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Twitterchats are organised, non-linear, fast-paced conversations using Twitter where participants discuss themes and questions about a given topic.
With its speed, ease of use, accessibility and limited character format, Twitter provides an effective tool for individuals to discuss or unite around a theme or topic and Twitterchats have evolved from webchats and forum discussions.
So, how do you plan and run a Twitterchat?
Globally, there are hundreds of regular Twitter chats discussing a broad range of topics from looking after cats through to cloud computing.
There are many tools available to create ‘chat’ type events including the use of Facebook Wall or Notes or Google+ Hangouts as well as commercial broadcast Livestream sites and services such as studiotalk.tv.
The appeal of using Twitter for web-based chats is that it’s free, it has a significant user base (more than 200m active user accounts) and Twitter makes it easier to discover chats through friends’ tweets more readily than other mechanics.
Brands and organisations can understandably see the potential value in using Twitterchats to engage with their audiences.
So, how do you plan and run a Twitterchat?
Here are 11 tips to help you get started:
1. Set clear objectives and have realistic expectations
Pretty obvious this one, but given that Twitterchats are a tactic, do spend time giving consideration to your objectives.
For example, is it greater brand awareness? Support for a product or service launch? To achieve a specific business need? e.g. to improve the calibre of your global graduate recruits or to help set guidelines or policies? Highlighting a particular area of your corporate social responsibility or to create a community and regularly engage with an audience on specific topics of interest?
If you are clear about your objectives, then the type of audience that you wish to engage with, the topics, format and the scheduling of the chats should naturally follow.
2. Know who your audience is
Again, an obvious consideration, but are your intended audiences actually using Twitter in numbers and are they active enough on it to sustain a lively debate? If not, then Twitterchats are not for you.
If they are, then who are the people discussing the topic or issue already? What are the hot or emerging topics? How can you make them aware of the Twitterchat and could they be involved in some way? Can they suggest or vote on discussion topics, house-rules etc?
Personal invitations via DM, email or the good old-fashioned telephone are great ways to ensure that key participants are aware of the chat and are invited.
3. Engage the audience in your pre-promotion
One of the key things that I have learnt running webchats for many years is the importance of rigorous planning and pre-promotion.
Pre-promotion ensures that that you have the right people coming to your Twitter chat. It also allows you to extend the impact of your chat by polling questions from people who cannot make the event itself.
It will ensure that you have enough quality viewpoints, responses and questions to fill the timeslot and also enable people to feel involved even if they cannot make the event itself.
Send alerts via good old-fashioned email. Use your email signature and brand/personal Twitter feeds to promote the chat at agreed times. Don’t spam the same message constantly or risk annoying your follower. Ask attendees or your guest hosts to help you to recruit others to the Twitter chat by alerting their network or retweeting you.
Ensure that your other social channels such as Facebook, your blog, staff Google+ accounts as well as your web presences promote the Twitterchat hashtag, time and topic. LinkedIn personal event invitations, group updates and status updates promoting the Twitterchat can also be highly effective.
Lastly don’t forget traditional press materials or real world spaces (e.g. event hoardings, lobby boards etc). Think integrated.
4. Create a 'home' for your Twitterchat
If you decide to run regular Twitterchats, ensure that you have a specific area on your website or that you have created a standalone permanent site, blog, Tumblr or Posterous to pre-promote and post-promote your Twitter events.
A great example of a best practice ‘home’ is Commschat run by Communicate Magazine in the UK, a regular chat for communications professionals discussing weekly communications and PR topics such as “Brand Cameron” and “Internal communications”.
Your ‘home’ should contain some or all of the following elements:
- About – who runs the chats, what the hashtag is and what the objectives of the chats are, how Twitterchats work, house rules, common acronyms used etc.
- Previous chats – archived transcripts or analysis of the Twitterchats with the next chat clearly signposted.
- Next chat – this section could propose topics for participants to vote or can be used simply as a signpost for your next chat’s topic, time and expert opinion or a link to where the chat takes place if you plan to use a tool such as tweetchat.com or twebchat.com.
