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Repost IBM Insights Blog: Food For Thought - The New Player on Stage

I recently started writing for the IBM Insights blog http://ibm.com/blogs/socialbusiness. As part of a team of Redbook Residency bloggers. The aim is to write about anything having to do with Social Business or Social Media. To keep track and a personal log of it all I will repost the blogs I write for the Insights blog on my personal blog as well.
Original publication date: February 22 2012

Food For Thought: The New Player on Stage 
by Femke Goedhart, Business Consultant, Silverside

So here’s a thought…. At this year's Lotusphere, IBM’s annual collaboration and social software conference, during that all important Opening General Session (OGS), Who was the real star of the conference?? 
Was it the band ‘OK Go’? Or Michael J. Fox with his inspirational speech? The IBM executives sharing plans for the upcoming year?  The people demonstrating it all?  Or the customers telling their success stories? Or was there another star to this show….. the audience? 
It is interesting to see how social media has changed the role that people are taking while listening to someone on stage. They are no longer a passive audience, waiting to be impressed. They are active participants using social media to hype the event and their fellow audience members, updating those staying at home and in doing so broadcasting their personal expectations, experiences and opinions to the world - effectively becoming a presenter themselves.  
They are far from uninformed either. Social media exposes any news with lightning speed and search engines allow users to quickly proof check any statement made. The audience no longer is a passive listener; it’s a fiercely regarded critic and a channel to reach a much wider audience. A 5,000 man audience in the room easily reaches a hundreds-of-thousands-strong audience outside. A power not to be ignored! 
And a power to be utilized by those on stage as social media is also quickly leveraging the power of peer-to-peer recommendations. An enthusiastic commentary on social networks by the audience members often does more for creating a positive vibe around a product announcement than any official reporter or analyst could ever hope to accomplish with their articles. 
But the audience is also a fickle player to include in the play; one that generally has a short attention span and has a nose for set ups and over-embellishings. One that wants to-the-point information, real demonstrations, interaction and involvement. And one that can make or break an event, a speaker and an announcement. 
Something that was clearly shown at last year’s Lotusphere OGS. The audience did not like the lengthy customer panels and made that abundantly clear on twitter and other Social Media channels - bringing the overall sentiment on the OGS down to an absolute low. Only after a bright new face - Brian Cheng - entered the stage to do demos did that sentiment change -- instantly elevating Brian to a Twitter celebrity. However, by that time, some damage had been done.  
It must be hard sitting back there watching all this going on, knowing that there is little or nothing you can do to change it. The scripts are set, the show is staged and you can’t just break into that. At the same time you can’t ignore what’s going on either.
 imageSo this year was different. IBM clearly listened to the critiques and tried to accommodate that all important new member of the cast. Shortening the length of the OGS, dividing it up in short sound bites, acknowledging last year’s missteps, involving the audience as much as possible  and using lots of graphics and live demos to keep people’s focus on the stage instead of on their Twitter streams. Even showing an actual representation of the audience sentiment of the event as it was going on.
And it wasn’t just in the OGS where this was felt. Instead of being afraid of the social backlash that had occurred the previous year, IBM embraced the challenge and invited the audience to be even more ‘social’. Setting up Social Lounges where people could learn how to use social tools, offering communities and apps to connect to other attendees and by actively promoting the use of hashtag #LS12  and showing those Tweets on blogs, Web sites and at the event itself. 
Not just involving the audience, but effectively making them stakeholders in the success of the event.
To unleash and actively stimulate thousands of internet savvy critics to comment on your work is a bold move to take. But Lotusphere this year showed it can work. The opening session was highly appreciated resulting in 3 positive trending topics on Twitter that day. Sentiment was definitely up and it set the stage for the rest of the week. Being heard and being taken seriously meant that the audience, that all important player, was part of the team once more.  
So what is the future of this? This new player to the stage is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Not just for major events like the Lotusphere OGS but within daily business as well. People are utilizing internal as well as external social tools more and more as a medium to not only update their friends of what they are doing but also to gather information, discuss things going on and to gauge opinions. Broadcasting their feelings to their audience and connecting to people and sources both inside as well as outside the company. They are no longer just contributors or consumers of information; they are becoming the main distributors as well.
Ignoring it is dangerous, controlling it often impossible… or is it?
The fear of the unknown and a loss of control is what is holding back many companies in really addressing this. But with millions of people joining social networks each day, it's a force that can’t be ignored. And even though the company might not be so far, the people often are, branching out on public networks and forging connections to co-workers, customers, friends as well as competitors, building their own audience as they go. It is time to catch up and start talking. Because if there is one thing social media has made clear, it is that individuals love to be part of a social team/network....

So isn’t it about time you define your stage team and make them a part of that?

Watch the Lotusphere 2012 OGS. Registration required.

Apr 17, 2012
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