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Encouraging a Conference Backchannel on Twitter

Conference Wordle[This is a guest post by Derek Bruff, assistant director at the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and senior lecturer in mathematics at Vanderbilt. You can follow Derek on Twitter (@derekbruff) and on his blog, where he writes about educational technology, student motivation, and visual thinking, among other topics. -- @jbj]

You may have noticed that big conferences tend to attract a lot of conversation on Twitter these days. Team ProfHacker and friends shared their perspectives on the use of Twitter (and other, related topics) at the MLA conference last month in a massive group post, for instance. There were over 800 people who “tweeted” using the hashtag for that conferences, #MLA11, contributing among them more than 7,600 tweets. That’s a lot of conversation. (Although, as Mark Sample pointed out in that group post, that amounts to less than 10 percent of all those who attended the conference, and half of those who tweeted did so only once. More on that later.)

A Twitter backchannel at a conference can provide participants a way to share ideas and resources from the sessions they attend, connect people who might not have connected otherwise, and broaden the conference discussion to include those not physically present. But if you’re helping to organize a conference that isn’t as massive as the MLA and isn’t full of technology folks who might tweet on their own, how do you encourage a productive conference backchannel?

I had two chances last fall to try my hand at organizing a conference backchannel via Twitter. Thanks to my role on the electronic resources committee of my professional organization, the POD Network, I was able to volunteer to lead the “Twitter Team” at our November conference. Apparently, that effort worked well enough because Milt Cox asked me to play a similar role at the Lilly Conference at Miami University later that month. My goal in both cases was to encourage conference participants to at least take a look at what was happening on the Twitter backchannel, if not contribute to the online conversation themselves.

Based on those experiences, here’s my guide to encouraging a conference backchannel on Twitter. I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the basics of Twitter. If you’re not, you might first check out this Twitter 101 presentation I built for the Lilly Conference for a quick introduction.

  • Hashtag — Determine a short hashtag for the conference. This is essential to making conference-related tweets readily available. Do a search for your proposed hashtag ahead of time to make sure it’s not already in use to describe something else on Twitter. We used #POD10 for the 2010 POD Network conference and #lilly10 for the Lilly Conference. Keep your hashtag short, since Twitter only gives you 140 characters per tweet!
  • Twitter Team — Recruit a number of conference participants known to be active on Twitter to serve as a “Twitter Team.” These people will make sure that something shows up in the backchannel, and their example will likely encourage other participants to tweet as well. See my “Instructions to Twitter Team” email for more information.
  • Twitter 101 — To encourage conference participants not already using Twitter to follow the backchannel and perhaps experiment with Twitter, share in advance of the conference a “Twitter 101” introduction to the role of Twitter at the conference. Make clear that conference participants can follow the backchannel using Twitter’s search tool even if they’re not Twitter users, since Twitter can be intimidating for the newbies. Here are two versions of the introduction to Twitter I prepared for the Lilly Conference: a Prezi that viewers can move through at their own pace and a five-minute video in which I narrate that Prezi. How might you share these resources with your colleagues? See my “Twitter 101 Email to Listserv” email for one approach.
  • Badge Stickers — Prepare badge stickers for the Twitter Team so that other conference participants will know whom they can ask about tweeting at the conference. The Twitter “t” icon works well for this, as does the Twitter bird mascot.
  • Conference Website — Embed the Twitter stream in your conference website so that participants not already using Twitter can easily see the backchannel conversation. The Twitter search widget works well for this. You can see an example on the POD Network conference wiki page.
  • Conference Newsletter — Many large conferences have their own daily print (or digital) newsletters letting participants know about changes to the schedule and highlighting conference events. If your conference has a newsletter, see if you can share a few highlights from the backchannel in each edition.
  • Lobby Display — Set up a computer and monitor in one of the common areas at the conference with a live display of conference-related tweets. Visible Tweets is a website that works well for this. I’m partial to Visible Tweet’s “rotation” animation. The lobby display and the conference newsletter are ways to show the backchannel to all conference attendees, even those not carrying laptops or smart phones around with them.
  • Tweetup — Encourage Twitter users at the conference to meet face-to-face one evening. Find a sensible time and place for this “tweetup” and tweet it. This will go a long way in building community among those active on your conference backchannel.
  • Explain the Hashtag — During the conference, send an occasional tweet explaining your hashtag so that people not at the conference wondering what, for example, #pod10 is all about can find out. When you do so, link to your conference website, like this.
  • Photos — Be sure that someone on your Twitter Team can tweet some photos of the event. This is a great way to give those not at the conference a sense of what the conference feels like. Poster sessions make great photo opportunities, as do presentation slides, sometimes. Make sure to photograph some people, too.
  • Archive — Set up an archive of conference tweets that you and others can access after the conference. Twapper Keeper is one useful archiving service; here’s the Twapper Keeper archive for the #lilly10 hashtag.
  • Analyze & Report — After the conference, analyze and report on the conference tweets. You might report on the number of conference tweets, the number of individuals who tweeted during the conference, and the top ten or twenty most active conference tweeters. Summarizr is a free tool that will do this kind of analysis for you. Here’s the Summarizr report for the #lilly10 hashtag, for example. Also, Twapper Keeper lets you download all the tweets in your archive as an Excel file for further analysis. You might copy and paste the tweets into Wordle.net to create a word cloud of the conference backchannel. When creating a word cloud, you might want to create one that includes Twitter user names and one that doesn’t. You can see such word clouds in my report on the POD Network conference tweets and in my Lilly Conference backchannel report.

