I’ve attended many, many conferences and each has its own characters, individuals and special moments which capture the attention, hearts and minds of delegates. It could be the MC, it could be a veteran of a given industry, it could be a helpful member of the conference team, it could be a member of the audience who asks a particularly pointed or insightful question or it could be the message from the keynote speaker. These people and memorable moments bring conferences to life and add energy to events which can never be predicted by the meeting planners and organisers.
It’s been a busy few months, and for the first time in several years I was unable to attend a key conference this week in one of my core target markets. It was the annual conference of the Institute of Financial Planning (IFP) – the premier organisation for financial planners and financial advice professionals in the UK.
The event at the Celtic Manor in Newport, South Wales had all the ingredients that make up a top quality conference. Enthusiastic delegates, fantastic speakers, great content, immaculate organisation, great networking, a good ‘craic’ in the bars, colourful industry characters and phenomenal networking. As delegates departed at the close of the conference there was a palpable sense of optimism about the future of their profession.
So how do I know this if I wasn’t there?
Despite initially being extremely slow to engage with Social Media, the financial planning community in the UK has, over the last eighteen months dramatically increased its use of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other online tools to interact and engage with each other and their target markets. And this year delegates at the Celtic Manor were busier than ever sharing snippets of the conference to the outside world – mostly through Twitter.
Watching the event from my laptop and mobile device was fascinating. Having attended the event as a delegate and speaker many times, I’m very familiar with the format of the conference, its content and its people. But observing proceedings through the magic of the conference hashtag added a completely new dimension that I’d not expected or experienced before. Yes, I had tweeted from the event on previous occasions, but watching the tweets from my office was a very different experience.
For starters, through the tweets over the three days there was a tangible sense of strong community amongst the delegates. I know that the sense of community was also there in the conference hall and breakout rooms, but it was strikingly more apparent through the medium of Twitter.
Here was clearly a group of people who were very much in tune with the aspirations and values of their profession, and it came through loud and clear through their tweets. Their tweets also seemed to capture the essence of the value that clients would experience when working with a professional financial planner.
The ability to create community around a set of values is an often overlooked benefit of social media, and the delegates at the IFP conference displayed through Twitter a strong sense of support for one another and the development of their profession.
Just as at any other large event of this nature, delegates sat attentively in the darkness of the conference hall with mobile devices in the palm of their hands ready to communicate instant insight from the speakers. The conference tweets were littered with sound bites, with particularly strong ones being retweeted and then retweeted again. In fact, the total number of timelines reached from tweets at the IFP conference exceed 2.5 million.
BT (before Twitter), it was all you could do to scribble down a few notes from the speakers which you were invariably unable to read when you looked over them a few days later. But today, the wit and wisdom of speakers could be communicated to thousands of people far away from the conference hall at the tap of a finger. From a speaker’s perspective, I love this as a marketing opportunity because I can include key points in my speech in “140 character chunks”. This helps the audience to pick up and remember key messages, but also helps my own marketing as audience members pass on some of my messages to the outside world.
From the perspective of the delegates, the reach of their tweets makes it inevitable that the perception of the financial planning profession will be enhanced in the eyes of consumers and investors.
After attending a great many conferences in the Financial Services industry, it’s become apparent to me that many in the profession network ‘by accident’. The vast majority of financial planners only ever meet up at industry events, and most attend conferences without a networking strategy.
Social Media has dramatically enriched networking between IFAs and financial planners, and now through sites like www.ifalife.com, LinkedIn and Twitter, many now have the ability to share best practice, ask and answer questions and provide help and support to one another easier than ever before. I know of several IFA firms who have merged or created strategic alliances as a direct result of their networking on www.ifalife.com.
And through Twitter I was able to watch individual delegates arranging spontaneous meet-ups in the hotel lounges and bars. Many were using Twitter as their preferred tool to arrange quick catch-ups with those they hadn’t seen for a while, and there were also a large number of people arranging instant face-to-face meetings with delegates who they had only ever previously connected with online. These quick catch-ups and first time meet-ups were invariably accompanied by individuals proudly tweeting photos of their meeting.
I was also able to observe how sponsors and exhibitors at the conference used Twitter to engage with the delegates. I’m sure that most had spent decent sums of money on their stands, and many delegates tweeted about some of the great ‘freebies’ that they had found on the stands. We also saw tweeted pictures of delegates taking part in competitions and activities on various stands.
But with a few exceptions, most of the exhibitors completely missed the point that whilst the conference was right there in the splendour of Celtic Manor, it was also taking place in the online world. And they weren’t part of it.
Exhibiting at a conference in any industry is no longer just about shaking hands, smiling nicely, running a business card draw for a bottle of Champagne and giving away free post-it-note pads from your stand; exhibitors also need to be aware of and engage with the online chatter that surrounds the event, and have a strategy for engaging with delegates there too. (Congratulations to AXA Wealth who did a great job connecting with delegates through Twitter)
And of those exhibitors who did post the occasional photo, they were largely showing an empty stand, with the team personnel strangely absent. I for one would be far more likely to visit a stand if it looks full of life and energy, and very few exhibitors’ photos on Twitter reflected that.
In summary, watching one of my favourite conferences through Twitter was a fascinating experience. We mustn’t underestimate the importance of spending quality face-to-face time with good friends and contacts, and I know that I missed out on an excellent curry night on one of the evenings, but this was more than made up for observing the obvious passion that delegates had for their profession, with a strong sense of community clearly running through their tweets.
This sense of community was more tangible online than I have known it in the actual conference hall, and I believe this bodes well for the perception of the financial planning profession online. As delegates left the Celtic Manor and headed for all corners of the UK, the tone of the tweets turned to a keenness to get back to work and apply their new learning as soon as possible.
"It will never happen. Twitter and Social Media has no place in the financial planning world"
I still remember speaking at a financial planning conference early in 2007, and saying that they should keep an eye out for an exciting new Internet tool called Twitter which would soon become part of their daily lives. I vividly remember seeing arms folding and heads shaking when I told them that we would soon be communicating in 140 character sound bites. “It will never happen” was their resounding response.
And yet today, Twitter has firmly embedded itself amid that very same audience. Whilst most in the profession don’t use it to attract new clients, they have embraced it for its ability to facilitate networking and relationships - and in the process build the perception of a strong sense of unity. Social Media is often perceived to be all about sales and marketing, and what is often forgotten is that we used to call it ‘Social Networking’, with Twitter now being a powerful tool for enabling networking opportunities.
Congratulations to the IFP and the organising team for a superb conference. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
By Philip Calvert