I recently attended the LITA National Forum in St. Louis, and found that my experience was much better because of Twitter. I’m a fairly shy person when it comes to chatting with people I don’t know, but introducing myself to someone I’ve been following on Twitter for a while seems easier. I’ve also been an active tweeter during virtual conferences, and find that restores some of the one-on-one networking/discussion possibilities that one might otherwise miss from an in-person gathering. Not everyone finds that the “twitterverse” adds a useful extra dimension to conferences, but I thought I’d share some helpful tips for those who think they might like to try it.
A bit of nomenclature for newbies: A hashtag is a short string of characters (a tag) preceded by the hash mark (#), appended to or included in individual tweets and used to track a particular topic, meme, event, etc. (Twitter’s version of metadata.) Ideally, conference organizers will declare an official hashtag well in advance of the event. For example, the LITA National Forum is #litaforum and the 2011 ALA National Conference was #ala11. Most Twitter apps will allow you to search for a specific hashtag and either save the search to quickly redo it (e.g. Seesmic), set up a column to follow the hashtag continuously (Tweetdeck), or some other means of tracking. Mashable has a pretty good introductory article about hashtags, and here’s a more specific article about how to “follow” them.
This post will focus on tweeting during in-person conferences like LITA, but many of the suggestions also apply if you’re tweeting a webinar or virtual conference. So without further ado, read on for my tips!
- Lay the groundwork.
- Follow the tweets for a conference that you’re not attending, if you can – this will give you a sense of how the twitter stream tends to work for these things. Failing that, read through archived tweets from a past conference. Twapper Keeper is good for this; you can read tweets from LITA (up through the present; ignore that it says 2009) right here.
- Select individual people to follow – for example, follow some of the folks who will be presenting, or bloggers who might be at your conference. Identify people you’d like to meet.
- Find out the conference hashtag in advance. Select a Twitter client that will allow you to follow that hashtag (I like Tweetdeck) and start tracking it well in advance of the conference.
- Think about your Twitter handle. Is it something you are comfortable with in a professional environment? If you’ve been tweeting incessantly about your personal life using the handle @PotatoChipPrincess, consider setting up a separate account for professional engagement. And if you want to engage with others at the conference, for heaven’s sake, don’t protect your tweets.
- Alert your followers in advance (maybe the day before, or a couple hours before for a webinar). People who aren’t interested in the conference may want to filter out the hashtag (some apps have this functionality, or you can use a third-party service like Muuter) or even temporarily unfollow you. That’s fine.
- Not sure you can multitask? Try to find a free webinar that has announced its hashtag ahead of time and participate in that. Or get together with a few friends and watch a TV show or sports event “together” while tweeting to build your skills. My first attempt at conference tweeting was during the Handheld Librarian Online Conference, which generally has a very active Twitter stream; I was amazed at how much that kind of networking added to my conference experience, and I made some connections there that I’ve maintained ever since.
- You may not be able to follow everything. If it’s a huge noisy conference like ALA, you probably won’t even be able to keep up with all the hashtagged tweets; you may want to find out if individual sessions you are interested in (e.g. LITA’s Top Tech Trends) have their own hashtags and follow them. Even if it’s just a smaller conference, you may not be able to follow the conference tweets and still keep up with your regular timeline. Do make sure you check your mentions and DM’s regularly, though.
- Don’t use Twitter as your personal note taking device. You don’t need to tweet every single thing that’s said, though if you’re the only person tweeting the session you may want to be more comprehensive. In general, hit the highlights. What nuggets stand out? What bits would be of interest to people who are in different sessions or not at the conference at all? What are the larger themes? How does this session relate to other sessions at the conference? “Oh hey, Drupal got mentioned yet again – I guess it really is a big deal!”
- It’s fine to use humor and have a personality. Twitter isn’t a scholarly publication! But it’s tiresome if everything you tweet is jokey; people start wondering if it’s a parody account or something. Be yourself, but be worth paying attention to.
- Don’t tweckle. Just don’t. It’s mean, and “tweckle” is a stupid word anyway. (It means heckling via Twitter, if you haven’t come across that particular non-word before.) It’s totally fine to be critical and to disagree with the speaker, but being snarky is not useful to anyone, even if it’s kind of funny. Plus, it’s part of your Permanent Record.
- During sessions, it’s great to tweet out recommended links or readings related to the presentation, especially if you don’t have the opportunity to speak up and mention them out loud. People may not follow up during the session, but oftentimes they’ll email the tweet to themselves or favorite it so they can follow up later.
- Engage with individuals! Use @ replies (aka mentions) when someone tweets something you’d like to respond to. If you include the conference hashtag, your mention will get to everyone following that hashtag so your tweet will be part of the conversation.
- Make connections! Use Twitter as an icebreaker. Introduce yourself to that person whose tweets you’ve been following and let them know their tweets are useful to you. Arrange meetups – at LITA I noticed someone tweeting great stuff about user experience, and tweeted to ask her if she’d be interested in starting up an informal UX discussion table at lunchtime. She was, and we both tweeted out an open invitation, and as a result I got to talk to some people I might not have met otherwise.
- It’s OK to use the hashtag and tweet that the conference lunch is great, or maybe to mention the incredible weather (you do want to make your colleagues at home a little bit jealous). But use the hashtag responsibly and don’t clutter up the feed. Imagine that you’re getting up in front of everyone at the conference and saying your tweet into a microphone. Is it worth everyone’s attention? If the answer is “absolutely not,” don’t hashtag it. “Hey @xocg, I just noticed your shoes! Where’d you get those? #litaforum” is not a good use of the hashtag, no matter how fabulous her shoes may be. (Since conferences are also social events, of course there’s a lot of room for good judgment here… remember to pack yours.)
- Try to follow up. You will probably want to follow some of the conference presenters and some of the more active or interesting tweeters, and if you tweet well, you’ll probably find that you gain some new followers as well. It’s good to follow them back, at least for a while; you may find that once the conference is over some of them lapse into Twitter silence or go back to tweeting about their cats, in which case it’s perfectly fine (and not an insult) to unfollow them. (I’m really bad at this, though. I often don’t get around to checking my notifications and following back until well after the conference is over.)
- I also recommend keeping your hashtag search open for a while after the conference, as people often tag things of interest that they come across in the days following the conference as well as related blog posts, etc. Additionally, presenters will often tweet out links to their slides or notes, and you will want some of those so you can catch up on what you missed while you were tweeting. (Kidding! Sort of.)
- Finally, do what works for you. I feel more active and engaged when I’m tweeting and following the Twitter stream during a conference. You may feel more distracted, and just want to catch up on the day’s tweets once you’re back in your comfortable quiet hotel room. Or you may find that hauling the technology around gets tiring. Certainly you shouldn’t focus on tweeting at the expense of interacting with actual humans! But give it a try sometime. You just might like it!