That Lego person, alone in a crowd, was me last week. I was at a conference, with four objectives. To deliver a talk; to hear about other people’s work; to share what I was hearing with others on Twitter (virtual participants) and to network. I had no intention of networking in person, or not much, my hearing loss making that pretty much a non-starter; but I was anticipating talking on Twitter with people at the conference or participating virtually, exchanging comments, observations, expertise and links to relevant resources. The conference hashtag would be the means by which we would connect.
I hope this sounds familiar. For many of us, this is our experience and expectation of conferences in 2015. This now works so well that many of us are rethinking how many conferences we feel the need to attend in person; maybe none, unless we are speaking. But I found myself at a conference where social media use was almost absent and it took me, as efficiently as if I’d stepped into a TARDIS, back to the last century. I hated it!
Now, I should quickly add that there will have been people there for whom it was just what they anticipated and wanted. For me, it felt like such a missed opportunity for the conference organizers, participants (actually ‘attendees’ fits better here) and those who would have joined in via social media. It felt, altogether, less than it should have been.
The power of the hashtag
These days, we expect events to have a designated hashtag. This is our ticket to get us in and also our hotline to others who are participating (wherever they happen to be) or perhaps just listening in. There was a hashtag for this conference, but I’d had to find out what it was by email and only Twitter die-hards like me would have discovered it. I didn’t see it advertised anywhere, either before or at the event. A colleague dipping in from her desk to see what was going on was a bit bewildered to find that I was apparently speaking at an inter-church event; it turns out the hashtag had been used before and this made for a surprising tweet stream!
Top tips for event hashtags:
- Ideally, choose a short one, to minimise the tweet characters it uses up, and check that it’s unique
- Register it with Symplur Healthcare Hashtags Project; this not only helps spread the word about your event but will also give you access to great analytics to help you measure the impact of your event
- Share your hashtag widely ahead of, and during the event, and make sure it’s visible at the conference
So what does social media add?
I’ve written here before about how social media has transformed academic conferences and about how to join in. Here are some reflections on what social media adds to events, highlighted by what did and didn’t happen when social media was largely missing.
1. Wider participation
Without social media, the event is a meeting of a small club, membership restricted to those who have the ability to pay the conference fee and get to the venue, assuming they know about it in the first place. Bring in social media users and you suddenly have a much bigger and much more diverse audience. Participation becomes possible for the many who would otherwise be excluded and it becomes hugely enhanced for those who are there in person, if they are joining in online too.
2. Engagement replaces broadcasting
In the bad old days, a roomful of people would sit and listen (some of the time) to the individual at the podium. They might take notes. Back in the office, the notes and conference pack are probably filed, possibly in the bin, and forgotten about. With social media, the speaker lights a touchpaper and what should follow are multiple conversations, commentary, challenges and sharing of expertise, with the aforementioned wide-ranging and far-flung bunch of participants. Broadcasting is also made more efficient too – people at the conference can capture and share what speakers are saying through tweets and by sharing photos on various social media platforms. These tweets then become a handy archive and can be made even more useful by doing stuff with them after the event, like creating a Storify (see 8). Many events are also live-streamed of course.
3. Great resources
What happens when you invite in anybody with an interest in the subjects under discussion is that, along with an exchange of ideas, experience and knowledge, you get fantastic sharing of relevant resources, whether that’s links to papers mentioned by the speakers or other relevant material, maybe work planned or in progress, other publications, or news of individuals or a group you might want to know about, which brings me to the next point…
4. Better networking
Having said I didn’t intend to network face-to-face, I realize that this isn’t quite true. These days when I meet someone at an event, it’s likely that we have already ‘met’ on Twitter, which means that we may recognize each other and know something of each other’s interests and expertise. I really like this and I missed it.
Without social media, there’s just a roomful of people to connect with and anyway this can be tricky. For starters, we can’t always rely on a visible name badge to let us know who people are. The last time I chatted to someone over lunch I discovered afterwards that this recipient of my inane comments about the crisps and suchlike was a rather eminent physicist; I didn’t have a clue. This time, I did manage to connect with another speaker via a mutual connection on Twitter, having spotted that they were from the same department. The third speaker in our session tweeted me too. Good. But I’d normally be joining in multiple conversations during an event, so this felt awfully quiet. My networking score: new connections – 2, catch up over a cup of tea with a former colleague – 1. Hmm.
On social media, the networking possibilities are, well, just brilliant. It offers unprecedented access to people whom we wouldn’t have the chance to meet in person and these connections can lead on to fruitful relationships and new collaborations. It also gives us an easy means to bring other people together. Wonderful!
5. Fairy lights
That’s puzzled you, I bet! To use an unseasonal analogy, you can put all kinds of great decorations on a Christmas tree, that are unique, interesting, good quality and so on, but it’s only when the fairy lights are switched on that you go “aaaaah!” A conference without social media, however eminent the speakers, just doesn’t have the “aaaah” factor. Of course, social media can create a buzz before the event too, which helps to give it a personality and a sense of what it’s about that goes beyond the conference programme. I wasn’t the only one at this conference who struggled to get a sense of its identity. Another delegate commented that it seemed to be made up of little groups of people, doing things separately, with no clear shared purpose. Social media could have changed that.
6. Greater visibility
Two things here. Social media allows you to be seen and to see further. Without it, talk to those in the room, who are already in your club. With it, take you and/or your organization’s work to new audiences. In taking yourself there, you also show that you are outward (and forward) looking, willing to share generously, ready to listen and open to challenges.
7. The unexpected
When you put yourself out there, expect the unexpected! Who knows where encounters via social media might lead?
8. Engagement after the event
Thanks to social media, long after the conference pack’s in the bin, the lanyard hung up with the others on your pinboard (‘see how many places I get to?!’) and you’re wondering what to do with that free t-shirt that says ‘statisticians do it with 95 percent confidence’, you’ll be able to follow up those new connections made and investigate the resources people shared with you. You’ll also be able to catch up with content missed, or see it from others’ perspectives, however it’s been captured – perhaps through videos, blogs or a ‘Storify’ (like this one I did after our spring conference).
9. Ways to measure success
If this is your conference, you’re going to want to work out, and may need to show, how successful you were in achieving your goals. Google analytics will really help with this and if you’ve registered your hashtag with Symplur you will have some great information at your fingertips (and ready to share).
So did I achieve my goals without social media?
As a participant at this recent conference, did I achieve my goals? Well, I delivered my talk, but to just a handful of people and that’s where it stayed (or as far as I know!). I heard a bit about a few other people’s work, and they had really interesting projects to share, but I normally benefit from others tweeting bits I miss as well as sharing their perspectives. I had tweeted the programme and had hoped to share content with those following on Twitter, but as a lone social media user I felt hesitant about typing as speakers talked and taking pictures of their slides (things that seem to be widely acceptable now). I had scheduled tweets to go out during my own session, sharing links to things I was talking about and tweeting some key points, having seen Marie Ennis O’Connor (@JBBC) do this so well during our Dublin Symposium. As it was, it felt like overkill – I had become one shouty person in a small, quiet group.
Would I go to another conference without a significant social media presence? Absolutely not. Let’s not go back to the bad old days.
Would you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do share them – on social media of course!
You can tweet me @ukcochranecentr or @SarahChapman30 or leave a comment here. You might like to know that we have a new website for Cochrane UK and page of social media resources, to which we keep adding (do let us know if you have something good to share!). We’re also on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn.