We have found that the social channel is a wonderful source of information, knowledge, opinions and ideas.

With a wide range of skills amongst our follower base (strategists, digital marketers, analysts, tech agencies, developers, designers etc), there is a wonderful blend of complimentary knowledge that can be mutually beneficial.

So, we thought that an industry chat would be the perfect way to bring this knowledge group together to create a regular forum for sharing. #Ecomchat was officially born on October 15th 2012.

Quick summary: what is Ecomchat?

Don’t worry, this isn’t a sales pitch, we’ve got nothing to sell!

#Ecomchat takes place on Twitter using the hashtag #ecomchat. It occurs every Monday and we’re currently testing different times following member feedback. It started at 17.30 UK time and is now at the trial time of 13.00.

The goal is to bring together ecommerce enthusiasts and specialists to achieve the following:

  1. Share relevant information, knowledge, advice and opinion.
  2. Make new connections.
  3. Discuss important ecommerce topics.
  4. Share useful content.
  5. Identify opportunities to work together (none yet but we have a dream….).

Each week there is a new topic for discussion related to ecommerce. Topics covered to date are:

  • Content for ecommerce.
  • Mobile commerce & mobile marketing.
  • SEO for ecommerce sites.
  • Ecommerce budgeting.
  • On-site user experience.
  • On-Site search.
  • Christmas sales & promotions.
  • Optimising your homepage.
  • Big ecommerce mistakes.

If you want to take a peek at what we’re up to, please visit the Ecomchat.org website, where you can find write-ups of each week’s chat session summarising key points (and importantly who made them so you can follow people you think are relevant to you).

Now let’s get on to the lessons learned for nothing is ever plain sailing…

Lesson One: have an existing audience to tap into

The key to success for an industry chat is to hit the ground running. If hardly anyone turns up on day one, you risk putting off the early adopters who might not perceive the value of dedicating 1hr to listen to digital tumbleweed.

Luckily, both Dan and myself are active on key B2B social channels – Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. We tapped into these networks to encourage and cajole to ensure that the first week had an audience.

We managed to get about 32 people straight off the bat. Slim pickings but a healthy start given our target for the first three months was to build to 100 regular ‘chatters’.

A few techniques that worked well:

  1. Announce the Chat to relevant Groups on LinkedIn (those you participate in so it doesn’t come across as cold calling).
  2. DM your most active followers.
  3. Tweet new followers with a welcome message promoting the Chat.
  4. Post advance notice tweets for each week’s chat session – we generally do announcements on the Friday before and reminders on the Monday morning.
  5. Do the same on Google+
  6. Link all announcements to an ‘About’ page on your main website where people can find out more info about the chat session.

Dan’s hot tip: DM key chatters (those who regularly post comments) a few hours before the chat to remind them.

Lesson two: have a structure for announcing each week’s chat

I’ve given the structure we use above but the key point is this. If nothing is planned and each week the way the Chat is announced varies, it creates uncertainty amongst your audience.

Without structure, you also risk forgetting to do things, which I have on several occasions as a busy workload can sidetrack. So divide responsibility, schedule tasks and deliver a consistent service.

My top tip: add actions to your calendar so you get prompts to act.

Lesson three: identify your key influencers

Big bonus this. Even if you have thousands of followers on social networks, it’s likely that only a handful will be major influencers whose voice can resonate with a wider audience.

We are lucky to work with and know some influential industry voices including our friends at Econsultancy @gcharlton and @linusgreg, @davechaffey (Smart Insights), @timlb (CXFocus), @willdymott (Lyle & Scott), @cranberrypanda, @therustybear and @paulnrogers.

All of these have shared the love by retweeting announcements and participating in chats, so their tweets containing the hashtag reach a wider audience. Apologies to everyone else who is contributing – I can’t list everyone, sorry!

We’re shameless consultants, so we’re not shy at asking for people to give us a tweet or two. I’ve found that when you have built a relationship with someone who has influence, the best way to tap into that is by asking for help.

Don’t be shy, explain what you’re doing and get that leg up (metaphorically speaking of course, though you never know in this industry!).

Lesson four: experiment with the timing

This is one of our biggest challenges. When we asked what the best time was, we had about 10 different answers!

For some, 17.30 is perfect, tag on at the end of the day before going home, or duck in on the journey home via mobile. However, a significant number of people voted for earlier times, or different days.

Throw in an international audience and timing becomes even more complex. We’ve had people tune in from East and West, so it’s looking like middle of the day might be the winner.

You can’t please everyone all of the time but you can listen and test. So we’re going to alternate the times/days over the coming months and figure out the motherload for participation.

The data from our social monitoring apps and Google Analytics can help validate the impact.

Lesson five: plan ahead, don’t work on the fly

Both of us are busy running our own businesses. #Ecomchat needs to be an integral part of our working lives, not an inconvenience. We want to enjoy it and keep the passion, so it rubs off on other people.

We’ve found that the best way to do this is to plan ahead and discuss how we want to manage and evolve #Ecomchat.

