Welcome to the new backchannel

It’s not unusual to see IT audiences these days typing away on their laptops and smartphones while a speaker is making a presentation. But lately, I have seen the logged-on proportion with non-technical audiences start to swell.

Welcome to the new backchannel. No, these laptop-toting folks aren’t just bored and doing their emails (well, maybe some of them are). For the most part, they are actively listening to the speaker and reacting and sharing their comments with their peers, including other audience members and colleagues who aren’t attending the event. This presents new challenges and opportunities for speakers to engage their audiences

This is called a “backchannel” because your audience is conversing on Twitter and Facebook and using other social media tools during a speech. There are even some conferences, such as South by Southwest, held in Austin, Texas, each spring where the Twitter feed is projected on screens at the front of the hall for everyone to view.

And it isn’t just happening at conferences, either. A recent article in the NY Times talks about how the backchannel is working in the classroom, as teachers actively encourage laptop-toting students to “converse” with each other during class, finding that more students will open up on the keyboard than aloud.

The backchannel is catching on, and many conference organizers are creating a common hashtags on Twitter to promote their events and particular sessions and to help participants – or even folks that couldn’t attend the event – to track what is going on at the conference. A hashtag, for those of you not yet in the know, means adding a “#” character to your Tweet with a short label, to make it easier to search. Some speakers bring along a wingman or work with the conference organizer to help them track the stream of responses and field questions from their audiences.

But not all audiences – or professional speakers – are Twitter-friendly. Some presentations aren’t designed to be interactive and those speakers don’t take any questions from their audiences. Some industries, such as banking, have been slower to adopt social media tools. Also, Twittering with large audiences gets cumbersome. And some conference venues have been slow to provide free Wifi for participants, or provide such a low level of connectivity that quickly gets overwhelmed when more than a few attendees connect.

Many speakers have created extensive social media plans that involve reaching out to prospects prior to an event, publicizing an event and post-event follow-up, all using various social media. For example, I list my upcoming trips on Tripit.com before the event, which will let others in my network know my travel dates. At the end of my speeches, I put up the link to Slideshare.net/davidstrom, which has a copy of my slides that anyone can download.

So how to get started in using the social media backchannel? A great book to get started is Cliff Atkinson’s The Backchannel, which has lots of examples, recommended tools, audience and speaker guidelines, and more. There are sample chapters and resources online.

For example, Atkinson talks about having the following simple code of conduct for audiences to use when they Tweet during your presentations:

  •  Tweet unto others as you would have them Tweet unto you.
  •  Be accurate.
  •  Say something good before you say something bad
  • Stay aware of your Twitterstream reputation.

Second, start thinking about how you can include social media as part of your natural business operations to market yourself, extend your brand, and initiate conversations with potential audiences and clients. Finally, watch what your audiences are doing with Twitter and Facebook to understand their level of engagement and where you can complement their interest.

N.B. This post is adapted from an article that I wrote for Speaker Magazine which can be found here.


4 thoughts on “Welcome to the new backchannel

  1. The idea of a ‘back channel’ has been prevalent for quite some time and you’re right, it’s now spreading to more and more people at more and more events.

    One trend we’ve noticed is the effective use of the back channel not only by participants, but by event producers as well. By monitoring the conversation before and during their event socially aware event professionals are able to enhance their event while it’s occurring, rather than waiting to hear what went wrong weeks after.

    Need some more ideas? Here’s 10: Taking Advantage of Social Sharing – Some Ideas For Fun and Profit | http://www.busyevent.com/blog/?p=404

  2. How very true — it’s really no different than how we behave in almost any social situation — checking our phones while we’re standing in line, or even having dinner, and certainly if we’re still watching TV. The thing that amazes me is that we’re still surprised that people bring their ‘personal’ behaviors into the workplace. It’s all one place. But there’s still an enormous opportunty for companies, and organizers, to tap into this.

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