Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Here's Tweeting at You: Using Social Media to Expand the Reach of Academic Conferences

[Episode 97] Today’s episode of the Social Work Podcast answers that age-old question, how do I live tweet a conference? In April 2014, I recorded a conversation with members of the social media team that was live tweeting the 2014 American Association of Suicidology conference: April Foreman, Tony Wood, Quintin Hunt, Dese'Rae Stage, and Cara Anna. The conversation was recorded at the end of four intense days. You’ll hear team members talking about the personal and professional benefits of live tweeting, how they handled controversial comments, and what it was like to be part of an historic moment. I include a "best practice" guide to help you plan what to do before, during, and after a conference or event.

Download MP3 [33:16]


Today’s episode of the Social Work Podcast answers that age-old question, how do I live tweet a conference? Ok, so it isn’t an old question in 2015… it is a hot topic right now. But, the question “how do I use technology to spread my message?” is old. Which brings me, of course, to Benjamin Franklin. 

In 1729, a 27-year-old Benjamin Franklin bought the Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette was a new and financially struggling newspaper, and Franklin had to figure out how to make some money. He took a page from the Google business model and decided that he needed to increase circulation so he could sell more ads to generate more revenue. He had to do something that would make his newspaper stand out from all the other local newspapers (and all newspapers were local). How did he do it? With pictures. He became the first person to print cartoons and maps in a newspaper. Over the next few decades, these cartoons went from being eye-candy to serious political statements.

In 1754, after a near-tragic kite flying incident, Franklin drew and published a political cartoon called, “Join, or Die.”
You might remember this image from your chapter on the American Revolutionary War: a snake cut into eight parts representing the fragmented colonies. This cartoon didn’t just sell newspapers, it became a “symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolutionary War.” In 1770, Benjamin Franklin realized that in order for the colonies to unite against England, they had to share information. He became the first person to mail newspapers to other colonies. Remember, newspapers were local. Just five years later the colonies went to war… and the rest is history. Literally. (Image: "Benjamin Franklin - Join or Die" by Benjamin Franklin - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g05315Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

So what does Benjamin Franklin have to do with live tweeting conferences? Everything. It is good to remember that what we think is brand new is probably not. A widely cited study from 2013 found that people were 94% more likely to share tweets with pictures than text-only tweets. They found out that people liked pictures. Didn’t B-Frank figure that out like 300 years ago? Franklin found that getting your message out to a broader audience can be the best way to fuel a revolution. In 2012, social media was famously used by Arab Spring activists. Fawaz Rashed tweeted,
In the last few years small groups of tech saavy conference goers have realized that in order to make broader changes in the world, academics have to take all of the potentially life changing information that is published in journals and shared in conferences and share it outside of their little colonies. There, I rest my case.   

Today’s episode unpacks how and why you can use social media get the message out. In April 2014, I recorded a conversation with members of the social media team that was live tweeting the 2014 American Association of Suicidology conference. The conversation was recorded at the end of four intense days. You’ll hear team members talking about the personal and professional benefits of live tweeting, how they handled controversial comments, and what it was like to be part of an historic moment. Oh, and I should say, only one of the team members was an IT professional. Social media teams do not have to have social media professionals, although, if you have the funds, that would certainly help. 

The first step in getting your message out is… knowing what that message is. Academics are great at details, but notoriously bad at sharing their passion.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, looking in for the first time, to see past the the conference speak and realize what that message is. that’s what happened at the American Association of Suicidology conference in 2013.

Tony is an IT guy. IT is important in suicide prevention. It is the backbone of all those crisis call centers, chat lines, texting services. That’s where Tony came in. He showed up at AAS 2013 and realized that the entire conference was about saving lives. But nobody was saying it. It wasn't online. So, he made it his personal mission to change that. But, you can’t be some random IT guy, even one with a brilliant insight, and get the word out all by yourself. You need someone on the inside who is equally passionate. That’s where April comes in. April Foreman is @docforeman, a psychologist with the VA who is passionate about using social media to improve mental health. She and Tony co-founded The Suicide Prevention and Social Media Chat, aka that SPSM chat is a weekly twitter chat sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology. So, why Twitter? The social network you probably spend most of your time on is Facebook. And what do you do on FB? You post pictures, like people’s pictures, share a meme, maybe change your profile picture to a ribbon or equal sign, or whatever is on the slacktivist docket that week… But you probably don’t share a bunch of news. That’s where other social media networks come in. Right now Reddit is the front page of the internet. Tumblr is famous for launching “the dress.” But Twitter is the place to share your headline news. And so one of the ways that Tony and April decided to spread the news about suicide prevention was by starting the SPSM twitter chat. You can learn more about twitter chats at The next step was to organize a social media team to live tweet the annual suicide prevention conference.

