How to attend a conference when you’re not there – use Twitter hashtags

Screenshot of an OTIA09 tweetFor the past few weeks, I’ve been globe-trotting….well, more accurately, Continental-U.S.-hopping.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the action at state tourism conferences for Virginia, Ohio, Missouri and Texas, ESTO (Educational Seminar for Tourism) in Lake Tahoe, the Twitter-related 140 conference in Los Angeles, and BlogWorld and New Media Expo in Las Vegas.  I’ve also physically attended the Association for Women in Communications (AWC) conference in Seattle and heard info from panels that I didn’t personally attend, and I’m already waving hello to people at the Oklahoma Conference on Tourism in Tulsa, although it doesn’t really start until tomorrow.

Pretty cool, huh?

While I’d love to have unlimited funds, piles of frequent flyer miles and telepathic powers, I have to confess that I’m “attending” these conference by watching their Twitter hashtags, and you can, too.

Hashtags are simply a way of organizing all tweets that relate to one topic or event.  There is a central Web site for them, hashtags.org, but it’s not always terribly accurate or up-to-date. The assignment of a hashtag is often a rather informal, crowd-sourced event, announced in attendee tweets and thereafter appended by each interested person (if they remember) to every tweet that relates to the topic or event.

For example, as long as I remember to do it, every tweet that I send from or about the Oklahoma Governor’s tourism conference will have #OTIA09 in the body of the tweet – OTIA is the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association.

Look at the photo above to see what it looks like in one sample tweet, from central Oklahoma’s Frontier Country region.

At big conferences, individual panels or sessions will sometimes assign themselves a hashtag.  For example, tweets from the panels in the Travel Blogging Track at the 2009 BlogWorld Expo (hashtag #BWE09) had the hashtag #TTBWE09 (TT for “Travel Track.”)

If you attend an event and plan to tweet about it or from it, and there doesn’t seem to be a hashtag already in use, don’t be shy. Create one yourself and announce it in a tweet.

Do pick something that is as short as possible, since every character in your hashtag counts against the 140 character maximum in a tweet. If your event is an annual one by the same organization, simply change the year at the end.

To follow all the hashtagged tweets in action, I use three tools:

  • For Twitter on the Web, go to http://search.twitter.com, type in the hashtag and click Search. All results will come up and when others come in, the Twitter search engine will tell you that and recommend that you refresh your screen.
  • For a Twitter organizing application like TweetDeck or HootSuite, set up a column just for that hashtag along with your other columns for Mentions, Direct Messages, etc.  The column will refresh itself automatically and this is an easy way to watch the action in progress.
  • Another service by my Round Rock-based friend and techno-whiz Brooks Bennett is TweetChat. It is like using Web-based Twitter Search, but it auto-refreshes and if you reply or retweet while in the hashtag’s “tweet room” the software automatically adds the hashtag for you.

Word of warning – Twitter search only works for a week or two back, so your stream of hashtagged tweets will “evaporate” after awhile. If you want to capture the action for posterity, take some screenshots.

(Update – a new deal between Microsoft’s Bing search engine, Twitter and Facebook was announced 21 October at the Web 2.0 Summit, so now you may want to also go to Bing at http://www.bing.com and see the search results for your hashtag of interest. I’m hoping they keep results around longer than Twitter so that I can “dig in the search engine closet” further back than a few weeks.)

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14 Responses to How to attend a conference when you’re not there – use Twitter hashtags

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention How to attend a conference when you’re not there – use Twitter hashtags | Sheila's Guide To The Good Stuff -- Topsy.com

  2. Thanks for mentioning TweetChat!

    Through the use of hashtags we can transport ourselves to fantastic conferences, monitor world events, keep up with fun Internet memes, and be part of a global community, all in realtime. It is a fantastic age we live in and it is great to have people evangelizing that social media is more than people post what they ate today.

    Though, if you want to do that, you can go to http://www.alliatetoday.com *

    *Another silly project of mine…

  3. Gray says:

    I have followed a few conferences this way, too, and I really appreciate the fact that live attendees tweet what they’re hearing for those of us who can’t physically be there. I would like to think that pretty soon, conference runners will be tech-savvy enough to create a hashtag themselves well in advance of the conference so attendees don’t have to make something up at the last minute.

    • Hi Gray,

      You’re right; conference organizers need to set up LinkedIn Events, Facebook Events and a Twitter hashtag well in advance so that people can talk and connect (even before the conference starts!)

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  5. Hi Sheila,

    I know I’m a bit late weighing in on this topic, but I only just found you “at” the last SMBAustin…

    One thing you mentioned is that hashtag searches on Twitter only go back two weeks. True, but there’s a free service you can use to archive them longer than that: http://twapperkeeper.com/

    Between that and TweetChat, you can maximize the involvement of your event backstream, and use it to build momentum for an upcoming large event, or recruit eavesdroppers into your next monthly/weekly event.

    Monitoring the backstream also allows you to “hear” what take-aways folks find most useful for your event. Hire someone to monitor the backstream hashtag during your event and you can include non-attenders in the conversation whenever it would mutually benefit both audiences.

    Blessings,
    Jim Bob

    • Hi Jim Bob,

      Thanks very much for stopping by, and mentioning Twapperkeeper and TweetChat – I did forget to mention those.

      Once the organization gets more than a few people using the hashtag (and Twitter itself, for that matter) the more value there is in the backchannel discussions. The trick is to get people onto Twitter before the conference even starts – or right at the beginning – and make sure that everyone knows what a hashtag is and how to use it. People catch on quickly once it gets going.

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