Panels are not a panacea (and not much of a promotional tool)

April 16, 2010

Panels are great– for some things.  Yes, you know, panels:  Where two or three or four people sit up in front of a room full of other people and talk at them.   True, sometimes people want to hear panelists,  will go out of their way to do so, and even pay for the privilege– most often when the panelists are famous or controversial or –as was the case at the very good NTEN (non-profit technology) conference last week, when people finally get a chance to see and hear the real humans they’ve been interacting with online.  But it happened again today.   I heard somebody propose  a panel discussion as means of promoting a social media campaign that is itself intended to promote an event.  Huh?

Why would you want to have to create and promote an event  for the sole purpose of promoting another event?  Well, maybe, if your first event was preparation for, or a kickoff  of, a huge event on the scale of, say, the Olympics or an international conference.  If, however,  your problem is that you are afraid that you just aren’t getting your event message across via  online or other media that your audience uses in the comfort of their homes,  why would you think that  more than a handful would trek across town to  hear that same message?  The costs and benefits just don’t add up, at least if your goal is to reach as many people as you can as quickly and cheaply as you can.

I don’t mean to pick on today’s culprit, and if this seems so nonsensical that you can’t imagine why I’m bringing it up, let me say: I hear panels proposed as promotional panaceas –rather than for their own sake– a lot more often than you might think, especially in the nonprofit world.

I think this kind of thinking stems from two sources: The first is academia;  when you are on a university campus,  where hearing  groups of experts talk is a time-hallowed means of transmitting information, where participating  on a panel provides CV points for graduate students and faculty and —perhaps most important– where many potential audience members are in the immediate vicinity for much of the day, then, sure,  it’s not so hard to get a bunch of people to your panel, and it might be a viable media choice.  So academics, or non-profit folks coming out of a university background, sometimes have a bit of difficulty realizing that, in the rest of the world,  not many people are  inclined to jump in their cars or on the subway so they can hear talking heads live instead of on tv.  Truthfully –unless you’ve got a really compelling topic and speakers– most people (often including me) would far rather stay home and check out their Facebook page. 

Instigators of this kind of thinking also seem to be common among nonprofit funders, or at least they were in the 1990s and early ‘oughts, when many foundations came to the conclusion that all their grantees– even media outlets!– should be doing outreach to the community. An excellent idea to be sure, and one I fully support. But all too often, the only kind of  “outreach” that could get funder support was conferences or panels.  No matter how tiny the likely attendance or immeasurable the impact of such an event, it was easier to get funding for a panel than for actually producing or distributing media that had the potential to reach many, many times more people.

It never ceased to amaze me that so few funders could ‘get’  that media IS outreach (though conservative funders learned much faster than donors to progressive causes)– and that if you have a media outlet that isn’t reaching enough people, you need to either a) improve your content , b) improve your marketing so more people know your content is available to them or  c) both.  When you need to get thousands more people reading or watching or listening to your stuff,  what is unlikely to help is putting a few folks –however personable and intelligent– on a stage in front of  five or twenty or even a hundred other people to talk about your content.  You need to get the “stuff” itself out in front of  lots and lots people– by whatever means you can.

Now new online and social media tools –Twitter, Facebook, and the like– make it  much easier to do that.  We can drive traffic to our websites by getting other sites to link to ours; we can use RSS feeds and widgets and email newsletters to get samples of our content out into the world, we can post snippets of content on our Facebook and Twitter accounts and get our supporters –“friends” and “followers” — to help us distribute it even more widely.  These tools aren’t always as easy as they seem to master,  and they don’t always work as fast or effectively as we might like.   But  the wonderful thing about them is that –unlike an advertising or direct mail campaign –  any organization can make use of  them for free, or, if you add in the pay of the hardworking nonprofit staffers who end up carrying out many social media campaigns– at very reasonable cost.  It’s great to be creative in your social media campaigns, and to pull people into participating in as many ways as you can think of–  but if those ways, like setting up a panel discussion, are likely to reach only a handful of people and  take more time and effort than simply stepping up your social media campaign– think again.

(But when you’ve got your social media chops down and have some stars –in your world or the whole world– who people are eager to meet, go ahead and plan a panel, and you’ll know just how to use social media to make it a grand success.)

Filed under: social media

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