How to Run a Successful Twitter Chat

Michele Payn-Knoper

What’s a Twitter chat? It’s an event conducted on Twitter at a specific time that centers on a specific hashtag that was invented specifically for the chat. At the allotted time, a moderator begins tweeting out questions and other related material, and those participating in the chat answer the questions while continuing to use the hashtag so that others can follow along. For example, a Twitter chat called #Journchat occurs every Monday at 7 p.m. CT, and at that time professional journalists from all over the world tune in to share and gain knowledge. A Twitter chat can be an excellent opportunity to glean actionable insight in your industry and also network with the top practitioners in your field.

In April 2009, Michele Payn-Knoper launched #agchat, easily the most widely-used Twitter chat in the agricultural space. It was so successful that it spawned the AgChat Foundation, which now administers and moderates the weekly event. “We’re operated primarily by farmers,” Payn-Knoper told me. “We provide training for farmers and ranchers to equip them to tell the farmer story. We’ve had five national conferences as well as regional conferences. We work at different agriculture events to provide training on social media.”

I interviewed Payn-Knoper about how to use Twitter chats for crowdsourcing questions and how to get people to actually show up to one you’re organizing.

Why participate in a Twitter chat? What benefits have you seen both running and participating in Twitter chats?

I think one of the benefits of participating in a Twitter chat is about community. #Agchat and #foodchat were started in service to the community and to build a community. My goal is to use social media to inspire conversations around farm and food. When I started the chat I was already participating in #journchat and felt like there was a need for those in agriculture to work together and communicate with food buyers. And the benefit that I’ve seen is the community that has built around that, a kind of townhall from which a lot of smaller communities are formed.

In terms of what you get out of the community, is it more a form of networking? Or is it more of an informational hub where you’re actually learning a lot of stuff while the chat is going on?

It’s both. I think the networking is invaluable because in agriculture the people who work in it only make up 1 percent of the population, but while it may seem like a very small world most of the people who work in it live in extremely remote locations. The view I have out my window right now is a field. That’s my office view and I like it that way. As far as participating in the chat, regardless of the chat you’re in, if you’re in the right community you’re going to learn. I would encourage people to take the time to listen as much as they talk, because you can really glean a lot of information if you choose to listen.

You could almost use it as a form of crowdsourcing, like if you ask the right question at the right time, you can get a lot of good answers at once.

Absolutely. One of the keys to #agchat’s success is its consistency and the fact that it’s always been moderated consistently. It’s always been conducted at the same exact time, Tuesdays from 8 to 10 Eastern. It’s always been on the same time and the same day, so people understand what they’re getting into. The other component to it is the moderation. As a professional speaker I’m trained to facilitate, and the chats were initially structured the same way I would moderate an actual meeting between professionals. And that’s really allowed us to have a consistent voice regardless of who’s moderating.

Do you notice a sharp uptick of quality followers whenever you’re participating in a Twitter chat?

Oh yeah, I certainly think that people can expect that as they participate in a chat and provide good information and resources for folks. It varies depending on the chat. Some chats are designed to be parties. #Agchat was never designed to be a “party.” It was designed to help the community.

What are some ideal situations for starting your own Twitter chat? Let’s say you’re some kind of caused-based non-profit, what are some questions you should be asking yourself before you decide to launch one?

Well, first off, do you have the community? #Agchat and #foodchat were successful because there were enough people concerned about agriculture advocacy and being able to connect farm and food. Do you have a community of influencers that can help you? Especially because moderating these things can be a huge time commitment, especially when you’re traveling. But aside from whether you have the community, I would ask is there a global need or a need within the community? Is there a common interest? Frankly even though my work and my business revolves around agriculture advocacy, I was dumbfounded during my first few weeks of #agchat by the number of folks who were interested in agricultural advocacy. And the other thing that I think people have to ask themselves, particularly at this juncture, is whether that need is already being served? When we started #agchat there was nothing like that out there.

Would you say that for a non-profit, if there’s already an existing chat similar to what they want to do they should just reach out to the moderator and get more involved in that chat rather than starting their own?

I do at this point. We all have to deal with information overload. And today’s social media ecosystem is much different than what we saw just a few years ago.

I imagine the biggest hurdle of launching a Twitter chat from scratch is there’s no guarantee that anybody will show up. How do you overcome that? Do you recommend reaching out to influential users beforehand so they can bring their followers to the chat? I’m guessing you want big players participating so it’s not an empty room where nobody is tweeting but you.

I think anybody who starts anything runs that risk, but if you don’t take on certain risk there’s no reward. At the time of launching #agchat I had no idea if it happened to be the right topic at the right time, and those were the earlier days when it was easier to get traction than it is now. While I’m a big fan of recruiting influencers and bringing them in early to build ownership, I don’t always see influencers as those who have the greatest numbers. Sometimes the most passionate people can build a community faster than those with the most Twitter followers because they are so passionate and they’ll put in the elbow grease. I think it’s a combination of getting worker bees as well as large numbers, but ultimately the common denominator needs to be the passion because those are the folks who are going to try to work to make sure it succeeds for the greater good. And there are those who unfortunately get involved for the wrong reasons, usually for self-gratification, so I’d just offer a word of caution. But that’s the reality.

