Twitter is a lousy promotional tool. If you use it to promote an event, you probably will be disappointed. But it’s a great place for conversation. Start a conversation about your event on Twitter, and you should get some promotional value.
A friend planning a journalism event recently asked my advice about promoting the event on Twitter, because he doesn’t use Twitter much. I responded first with some general advice about getting a new Twitter account rolling.
Here I’m going to address the specific question about promoting the event.
I’m not saying my friend shouldn’t send out some promotional tweets. You should and they will help. Twitter should be part of your promotional toolbox. Send out promotional messages on Twitter, just as you do on your website, Facebook, email, snail mail and any other communication means you use.
But even before Twitter came along, one of your best means of communication was word of mouth. And Twitter is the modern word of mouth (or thumb perhaps) for many of its users. While Twitter users may be a minority of your target audience for most organizations, they are a talkative minority, and every promoter wants to be part of the conversation among talkative slices of your target audience. And in a journalism group, the Twitter use will be high because it is such an important tool for journalists.
Some of my tips will be more conversational than promotional. The conversational ones are more important. The promotional ones are more like points on a checklist. You should do them, but spend more time and creativity in the conversational areas.
Yes, I understand that deliberately stimulating conversation is an act of promotion; my effort in distinguishing straight promotion from conversation is to note that your promotion efforts will be more successful if they feel conversational and if they start a conversation that takes on its own life, independent of your direction. If you control and orchestrate the whole conversation (as promoters sometimes attempt to do), you haven’t succeeded.
So here are my Twitter promotional/conversational tips for journalists planning events:
Start conversation early, keep it going
A successful event stimulates lots of conversation before, during and after. Your efforts to stimulate a conversation around the event should start in the planning stages, continue as you’re trying to encourage attendance, grow to a crescendo during the event and continue for a few hours or days afterward.
Identify points of interest
At each stage of this process, think about what are things people might be most likely to talk about.
In the planning stages, look back on your feedback about last year’s event. If people loved a particular session, ask on Twitter who would be some good panelists or topics for a similar session this year. If they didn’t like an aspect of the event last year, brainstorm ways to make it different (or what to do instead) this year. If you have voting for session topics, don’t just promote the link for voting, ask people what they are voting for and why (you’ve succeeded when people start tweeting at their tweeps to vote for their session topic).
If your event includes some awards, don’t just tweet about the deadline for nominations, ask people what were the best stories (headlines, videos, designs, etc.) of the year and get them talking during the nomination process. Someone’s mention of an outstanding project might prod the journalists responsible to enter your contest.
Decide on account to use
If you have a strong following for your organization’s main Twitter account and your event is the only or primary thing this organization does, you should probably use the existing account. If your event is one of many things the organization does, and its likely community is only a slice of the full organization’s community, it might be best to launch a separate account.
If the main org has a strong following, you want to use it to stimulate conversation for the event. You do that either by doing all the event promotion/conversation from the main account or by selectively but frequently retweeting the event account’s tweets from the main account.
If the stream of tweets promoting, discussing and covering the event would become boring or annoying to a significant number of the main account’s followers, you can moderate that volume by using a separate event account for the heavy stream and trying to find the right frequency of retweets from the main account.
Encourage a range of conversation types
Your event will include multiple types of conversation: Keynote speeches that are mostly monologue, but perhaps include some Q&A; panel discussions; small-group breakout exercises; hallway chats; the loud roar of the reception; dinner-table gabbing and late-night barroom revelry.
You want to encourage a similar range of Twitter conversation: scheduled Twitter chats, focused conversations on a particular topic, spontaneous exchanges on random topics, crowdsourcing, replies to questions, simple exchanges of information.
Use a hashtag
Decide early on a hashtag that will be easy to remember. The simplest choice is the initials or name of your organization followed by the year (#ona12 for last month’s annual conference of the Online News Association, for instance).
The hashtag might not catch on immediately, but be sure to use it in every tweet, which will help people recognize it and start to use it themselves. By the time of your event, you want a hashtag that participants will use frequently to discuss the event and absent supporters will use to follow what’s going on.
