attracts only a handful of attendees, NAMP presented only three conversations at any given time, making for a generous distribution of the 600+ conference participants at each one. The speakers that I saw were, for the most part, highly dynamic and engaging, including the “two Chips” – Heath and Conley – whose keynotes bookended the conference. (My only quibble is that the list was not terribly diverse, a lost opportunity of sorts for a field that is currently fretting about reaching new audiences.) Furthermore, I have to say that Twitter was used far more effectively at this conference than at any other I’ve been to. The usual experience goes something like this: hashtag gets set as an afterthought a few days before the event; the tiny minority of Twitter-savvy attendees robotically report notable quotables from this or that keynote speaker and then all retweet each other; conversation ceases the moment the conference does (if not before). In contrast, NAMP conference organizers set the stage long in advance, choosing a hashtag (#NAMPC10) far in advance, encouraging conference speakers (many of whom, of course, are leading social media experts) to tweet the conference and their sessions as they were announced, and — most importantly — paying for free wifi in the plenary halls/breakout sessions as well as in attendees’ hotel rooms. This allowed even attendees without smartphones or who are less comfortable using Twitter on a phone to participate in the conversation.
The result was that the true potential of Twitter as an alternative back channel – an alternative dimension, almost – for conversation at conferences was on full display at NAMP. The event generated more than 5,000 tweets in four-plus days, and unlike the drip, drip, drip at your typical arts conference, following along this time was a dizzying experience at sessions and social events alike. In several cases, the Twitter chatter became part of the live session experience, both in planned ways like when it was incorporated into the questions asked of keynote speakers or projected onto giant screens during lunch, and in unexpected ways like when panelists reacted in person to comments on Twitter about the session and vice versa. Session feedback was both immediate and decisive, as anyone following the stream could figure out what the “must-attend” events were during a given time slot and which ones were going off the rails. As a panelist, it was actually fairly nerve-wracking to know that anyone in the room could be reporting your words to the world with whatever commentary they liked in real time, but as an attendee it was kind of thrilling.
The conference both generated and inspired media in a number of other formats as well. Portions of the event were recorded and broadcast on livestream.com (a media sponsor for the conference), and three of the videos will remain archived at that link for the next six months. A crew of bloggers typed up a storm about the conference at Americans for the Arts’s ARTSBlog, and a number of interviews (both audio and video) were posted on the NAMP social media page. The coolest byproduct, though, was the series of video blogs from the team at Technology in the Arts, three of whom were in attendance. A real test of endurance, these videos (about half an hour’s worth each night) were filmed, edited, and posted after a full day’s worth of sessions and receptions. Here’s Day 1 and Day 2, the two “full days” of the conference; TiA also put up a NAMP-focused podcast featuring session organizer Ron Evans last week (in which they discuss the above-mentioned Twitter phenomenon), and more are apparently on the way.
So congratulations to NAMP for practicing what it preaches on the social media front. Of course, the big question is whether all this effort made a difference in the bottom line, since that’s the foremost question for many arts organizations when they think about social media (and all the effort it takes to seed a good conversation). We’ll never know for sure, but for what it’s worth this year’s 600 attendees represented a 20% uptick from the previous year — and with a substantially younger attendee base than I usually encounter at arts conferences, to boot. Considering the not-inconsiderable registration fees and the still-lingering effects of the recession, that’s not too shabby.