When we haven’t, it became a lastminute.com rush job to agree a discussion topic, fire up a post announcing it and then push this socially. If you leave it to the last minute, you risk losing people’s attention, or compromising the quality of the chat.

We still need to improve in this area, so if you have any tips based on your experience of running Twitter chats, please let us know.

Lesson six: don’t be away from WiFi when the chat is about to start!

This was my bad. My home WiFi went into meltdown five minutes before the chat was due to start but I had no back-up plan. I was in an area that had no 3G signal, so I couldn’t use my Hootsuite app on the iPhone. I was in the dark.

What could I have done better? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I could have ensured I was near an Internet café with a WiFi connection. There were a few, I just didn’t know where they were!

At least with two of us running the show, the Twitter powerhouse that is @danbarker was able to manage the chat in my absence until my WiFi decided it wanted to live about half way through.

Lesson seven: ask for and encourage feedback

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The best way to improve #Ecomchat is to build an interactive forum where everyone can share feedback and make suggestions for improving the sessions.

How we do this:

  1. Ask for feedback at the end of each chat – was it interesting, what future topics etc.
  2. Provide clear contact details on the website for people to get in touch (including enabling comments on all posts).
  3. Use the hashtag to ask followers for feedback.
  4. Use LinkedIn polls to canvass opinion.

What have we learned?

  • There is no perfect time – so we need to keep testing.
  • The write-ups are really popular – helps people quickly find the most important comments.
  • Not everyone can join in but many others are silent listeners.
  • The chat format of 1hr works well.
  • There is the demand for sponsored chats – we need to carefully consider how this can enhance, not detract from, the experience.

Lesson eight: spend time planning the topics

It’s essential that the topics are interesting and relevant. It’s not enough to have a topic, you need to ensure it’s worth people dedicating 1hr of their working day to. So we review interesting trends, important articles & blogs and use learning from project work with our Clients to inform topic plans. T

he topics can’t be too specialist either. For example, if we pick a specific paid search tactic, we risk cross over with #ppcchat and we want #Ecomchat to be unique.

We have also experimented with LinkedIn polls to canvass opinion, promoting them via Twitter, with limited success. It’s a key challenge for 2013 – how do we encourage greater audience participation in shaping the content program?

The key mistake we made is leaving things to the last minute, which results in rushed decision-making. We now plan ahead and propose topics mid-week so that we can have a post up on the website by Friday at the latest.

Lesson nine: set-up a website

The website reinforces the legitimacy of #Ecomchat – it shows people that we take it seriously and want to provide a destination to inform people about the chat. Without a website we’re just two people on Twitter chatting with people, which we think doesn’t provide as much credibility.

It’s also a source for announcements and write-ups. We both decided that providing a weekly write-up is essential – it’s a hook to get people back to the website in-between chat sessions so we keep their interest.

Some interesting stats:

  • Since October 24th, we have had more than 800 visits to the website.
  • 31.64% of these are direct, so the website is building a reputation.
  • Only 7.17% are from organic search – we’ve not focused on this yet, so not surprising.
  • Only 12% are from mobile devices – not surprising, as the chat times have been 13.00 and 17.30 when most people are at work, so using the desktop.
  • Of our referrals, 25% are from LinkedIn – posting to Groups you are active in can work & increase visibility of the website.

Lesson ten: use web analytics

As Dan is an analytics legend, I think he did this before he was born. We had a website with GA profile up and running before the first chat session. What we didn’t do though was plan how we wanted to make use of GA to get the optimal learning.

So what are the basics we’ve added since launching #Ecomchat?

Add campaign tracking parameters to all URLs posted on LinkedIn groups

We are members of lots of groups and I realised that I had no idea which post was generating the website visits. Schoolboy error. So I started using campaign parameters in URLs and can now see which Groups generate the visits.

Interestingly, despite posting in five groups regularly, only the Ecommerce and Online Marketing Experts group has delivered any traffic, so that’s where I post first.

Add campaign tracking parameters to Twitter shared links

Ok we can get referral data from Twitter domains but what we can’t get is the drill down into which tweets generate the most interest. Adding the campaign tracking parameters gives us this insight, so now we can improve how we tweet about the chat.

Use annotations

Which chat topic has the greatest impact on the website? The best way to determine this is by using annotations on report to flag:

  • When we announce each topic.
  • When each chat session takes place.
  • When we post write-ups of each week’s chat session.

This also helps validate how popular the write-ups are and which style of write-up gets the most on-page engagement (e.g. time on page, bounce rate etc).

What do you think of Twitter Chats?

We would be interested to hear what you think about using a Twitter Chat as the vehicle for this type of networking. If you have launched your own Twitter chat, please add your experiences in the comments – perhaps we can share tips and tricks.

How else do you think we could improve and evolve the #Ecomchat community? Should it extend into Google+, perhaps via a Hangout? Do you think that when it reaches critical mass, an offline event would be worthwhile?

Please drop by to join in the next Ecomchat today at 1pm. We would love to chat to you there. And if you felt like sharing this with, let’s say your entire universe, well that would be just dandy!