3 Questions to Ask – and Answer – When Launching a Twitter Chat

March 10th, 2010 | Shonali Burke | 15 Comments

As founder of the #measurePR Twitter chat, I was invited to, and participated in, #chatmixer last night (party image, David Domingo, Creative Commons).

The idea was to bring together folks who routinely participate in specific chats, in an online/Twitter “mixer,” in an effort to widen their Twitter circles (would that be Twircles?) – hence the choice of #chatmixer as a hashtag. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, though Justin Goldsborough, Heather Whaling and Valerie Simon were meticulous in their planning.

Turns out, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It had a great party feel to it, and the last time I can remember the feeling of Twitter being such a party solely due to an effort like this (i.e. not related to an offline event) was the “kindness party” last year. I don’t even remember who organized that, except that Kim Wells brought it to my attention, and I had a whale of a time.

A chat is born

Anyhoo… during the course of #chatmixer, a new chat was born: #cookchat. (I cannot wait for that one.) And a few different people mentioned they were interested in starting chats as well.

This can be a very smart thing to do, especially from a marketing point of view.

But as with all bright ideas, you should play devil’s advocate and batter the heck out of your bright idea before you launch it. Better you find the holes in it & mend them before anyone else does, right?

First, read these excellent posts on participating in (by Jeff Hurt) and running (by David Spinks) a Twitterchat.

Now, just as when designing a PR strategy, here are three questions to ask – and answer – when launching a Twitter chat.

1. What gap will this chat help to fill?

If you look at What the Hashtag?! (now part of What the Trend™), you’ll see it’s currently tracking 9,900 hashtags. While not all of those are chats, that gives you a sense of just how many hashtags are out there.

Image: skipnclick‘s Flickrstream, Creative Commons

The primary reasons people participate in chats are, first, to learn something and second, to extend their networks. So if your chat is to be successful, it must fulfill these two desires.

If you look at this handy-dandy spreadsheet that Robert Swanwick created to track regular chats on Twitter, you’ll see a few chats that are fairly similar, as well as those that are quite unique.

There’s certainly nothing wrong in several people having the same conversation, albeit with different hashtags – it happens all the time. But if you want to give your chat a shot at succeeding (more on what this means in a bit), try to make it unique.

This is what Sarah Evans did with #journchat, what Kellye Crane did with #soloPR and, I’d like to think, what I’m doing with #measurePR.

What do the people you want to reach want to talk about? If you can answer that question – particularly with an answer that no one else has come up with yet – you’re off to a good start.

2. What will make this chat attract its target audience?

The quality of a chat – which is what will determine the perception of the chat and hence its profile – is dependent on who participates. You can design a great chat, but if you don’t have engaged, thoughtful and thought-provoking participants, it might end up being a one-hit wonder.

How do you bring the right people to the table?

Figure out what time of day and how often you’re going to hold the chat (this is particularly important if yours is not the only chat of its kind around)… and sustain it. Don’t set yourself up for failure; if your other commitments preclude a weekly chat, make it bi-weekly (or monthly, if you dare).

Whatever you decide, be consistent, since that is what will build your audience and community.

What you’re essentially asking people to do, as you build your chat community, is give up something else – work, family time, a movie, pizza – to devote their attention to your chat. Over and over and over again.

So make it easy and desirable for them to attend – that will go a long way in making it worth their while.

3. How will this chat become recognizable and identifiable?

Let’s face it, we in the social media sphere have the attention span of gnats. And I say that with no disrespect to gnats (image, Kaptain Kobold‘s Flickrstream, Creative Commons).

Like anything else in the branding space, repetition rules. So once you’ve figured out the name and aim of your chat, brand it well.

I’d go so far as to say, message the heck out of it.

Choose a smart, easy-to-remember hashtag that’s as short as possible; you want to make the most of those 140 characters of Twitter-estate. Register it on WTHashtag and add it to your bio.

Brand your chat frequently, but consistently. Because if you don’t, someone else might, and that will leave you considerably unhappy.

Which brings me to success – what does a successful Twitter chat look like?

It could be the dominant player in its niche with thousands of participants; it could be an extremely engaged conversation that leads to genuine discovery for a small but passionate group.

It could be the place where thought leaders in your field congregate; it could be people pitching you to be “on your show”; or it could be the generic use of your hashtag in conversations with a related theme.

Whatever the measure of success, you’re going to have to define it based on why you set out to build it… and if you really want to be successful, define this at the outset. I haven’t yet come across a Twitter chat that’s being sustained purely for fun, even if it was launched impulsively; if it builds, there’s a great deal of time and effort being put into it.

So figure out what you want to do with the chat, as well as what you want the chat to do for you (and it’s ok to want the chat to do something for you, that’s what business is about).

