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Twits in a Room – Using Social Media in a Conference

Using Social Media for Conference Convenors: the benefits and some considerations

Maintaining the cutting edge in innovation is something that conference convenors struggle with. The task of providing an excellent program that meets the needs or interests of potential registrants, stimulating challenging discussion, as well as promoting a positive image or profile for your organization is key to effective conference facilitation.

Social media has presented itself as another opportunity, used effectively, to meet these objectives. However it is not without risk and if not managed may have adverse effects on all aspects of the meeting.

This is my personal blog about my observations and experience of “Conferencing” by Twitter.

My entry into using Twitter started at a conference. I was incoming President of the Rural Doctors Association in 2011, at a time when a state election was just over the horizon, and rural health was high on the political agenda. Like most “oldies” I was instructed in the art of Twitter by medical students. Since then I have experiences many positive aspects of immersion in Social Media, some of which can be very useful to Organizations hosting meetings for their members or the broader community.

For me twitter has created opportunities to interact with people internationally. An invitation by Dr Harris Lygidakis (@lygidakis) and Dr Raquel Gonzales Bravo (@rqgb), leaders of the Vasco Da Gama movement, to join them in presenting a workshop on Social Media at the WONCA Prague conference crossed intergenerational divides as we spoke of the strength of Social media in empowering communication.

The key benefits include extending the reach of your Brand, disseminating your message to a much broader international audience, promoting an opportunity to explain who you are, where you are and your philosophy on a world stage. A significant media presence exists in Social Media and effective interactions can create follow up interests, positive news headlines and even political attention. Some such as Melissa Sweet, editor and author of Croakey a Health Blog hosted on independent news site Crikey, provide a forum for important issues and discussions to continue to be heard.

At a more personal level the opportunity exists to interact with your members informally through instant messaging, to receive quick feedback on what worked and what didn’t, and to understand the needs of individuals for future meetings. Medical practitioners, especially Emergency Medicine clinicians have embraced Social media as a means to draw together a worldwide brotherhood and sisterhood of like-minded doctors through Twitter, Blogs and Webcasts. Cutting edge health community engagement is typified by the Social Media and Critical Care Conference SMACC featuring social media as a means to communicate and to innovate.

The reach of social media creates a second group of non-registrants who follow the conference twitter stream, make contributions and carry on the themed conversation to a broader audience. Analytics organizations, such as Symplur, provide feedback on conference hashtags can give a measure of the reach of your message to that broader audience. CheckUp, a primary care organization, in a recent conference reached over 92,000 twitter accounts through 129 tweets by registrants. This change in dynamic from a conversation with 100 registrants to a potential audience of near 100,000 underpins the power of social media.

So, is there any downside to this? I believe that the answer is a resounding yes. Conference conveners must understand the risks of Social Media. I liken it to the Wild West without laws, without restrictions and relying purely on the common sense of registrants and followers; something that unfortunately is not that common. The risks include inappropriate messages appearing under the conference hash-tag, these may simply be off topic, potentially offensive, explicit or slanderous.

There is a risk to the Brand, and legal ramifications for both the participant and the organization as there is no clarity around whether an organization endorses comments made through the conference Hashtag or Social Media site. Just like the Wild West, the Lone Ranger is out there somewhere watching; breach of local law may be compounded by breach of international covenants as well.

Some twitter participants simply like the sound of their own voice, or in the case of publicly broadcast tweets their own “humorous” comments. I have seen attempts to integrate Social Media into a conference debate detract from the Speaker as participants disparage, criticize or derail the conversation.

Copyright infringement and the ownership of intellectual property becomes an issue as participants tweet comments or photographs from the presentations. Invited guests may have an expectation that unpublished works, or personal opinion should remain confidential leaving the conveners in a difficult reputational and legal position.

So what is the answer? I believe that Social Media use in conferences can add value for the reasons I have outlined above. The conversation need not stop at the closing plenary and a successful conference can do much to raise the profile of an organization with its members and customers. Equally Social Media needs to be managed.

A proactive approach to conference presentation and branding can mitigate many of the risks. Budget is an issue for any convener however the evolution of Applications for Smartphones (Apps) that allow the conference convener to set the theme, provide useful information, online forums and appropriate social media contacts is money well spent. A growing industry in conference facilitation exists and I have seen some very effective use of this at recent conferences.

Hash-tags are a way of bringing participants together around the theme of the event. Many social media platforms now use Hash-tags and thought should be given to a short “pithy” tag for the meeting e.g. #RDAQ14 #GPET13 etc… I would encourage conveners to register their hash-tag with Symplur online and display it in their registration and conference brochures.

I believe a positive experience of Conference tweeting requires the presence of a Moderator. Someone must be accountable and designated to keep a close eye on Social Media messaging and the comments appearing throughout the meeting. Risk management in this way can reduce complaints and act on instant feedback on participant satisfaction.

Conveners need to be aware of “Trending” where a popular hash-tag can garners the attention of unwanted participants. Special software such as ProPresenter provide pre-approval for twitter streams while others such as Twitterfall provide for undifferentiated display of the live stream.

The Australian ABC TV program QandA is a popular example of the use of managed Twitter and Facebook streams. The backroom gear required to both moderate and select messages for display may be outside of the price range of many conference committees. I would suggest a few key points to using a twitter stream inside the forum hall.

First of all think carefully about whether using social media will add value to your keynote speaker or workshop presentation. Do you want people maintaining eye contact and listening or peering down at their smartphones?

If you would like more audience participation Twitter can be useful to seek questions from the floor. Think about setting time aside from people to tweet their questions and have someone moderate the stream for the top tweets. Think too about setting a unique session Hash-tag reducing the risk of hijacking, inappropriate tweets.

Where you wish to display live Twitter feed consider the speaker. I would suggest not putting a Twitter or Facebook feed behind or on the same display as the speaker’s PowerPoint, as this risks detraction from the presenter’s impact.

Set some ground rules early and enforce them. Often it is worth reinforcing some degree of professionalism and etiquette by responding promptly to the audience with appropriate feedback or acting on complaints. Where possible a “Guest” tweeter could be asked to lead the online conversation and act as a role model for other participants. Blocking inappropriate tweets or participants should be considered early and often as rapid loss of control of the conference theme can occur.

In conclusion the use of Social media has the potential to add richness and value to an Organizations conference both for their registered and online participants. The potential impact of Social Media in promoting your brand or theme, creating a sustained conversation and attracting the interest of the media can be very powerful. There are risks and it is critical that any foray into this unrestricted space is well managed.

Dr Ewen McPhee

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