And what’s the best way to approach other people to get them involved? I’m guessing that you word it in such a way like “This is how you’re going to benefit from this. We’re going to get all the key people within the demographics you’re looking to reach and together we’re going to pool our resources.” Is that the pitch you’re giving?

It’s pretty much centered on “Hey, we’re going to try to try out the chat, and this is what I think will result.” The secret is to have good relationships with people beforehand. I have built my community very strategically and tried to build relationships with people by doing good work and being a resource for them. When you serve the bigger picture and it’s not just about your name, it’s not just about building Twitter followers, then that speaks volumes to people.

Let’s talk about structuring the chat itself. Let’s say you’re the moderator. What should your role be in the days and hours leading up to the chat? What’s the prep beforehand?

My general recommendations are to announce the topic of the chat a week in advance. And then to have daily tweets scheduled for the first few days. For example I know within the agriculture community if I want to get people’s attention, I either need to send tweets out about 8 p.m, which is when the chat starts, or very early in the morning. You need to know when your community is online. You also need to give directions on how to provide answers. I’ve found pretty consistently over a number of years that people need guidance on how they’re supposed to participate. There’s a lot of intimidation about participating in your first #agchat because they don’t want to screw up. Which is ridiculous, because it’s just a chat on Twitter. That’s why I’ve developed guidelines that people can find at our website. Usually anywhere from three to five days in advance, you start sending out multiple callouts a day, asking people to direct message you their questions. And on the day of the chat probably just send out five reminders. People like the direct message aspect, then they can ask their questions, and I find that if people are publicly asking the account questions then it’s hard to really filter those and manage it.

So you’re saying they should direct message questions they want you to ask as the moderator?

Correct. For example, all questions are directed to the @agchat account, not me as moderator, because that allows for the consistency of the experience week after week.

You mentioned prepping people. Is part of it sending your other participants suggested tweets beforehand, like “Hey, it’s up to you, but here are some suggested tweets you can send to help promote the event?”

Yeah, it depends. I’m not a fan of telling people what to say.

Let’s talk about the chat itself. How do you structure the chat? Like is it the moderator tweeting out a question every five to 10 minutes?

Some questions will take seven minutes and there will still be discussion going on. Other questions take two minutes to answer and they’re done. The way I’ve always structured it is to have all the questions listed beforehand. You can use Evernote, you can use your calendar. I believe it’s critical to have it all organized beforehand because it goes so fast. We have to deal with thousands of tweets in our chats, and the way to keep up with it all is to have it organized beforehand and then I also recommend multiple streams. I’d often moderate from one stream and watch Tweetdeck from my personal account on another stream.

I talked to another person who did a Twitter chat and the first time she was put in Twitter jail because she was retweeting too often. Is that a danger, that you shouldn’t tweet too much especially if you’re the moderator?

Since you’re moderating from the @agchat account that typically isn’t a problem because it takes a whole lot to be put in the Twitter jail. If it’s an account with a lot of followers it’s harder to be put in the Twitter jail.

What’s the ideal amount of time for a Twitter chat? A half hour? An hour?

Ours has always been two hours. We’ve tried shorter time frames, and you don’t really get into an effective discussion. Within that chat, we typically would open up for introductions at the beginning and then in order to prevent people from doing too much self promoting during the chat at the end we set aside some time so people can promote their websites and blogs or ask questions that maybe weren’t asked by the moderator.

What are some of the insights you’ve gleaned from the chats? Do you fee like you’re actually learning something about the industry?

Absolutely. The insights can range from how people are using drones to apply the right products to their fields in an environmentally friendly way to how farmers can care for their animals on days like today when it’s snowing in Indiana. And then on the flip side we’ve had expert panels where there’s been dietitians on, and it was extremely contentious, but we’ve had a couple different chats where we basically told one side of the issue to be quiet so they could listen to the other side of the issue and then the next week we’d allow the opposite side to talk.

Do a lot of people try to hijack the chat?

There have certainly been efforts to do that, but if you have a powerful community that understands the guidelines, then that diminishes the risks. The more successful a chat is, I think the more likely that is to happen, but we just need to stay focused.

If you had to draw a line graph of participation, do you feel like the further you are into the chat the more people there are who are participating because people have been pulled in by the hashtag?

I think it’s a bell curve. For example, since we’re an international chat we have people who come on early who might be up in Canada, and then we have people who come on later because they’re out in California.

What’s the level of self-promotion that should be happening during the chat?

I would say minimal. I’m not a big fan of self-promotion during chats because I think the chat is for the greater good. That’s why when we structured the chat I made it so if people want to pitch their own projects, then they have 15 minutes at the end of the chat to do so.

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This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.