When you begin at the end, there’s a much greater likelihood you’ll get there.

What do you think, am I off the mark or on the money? If you’ve implemented successful tactics in launching and maintaining Twitter chats, please share them in the comments section below. All 9,900 hashtags (and growing) and I will thank you.

Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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Justin Goldsborough
Justin Goldsborough

So glad to hear you say #chatmixer felt like a party, Shonali. I came away with a similar vibe. And since we don't all live in the same place and therefore don't have the opportunity to party in person, seems last night was a solid alternative :).

Your questions are great places to start when thinking about launching a Twitter chat, as is Kelly's advice to not double book and Valerie's POV on turning a regular old chat into a community. More than anything, I like the advice you're giving to list questions and basically do a cost/benefit analysis on whether starting a chat makes sense for you and the audiences you want to chat with.

I told Heather and Valerie today that for me, Twitter chats are a lot like IABC. I learn a lot and am exposed to a variety of perspectives. But more than anything else, I always come back because of the people.

That's what #chatmixer, and any Twitter chat really, is about for me -- the chance to meet someone new. I usually have sub-objectives depending on the circumstance, but that's the legacy goal behind my participation.

That would be the one question I'd add -- What's your legacy goal when it comes to Twitter, networking or your long-term career passions? And will starting a Twitter chat help you get there?


Heather Whaling
Heather Whaling

Shonali, I'm so glad you were able to participate in #chatmixer last night. As people started tweeting about #cookchat, I was floored. The whole goal of last night was to help build new connections. I'm so excited that a whole new community will potentially grow out of this one event.

I agree with Valerie. As chats grow, how can the organizers help it go beyond 140 characters and really develop into a flourishing community? Justin and I were fortunate to inherit #pr20chat, which already had a strong following, thanks to Beth Harte's great work! We're constantly looking at opportunities to "extended" the community. A one-hour conversation is a great start, but its ongoing learning and relationships that come out of it that are really valuable.

Thanks again for your support of #chatmixer and for putting together this great post!


Valerie Simon
Valerie Simon

So glad you enjoyed #chatmixer! It was so fun to have a chance to get together with such a wide array of Twitter communities!

What a thoughtful post- Deirdre and I considered these same questions when we launched #PRStudChat last summer. I'd say you are right on the money with your three key questions. And I could not agree more with your thoughts on identifying measurable objectives so that you can track the progress of your efforts, and evaluate whether you are heading in the right direction.

My additional questions...

What value can this chat offer the community? (really just a part 2 to your first question... and something that should be reviewed regularly, so that new opportunities to provide value can be identified)

How can you move the chat from a conversation to a community?

How can you keep things fresh? Great conversation topics and developing relationships are important, but what will make a particular chat a "must" on any given date?

Look forward to reading and learning from the rest of the comments!

Kellye Crane
Kellye Crane

This is excellent, comprehensive info for anyone interested in starting a chat (thanks for the shoutout!). An additional point I'd add is to look at the "handy-dandy spreadsheet" from Robert Swanwick (linked above) and use that when deciding your time/day of week. You wouldn't want to compete with the juggernaut chat in your industry, and try to find a period when there's not a related chat right before or after the one you schedule (since people get tired and are unlikely to chat for hours on end).

I think another success factor is the participation of one or more people with an existing following. This doesn't have to be the organizer -- if he/she has the interest of someone with visibility, that works too. I always think how sad it would be if you had a chat and nobody came. It's a lot of work to spread the word and get noticed through all the clutter (see gnats comment above), so the more eyeballs the better!

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Justin, I love love LOVE that you compared the chats to IABC, I hope someone's watching! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it's the people who keep you coming back. That's SM in a nutshell, isn't it?

Really interesting question about legacy goals. I wonder if we'll get any answers to that?

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Heather - you guys did a really great job and I'm just sorry I couldn't help promote it more, what with being out of town. It was a lot of fun, so thank you for everything you did to pull it off. I know it's tough to do these things on a regular basis (e.g. monthly), but am wondering if it would be good to do every three or six months, say? Who knows how many #cookchats will be born!

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Thanks, Val! Those are GREAT additional questions... hmm, blog post, anyone? :-)

Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

You're welcome, Kell - #soloPR is one of the chats I enjoy most. I can't always attend it, but when I do, it leaves me very energized and almost reeling from the creativity and ideas people have and share. Your point about the participation of someone with an existing following is really excellent... along the lines of "if a tree falls" etc. It IS a lot of work - you know that better than anyone else! - so in this case, eyeballs definitely help.


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  6. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Friendfeed by shonali: New post: 3 qns to ask when starting a Twitter chat: http://ow.ly/1gpKq h/t #chatmixer @davidspinks @jeffhurt @kellyecrane @prsarahevans…