10 Challenges of Live Social Media Coverage

In which I accept the mission of sharing my conference experience via Twitter

I was convinced, when I received approval and funding to attend Adobe’s annual user conference (MAX), that I had the easiest conference job in the entire company. After all, how often is an engineer selected to go and do nothing but Tweet the entire three days? The answer, of course, was almost never.

I hurriedly registered for the conference, booked the flight and hotel, and gleefully told my coworkers that after eight and half long years working on various products that had been launched at this annual event, I was finally going to be able to attend MAX. They, of course, thought I had gone and won some kind of employee lottery. No booth duty? No TA’ing or lecturing at 8am? Getting to register for whatever sessions I wanted? It sounded better each time I talked to someone new.

What I didn’t expect was the intense scrutiny that I was inviting onto myself. My photo and Twitter account handle was plastered on the corporate intranet a couple of days before the event. Coworkers worldwide began contacting me via Email, Twitter, and in person, congratulating me and asking me to cover specific aspects of the conference for them. I began to Tweet about my presence at MAX, hoping that my tiny little messages would drum up a little excitement about the conference. Ashu, the other “employee ambassador,” and I began bantering back and forth on Twitter.

Just before the conference, I realized the enormity of what I was getting myself into. I was becoming, in essence, a journalist for the conference. People who couldn’t go to the conference were telling me that they were relying on me to not only get a feel for the conference, but also to gain insight by what I was learning.

The problem was: how could I create an immersive experience for the reader, 140 characters at a time? Or, more realistically, 120 characters or less, since I was hashtagging each tweet?

Three days and almost 700 tweets later, I found myself a limp mess at LAX. My brain was simultaneously fried and spinning, but all I could think about were the messages I kept telling myself during the course of the conference. What would be interesting? What would be useful? What would pique the interest of my readers, most of whom were probably coworkers?

With the caveat that I have no social media qualifications, nor do I have any numbers at the moment to back up these theories, here are 10 of the thoughts that went through my head as I was live tweeting #AdobeMAX. I would be very curious to hear what people think about their efficacy or importance. The following list is in no particular order.

Be informational and descriptive

The first thing I told myself, over and over, is to provide more information. I challenged myself to ensure that my Tweets during MAX weren’t just fluff, but contained real content that people would be interested in. People who were following me were probably most interested in the tidbits of information they could gather from each of the sessions.

I intentionally split my time between my current area of expertise (web) and my personal passion (Audio and Video, with a heavy emphasis on audio). I also ensured that I had a couple of sessions that were more conceptual, having to do more with creative philosophy and approach than actual technique. Since I knew that Ashu was heavily into photography, I planned nothing with those technologies, even though I have a little bit of interest in that area.

However, I didn’t only summarize the main points of the talks; I focused on providing quotes and sound bites as well. In putting things in the speaker’s own words, I tried to give my audience a sense of what it was like being there. James Victore, for instance, was eminently quotable; his personal storytelling style was so incredibly vibrant, it practically stood on its own.

I also wanted to describe details that I saw, though, as the minutiae of the conference were the things make people feel like they’re there. James Victore said in his talk, “In the particular lies the universal,” and I agree; the details are what make a story relatable.

This was a tiny detail that referred to the fact that the Surfaces had just been given out to all of the MAX participants. People were taking their Surfaces out to play with them between the sessions, and that is one little bit of information that gave my audience a sense of the excitement that was surrounding the conference about the way this technology integrated with Adobe’s products.

Give your opinion, not just the facts

It was all to easy to set myself as an impartial observer. After all, all I had to do was to open myself to what I saw and heard, interpret that into words, and then send that out to the Twitter stream. When I caught myself doing this too much, though, I made sure to include some personal comment, something that showed my own opinions on the subject. If I liked a particular piece of technology or found it useful in my creative work, I shared that. If I thought something were funny, I joked about it.

During a debriefing after the conference, a coworker mentioned that he thought that the fact that I inserted observations and opinions made me genuine. I was a real human being, another creative like any other conference attendee. So while it was tempting to avoid putting my own opinions forward, I made the time and the space to interleave some commentary on what was going on in order to personalize the experience.

Respond to requests

Tuesday morning, I awoke to an interesting Direct Message from one of our community managers from overseas. “Hey,” he wrote me in Portuguese, “are you at the event?”

“Yes, I am,” I replied.

“Would you mind posting a little something in Portuguese? We’re not getting very many people Tweeting about it.”

And so with that, I began live Tweeting in a language I really hadn’t spoken in about ten years. But I knew that in responding to his request, I was making myself a resource for him to get his job done: to build community and, in turn, business for us in a growing market segment. In the process, I had a chance to flex that language muscle and challenge myself in a way I hadn’t for many years.

