As you may know, I write a monthly column for Event Solutions‘ Trend Report. For the January issue I’ve focused on a topic that has been hotly debated online. Should back channel conversations on Twitter be brought to the front channel at events?
A backchannel is basically a conversation or series of conversations that take place during events through tools like Twitter. An example of this would be:
In the tweet above, @kybreezii was sending a communication about the Eventology Trinidad & Tobago conference she attended and used the #eventologytt hashtag to file her communication with the rest of the conversations about the event.
It’s taking those same backchannel conversations and displaying them, usually in the form of a Twitter Wall, openly to an audience. Below is a photo of how an event has projected backchannel conversations, making them now frontchannel conversations.
(photo via Guardian Activate 09)
It should be noted that to prepare for the Event Solutions article, I solicited the expert opinions of some of the biggest thought leaders in the social media in events arena, using a very special tool called Google Wave (but more on that later). Please read the full* dialogue below. But first, let me introduce the experts:
Jeff Hurt – Director of Education & Events, National Association of Dental Plans
Cameron Toth – Founder, Toth Communications
Midori Connolly – CEO and Chief AVGirl at Pulse Staging and Events
Christina Stallings – Coordinator to corporate relations and expositions at a not-for-profit association
Ian McGonnigal – Executive Director, Strategy – George P. Johnson
Samuel Smith – Experienced B2B Marketing and Sales Professional
Why is there a debate?
Jeff: Much of the debate is from those uneducated and ignorant of it. I see the same debate on whether students are allowed to bring laptops into college classrooms. Old school screams why it’s inappropriate. New school disagrees.
Cameron: There is a new paradigm in meetings and education and the old school needs to check out what the new school is doing because the new school is kicking butt and taking names!
Notes are more efficient on a laptop or even a blackberry as you can now take that text and work from your notes in a less burdensome way. How many times have you returned from a meeting with the intention to type out some of the information from your notes only to have them gather dust in a pile.
Similarly you can gather precious tidbits of information that are more interesting that two hours of presentations from an active Twitter feed of a live event. In education you have visual learners, audio learners and physical learners and we must learn to cater to them all. “Service the attendee!”
Michael: Twitter has already established itself in the events community as a communication enhancer, if its use is managed properly.
Some speakers are intimidated by the idea of a Twitter stream competing with them for audience attention. This seems to be particularly disturbing for “talking head” style speakers, where content is being delivered in a “one to many’ lecture format. Earlier this week a “professional” speaker, @stevearrowood published a controversial blog on this subject.
Steve’s hypothesis, borrowing from his article is “I am saying that when they (back channel conversations) are used simultaneously while a presenter is delivering, the presenter is being listened to and understood less.” In another segment of that same article he made the following comment, “If the human brain (not just “some people”) attempts to focus on multiple language sources at the same time, it fails, and it loses nuance and meaning from both point sources that are disseminating the content.”
In my opinion all of the above is really just a speaker’s demonstration of insecurity, postured as a scientific concern for attendee well-being. Sadly, many public speakers are unwilling, or unable to change, or evolve their style of delivering educational content. In the long-run they will render themselves obsolete by choosing to admonish the value of new communication tools such as Twitter, or Google Wave.
I do not believe Twitter has a place in every presentation, necessarily, but it is a tool, that when used in an appropriate scenario adds value to an event! Therefore its use should be considered by event organizers, when designing their programs.
Midori: While I vehemently believe in using social media to connect, give feedback and gain a voice, there is certainly a time and place where a visible conversational stream wouldn’t be appropriate. Even though I was a magna cum laude student, I was forever being reprimanded for my tendency to distract those around me. It’s a reminder that not everyone absorbs information the same way. Being able to direct that zealous, talkative energy into a Twitter stream with the five other people in the room who feel the same way, I learn 10x faster than I would if I had to take stagnant notes and passively listen. When I can argue (er, discuss) with someone or read their interpretation of subject matter, I become a devoted, satiated student/audience member/participant. However, the person sitting next to me perhaps needs to listen attentively to each syllable the instructor drops in order to learn – so is it fair to them to have a big, swirling stream of conversation in the center of the room?
Just my two cents. – but I must add that I never thought those “U” marks in citizenship would ever reward me as they have since the advent of social media (and especially Twitter).
Where have you seen successful use of Twitter as a Frontchannel?
Christina: The first thing that came to mind is Buzz 2009, which I just followed on the Twitterfeed and did not attend. I found the backchannel to be an awesome supplement for those who were interested but could not attend and loved watching the webcast and reading the tweets. Recently the FDA held some public hearings regarding the pharmaceutical industry’s use of social media and proposed guidelines. The Twitter hashtag was #fdasm and the hearings were also broadcast over the Internet. Between the webcast and the Twitterfeed it was better coverage than I could have asked for.
Michael: In September we did a Hybrid event with a Disney speaker. Instead of positioning a screen with twitter feed behind the speaker, we setup large monitors on both sides of the room, leaving the center screen for the speakers slides and video. By the way the event was presented in a webcast as well.
In addition we had a moderator for the tweets (me) and during q&A segments I communicated on behalf of the virtual audience. This was very effective for our speaker, as it took the pressure off her to sift through the tweets and it also kept the attention on her, for the live audience. The virtual audience felt very much a part of the event, because I was their voice for comments and questions.
All in all a winning proposition!
Where have you seen it go wrong?
Christina: I find that sometimes that backchannel goes way too fast for anyone, speaker and attendees to keep up, and just becomes a distraction or frustrates everyone. It also opens the door to people who may want to purposely disrupt the event (i.e. spammers, people who just want to argue with the speaker, people who just want to promote their company/products and are not there to really participate). Overall, I find that the backchannel can be a great enhancement to events – it can include those who could not attend, enhance the experience for attendees, and create enduring materials.
