What are the risks involved with promoting Twitter use at your event?
In this post, we consider the potential pitfalls and the ways you can mitigate against these risks.
Over the last few months I have been working with UKOLN to produce an amplified events toolkit as part of the JISC Greening Events II project. This has involved writing up a number of case studies from recent amplified and hybrid events, and creating short briefing papers about some of the common tools and services used in amplifying an event. I was keen to provide a framework for assessing the risks surrounding the use of each tool or group of tools as part of this work, so event organisers can review those risks and take steps to mitigate against them.
The single most embedded tool used to amplify events at the moment is, of course, Twitter. It is also one of the tools that the event organiser has least control over in terms of its use, so it carries with it a whole host of risks that can daunt more traditional event organisers. It therefore seemed like a good tool to start.
My draft risk assessment for the use of Twitter at events includes the following points:
Failure to engage: This can result in audience dissatisfaction going unnoticed, missed opportunities to improve the delegate experience and spread event messages further.
Poor wifi or mobile connectivity: If you know your audience is likely to tweet, check that the venue has sufficient wifi or mobile connectivity to support online activities. Many commercial venues charge high fees for individual access to wifi, so it may be necessary to negotiate conference rates well in advance.
Inappropriate hash tag choice: A clash between hash tags or an unfortunate choice of hash tag can cause embarrassment for the organiser and confusion amongst the audience, who will often suggest competing alternatives. You can mitigate against this risk by checking your choice of hash tag thoroughly using a Twitter search and by checking any acronyms in a search engine. Start using your hash tag well in advance of the event to avoid any last minute clashes with other events.
Spam: Popular hash tags can attract spamming activity, which may be inappropriate. However, most mature Twitter users can spot spam content and filter it out. If you have someone monitoring the hash tag they will be able to report any spammers to Twitter for them to take appropriate action (usually blocking the account).
Mob mentality: On rare occasions the audience may engage in a negative critique of the speaker whilst a presentation is ongoing. Do not to show tweets on a screen behind the speaker whilst they are talking, unless integral to the presentation, and identify any controversial presentations so you can plan how to respond to any difficult situations that may arise.
Several incidents have brought some of these risks home to me recently and have thus informed the guidance I have included in my risk assessment. I want to briefly touch on two of these issues to reflect how my experiences have influenced the thinking behind this draft guidance.
An audience bonding together on Twitter to ganging up on a speaker is a very rare occurrence, in my experience, but one which can cause acute embarrassment and can potentially be quite nasty. This type of behaviour can catch you off guard and can be difficult to manage. Do you nip it in the bud with a light hearted put down? Do you let it run its course and leave the audience to self-regulate? Do you scold the audience and tell them to grow up? Is it even possible to strictly moderate what is supposed to be an open backchannel for discussion? Organisers may want to protect their speakers from offence and maintain positive, professional sense of decorum around their events, but there is always a risk that the audience may not conform.
At times, a negative backlash from the audience via the backchannel could have been anticipated by the organisers. Sometimes simply seeing the presenter’s slides in advance and talking to them about what they intend to say will help to identify areas where the audience may take issue, or where particular images or presentation styles may be inappropriate. Organisers don’t need to restrict their speakers from saying contentious things, but they do need to make the speaker aware of the questions/objections that could be raised during the Q&A, and alert their event amplifier so they can plan how best to handle the situation sensitively.
I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to detail the events and circumstances where I have encountered this behaviour so soon after those events. However, I do have archives of the event hash tags concerned to study and learn from, so I may return to this issue at a later stage.
I encountered this problem at the recent Leeds Trinity Journalism Week, when I was overseeing the launch of their event amplification. The opening keynote speaker was Jon Snow from Channel 4 News, which sparked a lot of interest and the event hash tag was quickly up into the UK trending topics on Twitter. This was great for the event organisers, but quickly led to an unfortunate side effect: two new mobile phone handsets were launched on the same day, and spammers were jumping onto trending topic hash tags to drive up their own marketing messages. This was an aggressive strategy, making use of Twitter accounts specially established for the purpose with profile pictures featuring scantily clad women.
Part of my role was to monitor the event hash tag and respond to any problems raised by the remote audience watching the event via the live video stream. I ended up spending the morning blocking spammers from every Twitter account I had access to. Unfortunately, this is not an instant fix, and there were times I had to watch a screen full of spam tweets go by before the offending account was blocked by Twitter. The spammer then moved on to another account, and the battle started again.
There is not much the event organiser can do to avoid this type of situation. They just need to be aware that whilst trending is good, it comes with this unfortunate side effect. In this instance, having a dedicated person monitoring the stream meant that we could take action straight away, rather than relying on the audience getting annoyed enough to block the accounts themselves.
Carrying out a risk assessment on something as embedded as Twitter has really highlighted for me some of the pitfalls that can occur and how many things I am juggling in my head when I am supporting the use of Twitter at an event. The risks I have highlighted are really the practical, organisational issues an event organiser would need to plan for, but there are also subtle risks associated with the actual practical use of Twitter to provide a live commentary or to deliver information. I have not touched upon these here, mainly because they overlap with traditional customer service and reporting principles.