I hope you find these tips useful. I’d would be interested in hearing what ideas or strategies you have for encouraging a healthy conference backchannel on Twitter.

I’ll end this post with a few more thoughts about the “Twitter Hegemony” that Mark Sample identified in the ProfHacker group post about the MLA conference. Mark noted that “if you followed the Twitter hashtag stream for #MLA11, you ended up with a very narrow perspective of the conference,” mainly because relatively few conference participants were active on Twitter and those that were tended to focus on social media, the digital humanities, and a few other related topics. Mark wrote, “But did you want to hear about Medieval/Renaissance panels or Latin American studies? Good luck finding those tweets.”

Did something similar happen at the POD Network and Lilly Conferences? It’s certainly hard for me to tell, given that I was the most active contributor to both backchannels. There was certainly a fair amount of conversation about technology and social media at both conferences. But if you look at the word clouds for the conferences, words like students, faculty, teaching, and learning were the most tweeted words, which I would hope would be the case for these two conferences. And the keynotes at each conference, of interest to most attendees (at least in theory), were well-reported on Twitter, too. It’s possible that given the smaller size and tighter focus of these two conferences, there was less opportunity for significant conference themes to get left out of the backchannel conversation. But it’s certainly the case that a relatively small percentage of conference attendees were active on Twitter, meaning a hegemony of some kind was certainly possible.

In Jason B. Jones’ contribution to that ProfHacker group post on the MLA, he noted the “democratizing, leveling tendencies of social media.” I think I see that in the list of the top 20 Twitter users at the #POD10 conference. Although there are a couple of members of POD’s governing committee on the list, there are also a lot of people that are relatively new to POD. And it was clear from some of their tweets that they approached our field from very different perspectives. I liked hearing, for instance, Jim Julius’ thoughts on educational technology, Jessie L. Moore’s thoughts on writing across the curriculum, and Natasha Haugnes’ thoughts on faculty development at an art university. And later, at the Lilly Conference, two of the top 10 contributors to #lilly10 weren’t even at the conference! They jumped in the conversation because of connections they had made through the #POD10 backchannel.

What’s your experience of conference Twitter backchannels been? Do you see them as worth encouraging? If so, what ideas do you have for taking them mainstream at your conferences?

Image by Derek Bruff. Used by permission. Click here for full size.

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