Look for opportunities to interact with people online

In the midst of the fray, it was very easy to get lost in the stream of consciousness tweeting and forgetting that I was actually providing data in realtime to other people who were reading in realtime. I had to remind myself to stop, look at my notifications, and respond to people who were curious about what was really going on at the time.

The rationale behind this was simple: no matter what I thought my responsibility was, the bigger picture was that I was trying to create community. Responding to people creates community; therefore, a clear response to feedback was critical… and fun! Sometimes, I caught up after the sessions, but sometimes, as with this tweet, the response had to be timely.

Look for opportunities to connect with people who are there

I told myself many times that I was there to report for people who couldn’t be there. Midway through the conference, I realized that there was also a way for me to bring value to those who were already there at the conference: I knew what to look for when it came to resources on topics I already knew something about. My work in the past three years has brought me deep into the web development and design world, so I was able to provide links as I was live Tweeting, simply by doing a couple of quick searches and posting them immediately.

In this way, I was able to supplement the conference experience by providing materials in realtime, even for materials the speaker didn’t even have on hand while speaking. In the first example, Paul didn’t have the reference available, but I quickly found an article that showed the statistic and shared it.

Take more photos

This one was easy; I just had to remind myself to take photos throughout. I, like many others, like images that pique the interest or just simply give out information. Humor, especially physical humor, was another aspect that I wanted to be able to share.

You’ll probably see more people with cell phone cameras than with DSLRs at a concert… but then there are the huge number of people at Adobe MAX with not only DSLRs, but also with giant lenses.

Bring yourself and your expertise to the table

Tuesday night was the big social gathering, the MAX Bash. Besides the food and fun play areas, the evening featured the rock band Kings of Leon. As a part-time professional musician (singer and instrumentalist) and live performer, I know how much these corporate gigs are both the bread and butter and the soul-sucking vortexes of music as a profession.

But as an audience member representing a virtual audience, I was really at a loss as to what to say. Was I supposed to just tell people what I thought? Because, seriously, watching a concert as a musician is really different than watching it as a non-musician. In my head, it’s akin to me watching curling; I kind of know the rules and can watch a match, but the nuances of precisely what is required is a little beyond me.

At a certain point in time, I realized that I had a unique voice to bring to the table. I know how difficult certain things are and can call them out. I can highlight the performance and the stage show in a way that only a performer can. And I gave myself permission to let people see what was going through my head.

Figure out what is valuable and share only that

This is the “have a high content to noise ratio” message I kept on telling myself. People don’t need to know that I used the restroom unless the sink fell off the wall as I was using it. (True story, but it didn’t happen to me, and it didn’t happen at this conference.) In a situation where you’re sharing almost everything, deciding what not to share is just as important as deciding what to share.

The only exception, of course, is when it’s funny or leads up to a punch line. Or when you get to use a phrase like “double fisting” about caffeinated beverages, which is a little bit of both:

Condense and summarize as much as possible

One of the most difficult things to do in a live reporting situation is the mental processing required. A person who is just typing things down verbatim is a transcriptionist; reporting, especially in a medium as abbreviated as Twitter, requires the ability to coalesce a concept from a longer verbal discourse. For instance, the tweet above came from a 3 minute discussion on the issue.

Another thing I challenged myself to do was to not only share thoughts that were summarized, but also to share summaries that were almost lyrical in phrasing. The following tweet came from a story that Lee Hirsch told about a student who approached him after a screening. Hirsch had spent years not only honing his craft, but also suffering for the sake of his art, so this kid’s comment was particularly touching.

Bring your sense of humor

Just before leaving for MAX, I mentioned to a journalist/freelance writer friend that I was going to the conference to live-tweet the event. After a moment’s consideration, he said, “I could see you being really good at that. You’ll bring the right balance of information and snark.”

So I gave myself permission to step outside of fact reporting and brought my own sense of humor to the table. Whether it was a reference to War of the Worlds, Harry Potter, a 1950s Batman catchphrase, or just a running hashtag gag, I let my audience know that I was a human being, not just one that parroted the corporate line.

I will fully admit to being unsure about how to go about this social media thing. I felt like I was throwing Tweets at an Internet wall, uncertain which Tweets would resonate or register with my audience, and which Tweets would simply annoy or be ignored. But, if there were one thing I was, it was prolific:

I have a couple more thoughts about the experience of covering Adobe MAX as an employee ambassador, but those will make it into a separate essay. Stay tuned to my Medium blog to read the latest.


Adobe MAX’s Chief Squirrel Correspondent and holder of the Golden Snitch Award at the MAX Bash
(titles still unofficial)

Elaine is an engineer at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainefinnell. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

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