Be sure to promote the hashtag at the event: Mention it in your introductions (and repeat a few times through the day) as well as displaying it on slides and in printed programs. I attended Poynter’s Journalism Ethics Forum Tuesday. Poynter promoted the #PoynterEthics hashtag on Twitter as well as on a large screen behind the panelists:
— Poynter (@Poynter) October 23, 2012
Lead a Twitter chat
Lead a chat about a specific topic related to the event. Maybe you’re considering adding a few new categories to your awards program or you want some input on topics and/or speakers for your conference. Get a few members of your conference committee or awards committee to agree in advance to participate in the chat – your first panel, in effect.
Your goal is to generate conversation among your organization’s members or supporters. But your first chat (or your first half-hour or so) might be just your panel (so be sure to recruit some participants so you’re not talking to yourself).
Promote the chat (not just on Twitter) in advance and Storify it for your website, so that you’ve used Twitter to provide helpful promotional information even for people who don’t use Twitter, don’t follow you or just missed the chat.
Your first chat may not generate a lot of conversation. Don’t let that discourage you. Interest will build. On the other hand, you might generate some discussion immediately if your panelists include some people with lots of followers who will click on the hashtag, learn what’s going on and join the conversation.
Use TweetChat to follow the discussion and send your own tweets. It will use the hashtag automatically (and subtract it from 140, so it shows you the number of tweets you have left), so don’t add the hashtag yourself if you’re using Tweetchat.
Feed the tweets onto your website using ScribbleLive, CoverItLive or a Twitter widget, so people who visit your website will get the benefit of the chat, even if they don’t use Twitter (and people who do use Twitter will immediately see some value in following you).
A partnership might be helpful here. If you could interest an established regular Twitter chat, such as #wjchat, to take up a topic you might be addressing at the conference, you would reach that chat’s audience. It may be appropriate to share only a few tweets with promotional information, but you might reach more people with those tweets than you could reach on your own chat.
Let’s say that the deadline for your annual awards is a month away. You could tweet that the deadline is coming up and encourage people to enter. You may get a few replies or retweets, but you also might wonder if anyone even saw it. And if you repeat that tweet, or something much like it, every day for a month or several times a day, you might see your follower numbers drop because you’ve turned into a spammer.
A better way to get out the word about the contest is to ask questions about your awards: “Who should win #jawards sports video of the year? Share links to your nominess. Deadline is Nov. 30.” “We’ve seen lots of great breaking news coverage this year. Who are you nominating for #jawards? Deadline is Nov. 30.”
As with the chat, you might want to arrange a little participation in advance to prime the pump. Maybe rather than tweeting them from the event’s or organization’s Twitter account, you have members of the awards committee tweet the questions (and you retweet them from the event account).
Again, you might want to Storify the awards discussion and/or feed it into your website live.
Vary the questions. If you want to mention each category more than once as you’re seeking nominees, maybe you plug the sports-video category the second time this way: “.@stevebuttry won #jawards sports video of the year for 2011. Who are you nominating this year? Deadline: Nov. 30.” (As if I would win a video award.)
When the event comes around, you want strong livetweeting. If your organization has strong Twitter use, maybe all you need to do is promote the hashtag.
But if Twitter use in your organization is light or sporadic, I’d encourage recruiting a member or staffer to livetweet each session and recruiting a second member to Storify the livetweets for your website (even if only the one person you’ve recruited was tweeting). Make the Storify more than just a string of tweets. You don’t have to include redundant tweets or retweets (unless they add a meaningful comment).
You should bring more than the tweets into the Storify. If you’re livetweeting or Storifying the awards banquet, prepare by gathering links to all the finalists (if you have them). Then as each winner is announced, you not only tweet or Storify the news, but also share the link so people can check out the winning works.
If it’s keynote speech or a panel that you’re covering, tweet links to bios of the speakers. If they mention key projects or stories they have worked on, search quickly to see if you can find them and post the links.
