One of the awesome things about working for a software company is how you’re often challenged to innovate. Rachael Bell
, the Senior Community Manager for the NJSCPA recently suggested we should think carefully about how we could help the attendees of our annual conference network more efficiently. Since I love innovation, I took on the challenge and took it to the Higher Logic R&D team to see if we couldn't come up with a creative solution. Initially we focused our efforts towards using a native mobile app and that sort of thing but then we came up with a much simpler solution which could achieve our goals with very little cost. We decided to put the solution to test at our 2012 Higher Logic Super Forum conference
where we had approx. 260 unknowing volunteers.
Let’s assume for a moment there are two stakeholders, both are attendees of the conference and in this instance they are both association execs but could well be exhibitors or speakers etc. (it makes no difference to the situation at hand). To help differentiate, let’s call them the “Attendee” and the “Networker”. The Attendee is approached at the conference by the Networker and introductions are made (the usual sort of networking scenario). Before long they would traditionally exchange business cards or phone numbers or record some way to reconnect in the future. The solution we came up with will simply substitute (or augment) business cards with a different way of connecting. We provided every person attending the event with a badge which had a personalized QR code on it.
Using their smart phone, the Networker sees the prominently displayed QR code of the Attendee. The phone then turns the QR code into an URL and opens a browser and takes the Networker to the Attendees online profile. Invisibly to the Networker (other than an acknowledgement message), the Networker has also invoked a “Friend Request” from the Networker to the Attendee. This ensures that the person being scanned has complete control over their privacy settings.
In the above scenario, it probably took us an hour to build the one control that was required to initiate the friend request and redirect the person to the Attendee’s profile, so the level of effort from a development perspective is minimal. Of course we had to figure out how to print personalized QR codes on badges also but this issue was quickly resolved using a third party Word plugin called “onMerge” (it cost about $100). We simply added the unique URL to the spreadsheet which was the mail merge “datasource” and when the merge was run, all the URLs were converted into QR codes on the resulting badges. The only additional data we needed in the spreadsheet was the member ID of each attendee which was converted into a URL.
The results of the challenge were interesting. Approx. 260 people received a badge with a QR code on it. Out of these 260 people, 1145 QR code lookups were made during the three day period of the conference. 60% of the attendees scanned at least one QR code (156 people) and the average attendee who scanned at least one person, established just over 7 connections with one “SuperNetworker” generating 25 connections.
The implications of this very simple approach to bridging the gap between in-person and online are significant. For example, while it is good for attendees to connect with each other, an unexpected consequence of this was the staggering number of online profile updates which were made at the event. Indeed, 30% of the attendees made some kind of edit to their profile while they were at the meeting. It also drew a large number of first time visitors to the online community, which we hope will in turn increase future online engagement.
While this was a simple experiment it does bode the question of “what next”? We asked attendees for candid feedback at the event which was overwhelmingly positive. Most of the feedback were requests for additional features which included: “Please create a way I can write private/personal notes about the person” i.e. “Andy is a Social Innovator, has a chocolate lab and loves to brainstorm”. Another request was to send a follow-up report to all attendees with a list of all the connections they created at the event with a link to download the vCard of each individual they connected with. Someone requested that for the next event, just before the start, everyone should be sent a list of all the people that are signed up which they previously connected with at the other event. With just a little nudge, attendees were able to dream up a ton of new features for the next generation of this very simple networking tool.
Notwithstanding the very positive response we received, there is always room for improvement. We heard overwhelmingly that we should have notified all the attendees that this was going to happen before the event. This way, attendees could have updated their profile before the event started, to ensure their bio, photo and demographics were up-to-date (vs. spending time at the conference doing it). Although the results were impressive, in hindsight we should have added a competitive nature to “gamify” the experience. For example, we could have given prizes for the person who has made the “most new connections” at the event (notice how we’d differentiate between people who they already have an online connection with and those whose “Friend Request” was generated at the show i.e. a “New Connection”). We could have recognized the person who had received the most “Profile Lookups” i.e .the person who has been scanned the most times vs. the person who has scanned the most people. Prizes don’t really need to cost money either. Often some kind of digital recognize would be enough of an incentive i.e. a digital badge on their online profile showing “Most Engaged Member” or something like that.
So what would it take for you to do something like this for a much larger annual conference? It’s really very easy. All you need is a webpage displaying the attendees profile which would contain useful information. Some kind of widget (a program) to generate a friend request (or at the very least record who the Attendee vs. Networker was for each scan) and then a little cooperation from your badge printer to ensure they can include a QR code. If your concerned about space, don’t be. You can always print on the back of the card if there is no space on the front. A typical networker would normally hold your badge to ensure they get a good scan, so turning it around is not really any extra bother.
If you go ahead with this experiment, think about the next time you’re marketing your conference and you send a personalized email to the non-registrants. In the email it shows them which of their “Friends” have already registered. Think of the person who is actually registering and after they have entered their credit card information and clicked on submit, they are taken to a new page which says “now invite 5 of your friends” (from within your member only network) with a box showing the headshots of all their connections.
So now you have the map of how to do all this… will you do it?