The Conference Backchannel: Bonus Or Bomb?

PDF2008, day one

When I say Twitter backchannel, what’s your first reaction? 

Seriously, what’s the first thing that you think?

  • Huh? What’s that?
  • OMG, that’s a way to destroy the speaker’s presentation!
  • We can’t do that. What if someone has something negative or childish to say about the presenter or the event and it gets displayed for everyone to see?
  • We can’t trust people to do the right thing with a backchannel.
  • People should not be looking at their smart phone, mobile device or laptop during a presentation. That is rude!
  • I’ve used it and love it.
  • It’s a great way for an audience to participate with the presenter.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about the presentation backchannel. What it is, what it does and why it’s a good or bad thing for your conference.

It’s only when conference organizers shift their perspective from speaker-centric to audience-centric can they see the possibilities.

Transitioning From The Front To The Back Of The Room

Most conference presentations occur at the front of the room. A single presenter shares information with the audience. It’s a one-to-many style presentation. The presenter does the majority of the talking. The audience sits quietly and listens. The audience only talks if the presenter does Q & A.

When a conference organizer creates a backchannel, they are shifting the traditional arrangement. They are moving the presenter’s monologue to polylogues (many people conversing at the same time with many people.) They are creating a space where attendees can talk to each other. While the presenter is using a one-to-many model, the audience is using a many-to-many model. 

Typically, presenters are not part of the backchannel as they focus on what they are saying. Some savvy presenters have capitalized on the backchannel and use it for Q & A and comments.

Transitioning To Outside The Room

If the backchannel is happening in Twitter (using a hashtag), then the conversation also becomes public and leaves the four walls of the room. People with Twitter profiles are now sharing information with their followers. 

That means those conversations can have a larger impact, for good or bad.

Ultimately, a backchannel can create a networked conversation around a presenter’s information.

The Rewards Of The Backchannel

Here are some of the benefits of a conference backchannel

1. Reporting information.

People post highlights of what’s happening and what’s said.

2. Enhancing information.

People may add more facts or experiences to what is being reported. They may add links or images.

3. Commentary on information.

Sometimes people add their opinions to the presenter’s information.

4. Monitoring what others are saying.

People may search the hashtag to see if they missed anything that others shared. People see other’s perspectives and opinions.

5. Amplifying what is said.

People may retweet what someone said. They amplify that message as they share it with others.

6. Sharing real-time conference changes or reminders.

People may share room changes or reminders about upcoming conference events.

7. Helping others find something.

People may respond to questions from others using the hashtag.

8. Giving a voice to those that are afraid to speak up.

The backchannel helps those uncomfortable speaking aloud the ability to share their thoughts.

9. Harvesting ideas from the crowd.

The presenter can ask for feedback and ideas from the backchannel. People can text their thoughts and suggestions.

10. Reading the minds and insights of others.

Presenters and conference organizers can get authentic feedback about what some people thought about the presentation.

What are some of the other benefits of a conference backchannel?

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Serena Stockwell, sgnewsfeed. sgnewsfeed said: The Conference Backchannel: Bonus Or Bomb?: When I say Twitter backchannel, what’s your first… […]

  2. chris uschan says:

    Jeff — I have experienced the backchannel at a live event, remotely, via a webinar. I believe this channel has some really good benefits to support any presentation (as you listed above).

    With our Engage365 webinars, we always have a channel (#engage365) for the audience to talk, share, etc. And we promote the heck out of it in advance and during the webinar. This has worked well supporting many of your tips listed.

    To make a backchannel even better is when you dedicate a voice of the session to moderate the back channel. This person is knowledgeable to the topic, is familiar with the speaker and presentation. They push links out to what the presenter is talking about, reinforce important points and interact with the back channel audience.

    At EventCamp Twin Cities, this worked like clock work in the hybrid setting as the dedicated twitter rep for the event was on the event hashtag interacting with the remote audience and then being the voice at the face to face event (interacting with the live presenters).

    What I don’t like to see is a tweet-stream of the backchannel posted on a screen right behind the presenters. This in my opinion is a terrible distraction. It breaks the focus of the audience and the “visual” doesn’t support the talk. In this case, it’s best to have a support staff with a computer near the stage dedicated to monitoring the backchannel.

    I recommend not hiding the gorilla in the back channel room either. Tell your audience that “jane doe” is using the @janedoe profile and will be monitoring the hashtag. Have the presenter ask Jane if there are any trending comments or questions from this channel. But, don’t pretend it’s not there.

    Finally, the backchannel is a form of informal content. Capture the segment from the hashtag and have a writer take that content and write a meaningful summary. An outline might look like this:

    — Session Title (from the backchannel)
    — Overview the formal session, presenter, event, etc.
    — Pick the core highlights and resources shared on the hashtag
    — Give credit to the contributors

    An example of a back channel summary looks like this:
    Midlife Corporate Crisis: Integrating Social Media to Build Your Organizations Brand

    Then share this content.

    This isn’t rocket science, but it does take a little planning for. However, the experience and content derived from it is worth it!

    Great post Jeff — as always!


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Wow, thanks for sharing your insights and perspectives. You’ve added some great points about interacting with the remote audience too. Appreciate your thoughts and your engagement!

  3. Jeff –

    As both a conference attendee who uses Twitter to take notes and as a presenter, I think you’re spot on with your comment about being audience centric rather than presenter centric.

    The speakers that have had a problem typically don’t understand their audience or focus on the audience’s needs.

    The rewards are many for the speaker and the conference organizer who wants to meet their audience’s/attendees’ needs.

  4. […] a conference. He just doesn’t support having it displayed on stage by the speaker. Read his views here…which I welcomed and appreciate. He offers some additional support on why to have a […]

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