Menachem Wecker

Freelance reporter at Self

Conference Season Is Here. Don’t Stink at Twitter.

Full 01022014 tweetdeck

After completing his set this September at the Funniest Celebrity Contest in Washington, D.C., comedian Dan Nainan checked his Twitter feed and saw that Josh Rogin, a reporter for The Daily Beast, had panned his act. So Nainan tracked Rogin down in the audience—and attacked him.

“There was a punch, a retreat, and another punch, and then Nainan got arrested,” recalls Nikki Schwab, who reported on the incident for the U.S. News & World Report.

Mercifully, you probably won’t be dodging any Twitter-related fisticuffs at your next conference. Plenty of speakers and panel moderators now encourage audience members to cover their events live on social media, both to expand the conversation beyond the venue and to increase the conference’s visibility. Twitter and Facebook can be great tools to navigate the room—and, for those who can’t attend the conference, a means to eavesdrop on the proceedings remotely.

But there’s no getting around it: For those in the social-media know, conferences have taken something of a Ringling Brothers feel, with multiple layers of discussion competing for attendees’ attention. More live tweeting means more noise, and—in the eyes of many conferencegoers and conference-followers—more nuisance.

“Back when Twitter was younger and there were fewer people using it,” says Michael Stoner, the president of mStoner, a higher-education marketing and communications agency, “it was great to follow the stream from a talk at a conference and read the speaker's sound bytes once or twice as reported on Twitter.”

Now, he says, Twitter has become a victim of its own success: “There's nothing to be gained from everyone in the room tweeting her pithy statements, all at the same time.”

Jen Doak-Mathewson, an online communications specialist at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, shares Stoner’s concern. Social channels, she says, can get clogged “with Instagram pictures of break-time cupcakes or logo-covered stress balls”—ephemera that bury the good information.

“It might be good for vendors and conference managers,” she says, “but that's the first thing I hear people point to when they say, ‘I don’t see the point of using Twitter for conferences.’”

Feel the same way? Here are a few tips for finding (or creating) signal amid the social noise.

Following the conference? Go beyond hashtags.

Social-media management tools such as TweetDeck and HootSuite allow users to create search columns that display Twitter hashtags or other tags that help Twitter users identify their messages as part of a larger conversation. Those columns can be helpful for those who hope to follow a conference remotely, says Mike Petroff, digital content strategist at Harvard University.

But if you’re really looking to cut down on random chatter, Petroff says, you might want to do a bit of advance work. Create a Twitter list of the attendees whose insights you actually do want to hear, and create a HootSuite column around that list.

Or try Topsy, a site that provides context on how influential tweets are, rather than just throwing them all at you. “If you're looking for only the best tweets, tools like Topsy can help surface the most shared tweets that include the conference hashtag or specific keywords,” Petroff says.

Think of the folks following along from home.

Conference attendees who just tweet that they’re at a conference without adding further value should be more descriptive, recommends William Ward, a professor of practice in social media at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

“The most common mistake higher-ed folk make when using social media at conferences is not using social media to document what they are learning and then sharing that learning with their social networks,” he says. “Just stating that you are attending a conference is about as useful as sharing what you had for breakfast.”

Sharing what you actually learned at the conference helps your colleagues and peers benefit vicariously from your own learning experiences, he says.

Don’t summarize. Respond.

Plenty of conferencegoers are content to tweet 140-character summaries of lecture topics. But Stoner finds it more effective when Twitter users supplement a speaker’s remarks. Try tweeting links to resources that the speaker mentions, he suggests, or expressing disagreement with something the speaker says by offering links or other evidence.

“That's the beginning of a conversation, not simply regurgitating the speaker’s words,” he says.

He admits that this is easier said than done. The conference and session hashtags that organizers hawk sometimes add up to so many characters that Twitter users aren’t left with much room to add any observations of their own.

Feeling constricted by character limits? Live blog posts—such as one that Mike Nagel, of Phillips Exeter Academy, wrote about the 2013 American Marketing Association's Symposium For the Marketing of Higher Education, for which mStoner was a partner—can be more effective than Twitter of Facebook posts, Stoner says. They also have longer shelf lives, he points out.

Blog posts “offer more content, both to those who are attending and those who can't, and they can be consumed nearly synchronously or asynchronously,” he says. “They live on after the conference ends.”

Use social media to network, not just to chronicle.

Renee Cramer, the director of Drake University’s Program in Law, Politics, and Society, has found that Facebook is the most effective for her when it comes to navigating, and organizing, conferences.

Cramer and colleagues created a Law and Society Salon Facebook group to organize panels at their annual Law and Society Association meetings, and they use that group to plan parties, to convene dinners, to share resources, and to debrief after the meetings. A panel that Cramer will be on in 2014 was organized via Facebook messaging rather than email, she says.

“Being on Facebook has made my conference experience a richer and warmer one,” she says. “I meet people at conferences and am able to begin to know them more personally through Facebook, and I am also able to extend my networks via friends that I have on Facebook.”

For college and university staff—specifically those working in public-affairs offices—social media can also be particularly effective when a professor or administrator from the institution is presenting. “It’s always good for leadership [and] communications staff to see quotes and reactions they can use elsewhere,” says Doak-Mathewson.

Know when to quit.

But one of the most important rules to remember, according to Petroff: Social media isn’t always appropriate at a conference.

“While mobile devices allow for instantaneous backchannel conversation and feedback,” he says, social-savvy conference attendees are sometimes glued more to the Twitter hashtag feed than to the presenter's talk.”

That can be frustrating for presenters, and it’s just not great etiquette. “It is important to balance the two,” Petroff says, “so that key talking points or opportunities to engage in real-life conversations are not missed.”

Menachem Wecker, a freelance writer in Chicago, is a former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report.Find him online here.

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