- Register for alerts – opportunity to remind/alert participants ahead of the chat or to add date and time to their calendar.
- How our Twitterchats work – help and hints for participants.
If Twitterchats do not feature in your long-term plans then a simple page on your website with a cut-down version of the above will enable those stumbling upon the hashtag to quickly understand what the chat relates to and who hosts it.
5. Set some simple 'house rules'
It’s important to make it clear that the chat is a collaborative space for discussion and that abusive behaviour and blatant promotion or spamming is unwelcome and unhelpful.
In your ‘home’ you can add simple guidelines highlighting what is and isn’t helpful and other useful information such as regularly used acronyms that may crop up in your Twitter chats to help those who may be too afraid to ask and join in.
6. Choose the right Twitter hashtag
If you decide that you are going to run regular Twitterchats then your hashtag is a critical element of your branding. Choose one that is memorable but short enough to allow participants to be able to use as much of the 140 character space to express their opinions and thoughts.
Given how many people are using hashtags globally, and potential clashes when contrasting groups use the same tag such as the #BMM hashtag between mum bloggers and angry hip hop fans, do check that you're not taking one that is currently in use.
A simple search on hashtags.org will ensure that you avoid “Clashtagging” (trademarked by Michelle Goodall!).
7. It’s all about the timing…
Timing is critical. Consider whether this is a regular or a one-off activity. Are you appealing to a global audience? If so then you need to choose a time that is appropriate worldwide. Timeanddate.com is a good tool to help you to choose a time that would be appropriate for your chosen audiences’ time zones.
Don’t trail your Twitterchat months before it happens. Two weeks should be enough time with reminders closer to the date and then a final reminder on the day of the chat.
Consider your audience and the pressures on their personal time - if take up is low on a chat at 7pm and you are hoping to attract parents with young children who are probably in the middle of bedtime routines, perhaps it would be more appropriate to schedule a chat earlier in the day.
Better still, ask the audience their preferred regular time slot.
8. Pick an appropriate Twitterchat format
Be clear about your format. I recommend that you lurk or join in with a few Twitterchats before you pick a format. Note what works, what doesn’t and consider whether the format is appropriate for your audiences and objectives.The most common Twitterchat formats are:
Expert Q&A topic based with numbered questions. Moderated.
Probably the most ‘controlled’ of the formats, the topic is agreed and promoted ahead of the chat and an expert or experts chosen to respond to the questions posed by the moderator and the tweets related to those questions.
The moderator ensures that a specific number of questions are asked of the expert or by the guest host during the chat and maintains the pace of the chat.
Questions may have been chosen by the moderator or crowdsourced ahead of the chat. It’s helpful for the moderator to number these questions ‘Q1, Q2’ etc and experts to reply with ‘A1, A2’ in response.
Multiple topic based. Limited time or number of questions. Guest expert moderates.
The chat has a broad theme, e.g. ‘social media best practice’ and an expert facilitates the discussion. Questions can be collected ahead of the chat or the expert moderator poses their questions to the chat participants who can answer and explore key themes that evolve.
The key to success is to work with an expert who can maintain pace of the chat and apply their own insights without dominating the discussion. #commschat usually follows this format.Single topic based. No expert. Moderated.
As before but no expert is used to add their insights and control the pace and direction of the chat, instead the moderator poses questions that all participants can answer. Interesting discussions can evolve with this more informal approach but it can be difficult for a moderator to maintain focus.
An example of this format where the participants choose the topic is the UK teacher/educator’s discussion #ukedchat where community members are polled to choose the topic and a guest host moderates the discussion.
Theme or topic based. No expert. Non-moderated.
This type of chat provides very few restraints, allowing the conversation to grow organically with a core theme. There is no moderation and so the discussion can take a life of its own.
A potential weakness of this approach is a lack of focus, participants become frustrated and a few voices can dominate the discussion. The flip side is that a less rigid structure and lack of a moderator posing questions or calling time, allows the discussion to evolve naturally into areas where participants have specific knowledge and strong opinions. These types of chats can be anarchic but a provide a richer experience.