Cameron: Twitter has its place at events. There was an article by Scott Berkun and it described well the challenges and positives involved with bringing Twitter feeds to side and back of stage. I believe if you are speaking Twitter should be visible to yourself and audience. It is not for every speech. I think Twitter is most important and useful for educational sessions. I think Twitter is especially useful for seminar and panel style presentations so that guests and panel participants can participate in the Twitter aspect of the conversation.
Are we using the right terminology (i.e. backchannel and frontchannel)?
Ian: I never liked the term “backchannel”. I’ve always believed that conversations should be open and inclusive of all parties. Open conversations drive trust, and trust moves conversations forward. However, some presentations are designed as one-way communications, and that’s OK.
Jeff: I don’t think Twitter should be relegated or labeled as a backchannel or front channel. I think that’s the wrong thing to call it. I see it as an audience engagement tool. Calling it the backchannel gives some people the image of a back room closed door private secret gathering.
I’ve used it successfully for three years at conferences and events. During general sessions, our speakers use it for Q & A, audience comments, etc. It is projected in the front of the room and attendees are encouraged to participate. We’ve had great success with it. In breakouts, it’s not always displayed on a large screen but attendees are still encouraged to use it as they wish.
It’s hard to debate people’s experiences, especially those that have used it successfully and those that have had negative experiences. And ultimately, it’s about how the attendee chooses to use it.
What do planners need to think about before implementing?
Ian: I think the integration of Twitter into presentations is a matter of choice and selecting the right tool for the job. This choice is driven examining a few simple factors, such as, “What are your objectives?”, “Who is your audience?”, “What is the message you are trying to communicate?” and “What is the best method to communicate these ideas?”
Jeff: I don’t think you can control people just as corporations can’t control their brands. So telling people not to use Twitter during a presentation is asking for trouble. They are already doing it so teach them how to do it successfully to serve your event. Give the attendees some instructions on types of tweets.
I think there are some types of presentations where it would be difficult to use Twitter such as a hands-on, interactive class, a roundtable facilitated discussion, an Executive Board meeting for instance.
I’m confused about the backlash because it’s accepted practice to have a webinar that allows live (chat) texting on screen during the presentation. I’ve been holding webinars for more than nine years where attendees were allowed to use text-chat. To me, it’s no different than Twitter during a presentation
I do think that the goals of a meeting have a lot to do about the use of Twitter. If the goal is to reach as many people as possible,than it makes sense to encourage attendees to tweet.
Here’s the kicker in the pants:
People usually forget 90% of what they learn in a class within 30 days. The majority of that loss occurs within the first few hours after the session. ~ Hermann Ebbinhaus.
So 90% of what is shared at a conference is lost…unless conference organizers think and plan differently.
Samuel: You can’t just put up a twitter screen and say “go” – you have to have a process for using the technology and give your speakers some support (and like a survival kit). Two places where I believe that you need to give them support are:
(1) By using a moderator to capture the questions and comments.
(2) By bringing the backchannel to the front channel at the appropriate time.
Finally, I think we need to remember that twitter is just one tool. And it is a public tool. Corporations that want their R&D department to collaborate and exchange ideas in this same way – WILL NOT use Twitter! They will use private technology service solutions to achieve the same objective.
Jeff: A good tip…We put a monitor on the floor so the speaker does not have to turn around to read the twitter wall. We also have someone assigned to flag or catch questions that don’t get answered.
What types of meetings / events is it appropriate for?
Michael: I believe Twitter has a place in both channels of some events. Its use has most often been documented as a “back channel” conversation platform, but not exclusively, because there are situations where its use comes to the forefront. For example with a hybrid meeting, for Q & A segments, it could be the front channel for virtual participants to submit their comments and questions directly to speakers. As an added enhancement, the use of a question/comment moderator is particularly useful. We used this concept for the PCMA Midwest Chapter September educational meeting and it enriched the depth and impact of the event.
Another potential use of Twitter in the front channel would be for a brainstorming session. Ideas and concepts could be communicated by virtual (and potentially live) participants through the Twitter platform, marked by a hashtag, of course.
I also see Google Wave emerging as a direct competitor to Twitter for both of these scenarios.
Samuel: I think that the backchannel should be used for: > Speaker Q&A
> Collecting ideas from the audience
> Integrating the virtual and face2face event audiences
> Integrating the virtual audience of a webcast or a webinar
(A) The Gap between the experts on stage and the amateurs in the crowd is shrinking. We should be using these backchannel tools to have a collaborative discussion that engages the thoughts, ideas and wisdom of the experts in the audience.
(B) There are many people that are not comfortable asking questions in front of a crowd. (for example, fear of public speaking, English as a second language, etc.) Using this technology, you give them another way to easily ask their questions.
(C) Sometimes we have questions early in the presentation – and we seem to forget them by the time the presentation ends. the backchannel allows us to ask these questions as we think about them.
(D) When you use hybrid events – the backchannel is a bridge between the virtual and the face-to-face audiences. It allows them to communicate and engage with each other.
Michael: Using technology for the sake of “being cool” or “on the cutting edge” is not a strong enough reason in and of itself. Being strategic and doing the right thing for your customers is!
Samuel: When you use these backchannel tools, I think that you need to (A) understand the type of interaction that you want to create and (B) allocate the right amount of time for it to happen. In doing so – you will be strategic (as Mike said).
Jeff: I hope you’ll reference Olivia Mitchell’s free ebook on Using Twitter in presentations
I also suggest reading what’s she’s wrote about using it on her blog. She has a lot of articles about it.
I’d love to hear from you…
What are your thoughts? Yay or nay to bringing Twitter from the backchannel to the front?
Do you have any examples, positive or negative, to share with others?