By Kay Oddone.
Conferences are exciting – groups of like-minded professionals, gathered together to network and hear experts share their wisdom, sometimes in far-away locales and always with too much food.
However, conferences are also expensive, and in some ways, a leftover from days before the internet brought us all together with the ability to connect across time and space. A traditional conference presentation is generally a passive, one-way experience – the presenter speaks and the audience listens. As so many people have gathered, hands on activities are difficult to manage, and the limited time-frame of a conference means that pre or post interactivity may be limited.
Twitter (and other similar micro-blogging tools) has changed this. Inviting participants to share with a conference hashtag via a Twitter back-channel at a conference opens a multi-way conversation for a much richer experience. Using a conference hashtag, conference delegates (and even those who can’t physically attend) have a way to discuss their responses to speakers, inspirations and the resources presented at the sessions they attend. Here’s an example of how one person can curate a massive amount of information shared online from a Conference.
But wait…I hear you say “a conference what-tag via a Twitter which-channel??” The lingo of Twitter can be confusing for the uninitiated, and may be a reason why at so many conferences, this powerful tool is under-utilised. So let me explain.
By now most people are aware of Twitter and the increasing number of people using it as a professional development and networking tool. One of the most useful elements of Twitter is the hashtag; a user-generated term, which, when preceded by the # hash symbol becomes a key word that enables users to search and gather together similarly themed tweets. When a conference has a hashtag (such as #sxsw or #edutech15) participants can post tweets that reflect what the speaker is saying, share resources or communicate their inspirations and responses, and ‘link’ these with other delegates by including the hashtag in their 140 characters.
These tweets form the conference ‘back-channel‘ – the discussion between the delegates (and speakers!) that goes on even while the session is taking place. The back channel has always existed (and exists in every classroom or lecture hall) – it is the whispered asides, the notes passed between friends, and the aha moments noted down – but the power of Twitter means that everyone can now benefit from these perspectives, and even those who can’t be there physically can still take part, discovering new interpretations and adding to the conversation.
If you are a conference delegate, sharing your notes via Twitter means that you are more likely to connect with other participants (you may notice someone else also tweeting and make plans to meet up) and you are also sharing the conference more broadly with your twitter followers. This can also result in fantastic networking opportunities.
Keeping track during a conference can be overwhelming, especially if lots of delegates are rapidly sharing. A tool such as Tweetdeck or Hootsuite helps manage this fast flow of information. These tools allow you to separate the various information ‘streams’ coming in to your Twitter stream across a series of columns; you can follow the conference hashtag in one column, tweets that have been sent to you in another (enabling you to easily conduct a twitter conversation while keeping an eye on the rest of the conference tweets) and a third column devoted to all other tweets. Essentially, these apps provide a ‘dashboard’ experience, so you can stay on top of your social media while it is coming at you from all angles! There is even scope for scheduling tweets, so you can set a specific time to ‘tweet’ (such as to promote your session 10 minutes before it starts, or to tweet resources 5 minutes before the end of a workshop). Having trouble choosing which to use? This article is a simple summary of the best of both.
In addition, once the conference is complete, you can use a tool such as Storify to collate all of the useful tweets into one place for re-reading after the event. This is better than note-taking, because not only do you capture your own thoughts and observations, you also can draw upon any of the other participants’ tweets for a very rich reflective piece on what was shared.
An example of a conference that I have ‘storified’ is below; click on the image to go directly to the story to explore further:
Storify is easy to use. You can log in using your Twitter details, and then simply create a heading and subheading. Then drag the relevant tweets (or just add them all) from the column in the side, which you have identified by searching using the hashtag. You can also search across other social media as well as add text and images, so you can make your Story as rich as you would like. Here’s how:
The conference organiser perspective:
If you are a conference organiser, having a Twitter hashtag is also a great way to advertise the conference and promote it to others. Before, during and after the event, tweets that capture the spirit of the conference and share what delegates are likely to experience and take away from the event will draw new interest, and tweets that delegates make during the conference may entice those who couldn’t attend to plan for next year’s event. Tweets like this are fantastic promotion:
How do you make your tweetstream come alive during the conference? Consider these tips in your planning:
- Create a short, meaningful hashtag that hasn’t been used before:
Tweets are 140 characters, so don’t take up characters with a long hashtag (that is also likely to be harder to remember and slower to type!). Select one that is meaningful and related to the conference (and if you are likely to repeat the conference consider keeping the same tag, and suffixing it with the year e.g. #edutech15). Before announcing the hashtag, do a search to make sure it is not already in use – you don’t want irrelevant and unrelated tweets cluttering your stream!
2.Promote the hashtag well:
Nothing kills a backchannel like hashtag confusion. Label all booklets, posters, fliers and all web presence with the hashtag, so that people can begin to use it even when preparing for the event. Embedding the tweetstream on the conference website also builds excitement, as delegates and those considering attending see the hashtag in use and read about others they might meet at the conference.
3.Consider a TwitterTeam:
Create a team of delegates or organisers who will lead the tweetstream. Having regular tweets (preferably with a range of media such as photos or videos attached) can capture the flavour of the conference, encourage others to tweet and retweet quality observations already being shared. If they are happy to wear one, perhaps consider giving them badges so that others who need technical advice might know who to chat to at the conference.
4.Provide Twitter 101 and a Tweet-Up
Not everyone comes to a conference as a Twitter expert, however many might like to participate if they only knew how. Providing a simple tutorial prior to the conference or in the conference paraphernalia encourages those who are keen to try Twitter, without having to ask others for help (which they may find uncomfortable). Also, give those who are tweeting the opportunity to meet in person, by choosing a time for a Tweet-up during the conference, where all those who have been networking online can meet up in person. This takes the best of the digital world and connects it with the real world for a win win experience! Something like this simple interactive image might be all participants need to become familar with the Twitter interface.
5.Display the tweets during the conference
Not everyone will be twitter savvy, but everyone can benefit from a public display of the tweets being shared. Apps such as Twitterfall or Visible Tweets make it easy to display on the big screen what others are sharing. Simply type in the conference hashtag and watch the tweets appear! These apps are free, and simply convert the tweets to a more public view; if you want more control (say at a student conference, where it is possible that inappropriate tweets may be shared) paid apps such as Tweetbeam (which also has a free option) allow you to moderate tweets before they are displayed, and give you more control over the way the tweets appear.
So the next conference you attend or organise, why not take advantage of the power of Twitter to create a much richer experience for everyone. Promote, share, network, question and connect – all the things a good conference aims to achieve!
Like this info? Click the image below for a printable handout that might be useful to distribute and share.