If you have lots of members interested in strengthening the social media coverage of your organization, or if you have some college students covering the event, you could recruit to multiple roles: One tweets play-by-play, one finds and tweets the relevant links, one shoots and tweets photos, a fourth Storifies it all into a lively, coherent account of the event.
I had the assignment of livetweeting the “lightning round” candidates’ speeches and Q&A at ONA. Here’s the Storify by journalism student Marissa Evans (you can see I wasn’t the only one tweeting). Sometimes events will be Storified spontaneously by journalists attending a conference. If your organization’s members aren’t making strong use of Storify and social media, you probably should recruit people for these roles.
If you recruit members or students to livetweet, it’s probably best to have them tweeting from their own accounts, with your event or organization account retweeting some key ones and encouraging people to follow the livetweeter and/or the hashtag. However, if a staffer is livetweeting, you might want to use the event or org account. Livetweeting almost invariably attracts new followers.
Collect the @usernames of your members, speakers, awards nominees and other people whose names you might mention in tweets, so you have them handy to drop into tweets. Most people who use Twitter check their mentions frequently and reply to and/or retweet people who are mentioning them, so you want to use @usernames if they are on Twitter. Their replies and retweets will bring your tweets to the attention of more people and will boost your followers.
If you want a tweet to be seen by all of your followers (or all who are paying attention at that time), don’t start the tweet with an @username or only people who follow both of you will see that on their Twitter timelines. Place a period in front of the @ symbol: .@username
You can usually find their usernames by Googling their name and Twitter (if it’s a common name, you might want to add another search term such as the name of their news organization). Twitter’s Discover tab also has a “Who to Follow” tab that helps find people on Twitter.
You know that in word of mouth, listening is half the conversation. In the whole period that you’re working on the event, you should be monitoring your @mentions and using saved Twitter searches or a service such as TweetBeep (kind of like Google alerts for Twitter) to watch for tweets mentioning your event. Answer their questions, thank them for praise, address their complaints or criticisms (as long as they’re not trolls) and retweet meaningful contributions to the conversation you’re trying to lead and stimulate.
Be sure to save multiple alerts and searches: the name and acronym of the organization (and any nicknames, including unflattering ones), names of key officers, speakers, awards, etc.
Show off your tweets
At the #PoynterEthics symposium Tuesday, tweets using the hashtag rotated onto screens on either side of the stage, using a web tool called Visible Tweets. It’s ridiculously easy to use. I duplicated the effect I saw on the screen Tuesday in less than a minute by filling in a hashtag and choosing “rotation” on the animation tab at the upper right.
Be prepared for some humorous and critical tweets to appear on your screen if you use an automated tool to pull in the hashtag. Journalists are who they are, and
Your Twitter conversation isn’t over when the event finishes, though it may wind down soon. Monitor the conversation as people fly home and retweet their enthusiastic tweets about the event (or address any complaints).
Use Twitter along with other communication channels to ask for feedback on the event: What did they like best? What do you need to improve next year? What ideas do they have for new features, sessions, awards? What logistics (registration, hotel, etc.) worked well and what didn’t?
Tell participants to put next year’s event on their calendars now, promoting the date and city.
Tweet links to content that will be helpful to people who missed this event, to people who had to choose between breakouts and to those who want to relive the most interesting parts: livestreams, Storifys, ScribbleLives, student newsroom accounts, etc.
While some of your participants will livetweet, blog and Storify during the conference, others will write a column or blog post when they get home. Keep searching for those and tweet links to them or retweet the authors’ tweets about them. If these follow-up pieces present good discussion points, ask questions in your tweets to keep the conversation going.
Share your experience
That’s my advice for using Twitter to promote a journalism event. If you’ve been involved in planning or promoting a journalism event, what has worked for you?
Update: Excellent suggestions from my former American Press Institute colleague Elaine Clisham:
@stevebuttry For engagement after the event, ask for attendees’ Twitter handles, put them on nametags. Also, add QR codes w/contact info.
— Elaine Clisham (@eclisham) October 25, 2012