Social media makes creating a reaction easy. You can always find someone who will agree, disagree, volunteer, or lend an opinion or advice.

Social media doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to manage or organise thoughts or opinions. For that, you are completely reliant on people’s goodwill; putting hashtags in the right places, commenting on blogs or following a particular feed. This is a huge ask when you are competing for people’s attention using a portal that is providing a constantly updated stream of news, opinion and content from other people.

Trying to bring people together at the same time online, on the same network or website is even more hard work. People have lives offline of course, and other things to do online. Like their jobs.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that helping to run a weekly web chat is actually bloody hard work. In my case, that chat is NHS Social Media #nhssm.

Don’t get me wrong, it continues to be immensely rewarding. It’s a sandbox to experiment, share and discuss, in a less formal environment. Its a fantastic way to understand other’s views about digital engagement and more specifically, how people use Twitter. Perhaps most importantly I get to work with some great people.

The hard work comes from it being a weekly commitment. Committing to going to the gym (or the pub) once a week is OK. Committing to going at exactly the same time every week is a little harder. Committing to sitting in front of a laptop at the same time every week, and making sure you are somewhere with a good connection is much harder still. Although I have been known to combine these different commitments. Hint – not including the gym.

Promoting chats in advance, blogging about them and coralling supporters every week is also lots of work. But worth it.

Worth it when:

  • the conversation fills your screen more quickly than Tweetchat can update
  • people share knowledge that everyone can take back to their desks the next day
  • you build relationships with those facing similar challenges
  • the community challenges a pre-conception
  • the community gains some recognition

    volume controls on a cell phone

    Sometimes a web chat involves turning up the volume for quiet participants. Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/8Zfbro

Here are the key ingredients:

  1. promote the hell out of your webchat – blog, tweet, talk and evangelise
  2. never underestimate how much reminding and prompting people need to turn up
  3. look after the quiet regulars. They are likely as not your core audience and you need to prove the chat can be useful to them. Encourage and nurture
  4. manage the noisy guys. They bring spirit and momentum, but sometimes run the risk of putting others off
  5. work to a rule of thirds. One third of your audience is talking on the chat. Another third are just watching. And another third meant to be there but forgot. Look after each third
  6. your chat is also like a junior school disco. Everyone’s divided down the middle and not yet dancing together. You need to do some introductions, some welcomes, and some more encouragement. Glitter ball and Spandau Ballet are optional
  7. have lots of links ready to share. People value links and supporting information
  8. it will take time for people to start suggesting topics, so have some questions prepared in advance of every chat. Make them practical (‘what are the benefits of corporate blogging?’) or contentious (‘do corporate IT policies stifle use of social media?’)
  9. the same themes and topics will crop up every week. That’s OK, it usually means people want to talk about them some more
  10. take opportunities to meet participants offline. It really helps everyone to put faces to avatars

While writing this post I found this useful summary of why Twitter chats can be a useful activity for any organisation.

I’m still learning – please share your experiences here.