April invited folks she knew from the SMSP chat, like Dese’Rae Stage, photographer, founder of the Live Through This project, and suicide attempt survivor, and social media rockstar. Other team members were Quintin Hunt, family therapist and doctoral student, and Cara Anna, journalist, editor of and attempt survivor.

Most suicide prevention folks would like the general public to stop saying that someone committed suicide. People commit murder. They die by suicide. But, should live tweeting focus on the intended content of the presentation? Adam Lankford was talking about suicide bombers, but kept referring to people who "commit suicide." Should the live tweeting include commentary about this legitimate and important issue of language? And of course we’re talking about the language of suicide prevention as an example, but it could be any language issue that is germane to your specialty. Lankford also suggested that,
So, one of the things that happened here was that Lankford said a couple of things that were controversial, but they weren’t tweeted as controversies.

According to April, tweeting controversy would be a legitimate way of tweeting the conference. She suggested that targeted tweeting to specific constituencies would improve the reach of the conference. After the conference Tony checked the stats and April was right - there was a BIG audience. Eight folks did the majority of tweeting for a conference of 1000 people. Those tweets reached 347,000 people, and had over 7 million timeline impressions.

Now those numbers, and this issue of what do you tweet and why, really begs the question: if live tweeting expands the reach of the conference, what happens when no one shows up to a presentation? If it isn’t tweeted, does it count? It is a conference cliche to present to empty room. But what if that happens because everyone, including the social media team, is attending one session? That’s what happened at AAS14, when everyone, myself included, attended a panel discussion that introduced the Lived Experience division.

AAS 2014 was the first time that people with lived experience of suicidal ideation and/or attempt were recognized with a formal division. Dese'rae Stage, Cara Anna, Craig Miller and Misha Kessler spoke at a panel about their lived experience. It was an intense and emotional moment, because of the stories, and because it felt like an historic moment in which the stigma against people with lived experience was being replaced with honor and recognition.

This is what we can’t tweet out. Not a criticism of twitter, just a fact. We make up for it with evocative photos, emoji, heartfelt quotes… but hearing the emotion in people's voices can't be replaced.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t value to live tweeting conferences. Indeed, That’s Dr. William Schmitz, Bill to his friends, a self-proclaimed technophobe and at the time of the interview, the president of the American Association of Suicidology said that live tweeting and social media was "invaluable, that’s what I’ve learned."

So what does it take to get the message out broader? You’ll hear from the social media team what they thought made a difference in live tweeting. And then I’m going to share some additional recommendations that I’ve seen in the year since I recorded this interview. These recommendations come from, profhacker, and the SPSMchat folks whom you have been hearing from today. The links to all of those are on the Social Work Podcast website.

Download MP3 [33:16]

Tips for Live Tweeting a Conference or Event

Before the event

  1. The event sponsors should figure out the official hashtag. Otherwise everyone will make up their own. Since hashtags are the main way to quickly find relevant tweets, there is a huge difference between CSWE2015 and CSWE15. And it goes without saying – the hashtag should be short.
  2. Have a social media team. These are folks whose main purpose is to tweet the events. They need to know what the hashtags are, which sessions to attend, how to get internet access in the basement of the conference center (an expensive nightmare), among other things. Someone should be in charge of the social media team. Just like any other team. If you can get an IT person like Tony and a content expert and all-around mischief maker like April to co-chair, you’ve got yourself a nice social media team. 
  3. Figure out who will be tweeting / retweeting from the organization’s official account. If I were at a conference sponsored by NASW and I saw that NASW was retweeting and replying to my tweets, I’d be pretty stoked. Yes, I know that the person in charge of the NASW twitter account might be 20 years old, but the important thing is that by retweeting, NASW has given my tweet the stamp of approval.
  4. Schedule important tweets / posts. If you want to remind people to attend a book signing Friday at noon, there is no reason to wait until Friday at 11:30 to manually send it out – you’re going to be busy and forget to tweet it out. I like to use HooteSuite. I log in, schedule tweets over several days. If I’m organizing a meet up, I can schedule a tweet per day about the meet up and use the replies to identify more folks who will be joining me.
  5. Find someone or some organization that has a huge twitter following and have them tweet a PSA about your conference with the dates and official hashtag. Imagine Oprah tweeting out to her 27 million followers, “I’m going to be following #AAS15 this year to learn how to save lives. You should to.” 
  6. Create image templates. These are photos or graphics that you can add text to. Share them with your SoMe team. Remember that 2013 study of 400,000 tweets? Photo tweets are 94% more likely to be shared than text-based ones ( 
  7. Use an analytic tool to figure out the impact of your social media presence. Typically these are commercial sites like that require you to register the hashtag or hashtags in advance. They track the number of tweets, who tweets, how many retweets, and the reach of the tweets. This is where it gets interesting. As I mentioned earlier, there were about 1000 people at the 2014 suicidology conference, but the tweets were seen by almost 350,000 people. That’s a huge reach. ( The link to the AAS2014 hashtracker report can be found on the SWP website. Update April 19, 2015: The social media team live tweeted #AAS2015. The reach increased to 2,266,514. Those stats can be found here: 
  8. Last, but should be first on your list is to get buy-in from the event sponsors. That thing you heard Bill Schmitz say about how the organization had to do it? That’s exactly the kind of thing you want to hear from the leadership. But it probably won’t be easy.   

