When Twitter co-founder Evan Williams gave a talk at the South By Southwest Conference in Texas, more than 10,000 people packed into the auditorium—laptops open and expectations high.
They came ready to tweet the latest news about Williams’ plans to bring more advertising revenue to Twitter. Instead, he rambled on about the channel but gave few specifics.
Finally, someone tweeted: “The guy behind us is snoring #literally @ev keynote. #SXSW”
Another responded: “I say we all get up & leave … Interview guys SUCKS. Who’s with me? #SXSW”
Then a strange thing happened: Thousands of people got up and walked out. The 2010 event is now a classic example of the impact of the “backchannel,” which has only grown in popularity and influence.
In the old days, if someone gave a boring speech, the audience could doodle or daydream. Today, they can find each other on Twitter and rate the speaker’s performance, fact-check his or her numbers, share notes and debate the presenter’s ideas.
If your talk is exceptionally good, the audience may rave about it to hundreds or even thousands of their followers. But if it’s bad, they can rant about you or, as Williams learned the hard way, just get up and leave. Sometimes the Twitter crowd is so tough on speakers, it’s called “tweckling” or “backchannel brutality.”
Either way, backchannel conversations can have a big impact on your reputation—and your organization’s—while giving the most immediate and honest feedback you may ever get.
A Quick Primer
Whether the presenter is a national keynote speaker or leads small workshops, it’s vital to tune into—and influence—the backchannel. Here’s how it works.
In advance of an event, the organizers or audience members will often start tweeting at what is called a “hashtag.” Hashtags are words that have the # symbol in front of them.
If the hashtag is related to a live event, it creates a backchannel—a searchable forum where people in the back of the room can discuss what’s happening up front. Even people who can’t attend in person can follow the event and weigh in.
Audiences are using Twitter hashtags during live events in a wide variety of ways. Political junkies argued over the presidential candidates’ performances at the hashtag #debates. Ohio State University football fans find each other on game days at #GoBucks, #Buckeyes or #OhioState.
And increasingly, business leaders are using hashtags to connect with one another at conferences and other events. Some gatherings even feature event-related tweets on large screens set up throughout the venue’s halls. In November, the Columbus Chamber asked everyone attending its Business Summit to share their thoughts using #bizsummit.
Here are a few tips to tap into the power of the backchannel:
- Find out in advance if organizers have announced a hashtag, and start searching for those tweets.
- If hosting an event, create a short hashtag and announce it. But first, make sure no one else is using the same hashtag to describe a different session or conference.
- Tweet a relevant comment or two using the hashtag before the talk (perhaps mention an interesting data point that will be discussed).
- Follow the hashtag conversation and touch base afterward with those who commented on Twitter.
- Assign someone to follow the hashtag during the event—to answer questions, respond to comments or tweet links to research.
- Afterward, send Twitter messages to people who weighed in with thanks or additional thoughts.
- Consider analyzing and archiving tweets—look at who was tweeting, how influential they were, how many people tweeted and who was most active.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, consider the backchannel benefits.
KeyBank’s recent experience is a great example. The bank has loaned billions of dollars to women business owners over the past few years, and it also provides them with educational opportunities through a program called Key4Women.
This year, as national keynote speakers for the Key4Women program, my colleague Betsy Hubbard and I traveled to 17 cities from Florida to Alaska to give talks about social media. We asked the women who attended to tweet at the hashtag #K4W.
More than 2,800 people attended the forums. But attendees who tweeted reached more than 900,000 other Twitter accounts—meaning people across the country who didn’t attend the event still learned about KeyBank’s program for women business leaders. That’s valuable word of mouth—on steroids.
Even if you never give presentations or organize conferences, be sure to check out the backchannel the next time you’re at an event. You’ll find that you can learn as much from the folks in the back of the room as you can from the speakers in the front.
Debra Jasper is a co-founder of Mindset Digital, a Columbus-based digital media consulting and training firm. She can be reached at (614) 891-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @DebraJasper.