Nearly 1,500 Inc. 5000 companies will converge on Washington DC this week for the 27th annual Inc. 500/5000 conference. This is a mega event with lots of buzz, plenty of substance and world class networking.

Up until now, the conference has been open only to Inc. 5000 honorees. But this year the folks at Inc. decided to fling open the doors to anyone who wants to attend. Why not go one step further and liveblog the event, I proposed.

That way, we can bring everyone coverage on the spot — and behind the scenes —  of the speaker sessions as well as attendee reactions.

Dozens of big name authors and business experts will be there including Jim Collins, Bill George, Tom Peters, Michael Gerber, Seth Godin, Sam Horn, Michael Port… and even new celeb author Tim Ferriss.

Before the conference kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 I’ll be posting Q & A previews with a handful of the speakers. Whether you’re planning to attend or not, I hope you’ll find this inside look useful and provocative.

But I’d like it to be more than a one-way conversation. Please feel free to leave Comments below — ask a question, challenge me, tell me if I’ve missed something.

To start, let me throw out some food for thought.

As someone who’s immersed in corporate blogging, I can’t resist peeking under the hood to find out what percentage of this country’s fastest-growing companies are early adopters of social media.

Growth comes in many forms, of course. Adoption of these collaborative, conversational tools signals that a company is looking to their customers and the marketplace for more than revenue. It may be turning to customers for new ideas, for market research and product development. And the CEO may be thinking not just about doing more business, but doing business in a new way.

Thanks to some innovative research by the UMass Center for Marketing Research, you can chew on some statistically valid numbers:

– 49% of the Inc. 500 are participating in social networking

– 45% are using online video

– 39% are blogging

– 27% are using wikis

– 21% are podcasting

The kicker?

At the end of 2007, 44% of the Inc. 500 said that social media tools and strategies were “very important” to their business and marketing strategies.

What’s really noteworthy is that these numbers have jumped significantly in one year. Blogging doubled from 2006 to 2007, rising from 19% to 39%. The current number, as we approach the end of 2008, is undoubtedly higher still.

Prof. Nora Ganim Barnes, who published the first Inc. 500 Social Media study at the end of 2006 isn’t surprised at the rapid growth. It was important to do a follow-up study, she told me in a phone interview, “in order to bring some academic rigor to some part of the discussion about business use of social media.”

Both the 2006 and 2007 studies probed familiarity with and usage of six forms of social media (blogging, podcasting, online video, social networking and message boards). “When you test familiarity vs. usage, there is a statistically valid relationship… as they hear about these technologies, they’re more likely to move into adoption. There has to be a comfort level and that comfort level is going to come from familiarity,” she said.

Makes sense. Equally fascinating, Prof. Barnes said, were results of similar studies she and co-researcher Eric Mattson have published on the use of social media by higher ed and by non-profits. Both sectors are far outpacing the uptake of social media by business. At the end of 2006, 33% of universities reported that they had blogs (usually run by the admissions departments as a marketing tool) vs. 19% of the companies surveyed. “It’s understandable,” Prof. Barnes said, “because they found something they could do for free and it leveled the playing field.”

Take a peek at a few of the Inc. 5000 blogs mentioned in this year’s Inc. 500 special issue: ScienceLogic, SmartDestinations, Neudesic and NXTbook Media,

And stay tuned. If I can track them down, you’ll hear more from Inc. 5000 bloggers from the conference floor.

Note: If you’re interested, you can download executive summaries of the Inc. 500 Social Media studies here and here.

Debbie Weil is a corporate & CEO blogging consultant and author of The Corporate Blogging Book.