During the event

  1. Set up displays at registration and the lobby that randomly display recent conference tweets. I like It is a visualisation tool that is designed to display Twitter messages in public spaces. The animations are very turn of the century, but totally effective. 
  2. Use the event hashtag in every tweet. You can sign in to websites like to automatically add the hashtag to your tweets. Or you can tweet directly from the some of the conference apps that have that built in.
  3. If you are a presenter and you’re on Twitter or Instagram, include your Twitter / Instagram handles on your first and last slide and handouts and let your audience know if they can or cannot tweet out your stuff / post photos of your slides.
  4. If you’re live tweeting, tweet responsibly. If presenters said, “please don’t tweet this or take pictures,” then don’t. If the presenter gave explicit or tacit permission, given them credit in your posts. Use their twitter handles. If they don’t have a Twitter handle, use their last name. An easy format is to put the person’s name first, followed by a colon, followed by the quote, followed by the conference hashtag, then the session hashtag. Brian Croxall from ProfHacker suggests using a text expansion tool to automatically format your tweet. Type in a few words and bam, it is expanded into the speaker’s name and the conference hashtag.
  5. Interact with folks who retweet or comment. Reply. Follow them. Engage. Social media is… social.
  6. Take pictures of folks attending the conference. This isn’t 21st century selfie narcissism. Remember the Yalta Conference, February 1945 – the one where Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met to talk about post WWII reconstruction? No. But you remember the photo of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin sitting next to each other. And that happened at the Yalta Conference.
  7. Listen for the soundbites. The first person to tweet a hot quote will get the most RTs. Take it a step further by adding the quote to your image templates. Tweets with images tend to get more RTs.
  8. Archive your tweets. This comes directly from @docforeman, a pioneer in archiving tweets. If you’ve tweeted with a session hashtag, archive the session using Storify. Storify enables you to search by hashtag across several social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. It pulls up all of the tweets, photos, posts associated with that hashtag. You can add all of the content to your story, or you can select key tweets, photos, etc. You can add a narrative to the content. Once you’re done you share the archive to your network, and alert everyone who has been “quoted” in your story. @docforeman has a great turorial on using Storify at

After the event

  1. Host a tweetchat or live Google Hangout to debrief the event.
  2. Look at those analytics you set up before the event. Find out which tweets were most widely RT’d. Who was your most prolific tweeter? Who had the biggest reach? Did picture tweets rule the day? Are Ben Franklin and the researchers who did that 2013 study right? Or are they wrong? 
  3. Do one last final archive the social media with Storify.
  4. Meet with the conference organizers. Present them with the archived tweets, the analytics, and the recommendations for what worked and what didn’t work. Ride the wave of excitement and get some buy-in for next year’s conference before everyone goes back to their every day lives. 
Thank you to April, Tony, Dese'Rae, Cara Anna, and Bill for lending their thoughts and reflections on the podcast today.

References and Resources

Music of the Revolutionary War (Public Domain Mark 1.0). 
  • Masterpiece Medley - Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks
  • Yankee Doodle - Village Volunteers Fife & Drum Corps
Tech resources for Twitter Chats
Live Tweeting Events:
Kolowich, L. (2014, July 3). Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Live-Tweet Your Event.  Retrieved from

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2015, April 15). #97 - Here's tweeting at you: Using social media to expand the reach of academic conferences. [Audio podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from

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