There are many other chat formats, perhaps you could share those that work for you in the comments below. Twitterchats with big celebrities are more commonplace than ever, generally to promote books, TV programmes and celebrity endorsements.
Recent UK examples include Lord Sugar’s book signing and Mary Portas’ post ‘Queen of Frocks’ programme chats on her ‘Mary Portal’.
9. Pick appropriate tools and guide your audience
Hootsuite, Co-tweet, Tweetdeck, in fact any Twitter client that allows you to set up a column to moderate and follow the Twitterchat hashtag are essential for any Twitterchat host.
It’s helpful if you can also provide instructions on how to set up columns with hashtags for your participants as a part of the pre-promotion or point attendees towards sites geared up for Twitterchats such as a Tweetchat.com, Twubs.com or twebevent.com.
If it’s likely to be a Twitterchat with large numbers of participants, rapid and numerous tweets, then a free tool like twubs.com is useful as they allow moderators to pause the feed. This is particularly helpful when you wish to respond to a particular tweet and not lose the thread of the conversation.
Twebevent.com is a similar free tool which also allows for rich media integration. You could run livestreaming or video alongside the chat in an event specific room.
If you plan to run regular Twitterchats, you may wish to set up a specific ‘branded’ Twitter account such as twitter.com/ukedchat to pre-promote and moderate the chat. This is an important consideration if you wish to avoid spamming followers of your brand or personal feed who may not be interested in the chat or topics that you regularly run or moderate.
The fine line between active and regular chat participation and potentially annoying your followers is the reason why tools such as !blether have been developed to allow Twitterchats to spin off into private rooms.
Do consider whether private and more exclusive chats are more suited to your objectives, audience and discussion themes.
10. Post promotion is everything….
Be polite. Thank hosts and participants for their participation either via Twitter DM, multiple @ thanks or via the transcript published on your Twitterchat home. At this stage if you have another planned chat, ask participants to diarise it and to share with others.
Consider publishing a summary analysis or transcript of the conversation as soon as possible on your ‘home’. You can do this via screengrabs, cut and pasting tweets or a more elegant approach is to use Storify.com. Consider whether you publish a full transcript or edit it to remove repetitive retweets, blatant promotional spamming and off-topic tweets.
Speed is of the essence when creating a transcript but consider waiting for post-chat tweets from people who couldn’t make the allocated time as these can often be more reflective and thoughtful.
When the transcript is ready, use all of the channels that you used in your pre-promotion to promote the transcript (see tip three).
11. Evaluate, measure and learn
You will have an engaged audience who can provide instant and immediate feedback after the event so talk to them immediately after the chat. What could you have done better? How could the format or process improve?
The Hashtag will almost certainly be used between events as participants share more information and conversation post-event so make sure you’re listening to them and act on that feedback. Martin Couzins has shared some excellent learnings from running a Twitterchat here.
Revisit your objectives. What did you set out to do and have you achieved it?
What were the outputs?
The value of a Twitterchat shouldn’t be based on numbers of participants alone. Consider the total reach of the chat including pre and post promotion as well as participation, retweets and any blog posts or features written by participants or spectators. More importantly, who engaged at one or all stages of the chat? Were your primary and most valued customers or stakeholders involved in the discussion?
What were the outtakes?
Did you learn about your topic, organization, service, campaign and have key messages/themes that you wished to clarify or explore been understood and discussed amongst the right people? Was a consensus formed, a problem resolved? Is there a difference of opinion that could help you to create something new of value to your business….it could be a new service, product or a piece of content.
What were the outcomes? Measured traffic to your home or website and then other related engagement outcomes, e.g. reports downloaded, new memberships, email addresses provided, new customers acquired etc
I hope that these tips prove helpful. Which tools, formats and measurements work for you? What are the relative merits of other chat tools/channels over Twitter? Please do comment below. If you run or participate in a regular Twitterchat, please feel free to highlight it.