Reflections on #lrnchat: Using a Conference Backchannel for Attendees and Non-Attendees

Each week that I am able to participate in #lrnchat discussion I post a summary of the discussion to my blog. I do this both for my personal development as well as sharing with the Learning and Development Profession at large. This summary is based on my own interpretations of the chat; others who participated may have differing opinions or interpretations of the discussion. I welcome those that do to add your ideas to the comments.

The topic of this week’s #lrnchat session was “Using a Conference Backchannel for Attendees and Non-Attendees.”

I always find looking at the questions that are used to loosely guide the chat as a nice way to see the overall theme of the chat. Here are the five discussion questions that were presented to the group:

Q1) As a conference ATTENDEE what is good/easy about using the conference backchannel?
Q2) As a conference NON-ATTENDEE what is good/easy about using the conference backchannel?
Q3) What can conference tweeters do to improve their tweets for the non-attendee backchannel followers?
Q4) What gets you to start following a conference backchannel?
Q5) How can we bridge the non/attendee gap even better?

Key Learning Points

The backchannel was a hot topic this week, mainly due to the recent DevLearn conference held in San Francisco the previous week.  There was a very strong backchannel generated from the conference, resulting in enhanced learning for conference attendees as well as those that were unable to attend DevLearn in person.  This week’s #lrnchat explored backchannels, including how they create value, and how the community can increase the value a backchannel generates.

The discussion started by exploring what is good or easy about backchannels, both from the perspective of a conference attendee and a non-attendee.
Participating in the backchannel when you are in attendance can provide a number of great benefits.Many people have started using the backchannel as their tool for taking notes.  This works very well, as you get the benefit of not only your notes, but the notes of the entire backchannel community. That idea – community – was a common thread in the attendee backchannel discussion. 
When you participate in a backchannel as an attendee, you are adding to not only your own learning, but to the learning of the entire conference community. In addition, you enhance your networking, as you often encounter individuals on the backchannel that you may want to connect with face-to-face while at the conference.

For non-attendees, one of the major benefits is the ability to participate in some of the conference learning at no cost.  There are always caps to budgets, especially these days, so finding learning opportunities with minimal cost is essential.  The backchannel is an excellent resource in that regard.

The backchannel is also provides non-attendees with an excellent resource for deciding which conferences they may attend in the future.  If you see conference value in a backchannel, there’s a very good chance it would be valuable to attend in-person in the future, should that be an option.

One of the greatest benefits of the backchannel applies to both attendees and non-attendees: Building your Personal Learning Network, or PLN.  Any time you are interested in a conference, there is a high likelihood that you share some sort of a connection with every other potential attendee.  I’d be hard pressed to find a better resource for building your PLN than the backchannel. Every backchannel tweet has the potential to be ‘followed’ and added to your learning resources.

From there the discussion moved on to what conference tweeters can do to improve their tweets for the non-attendee backchannel.  There were a number of great suggestions here, including:

  • Including links to deeper content, such as pictures, websites, and blogs
  • Regularly check your ‘Mentions’ to see if someone from the backchannel has sent you a question, and if so, reply accordingly
  • As a presenter, you can auto-schedule tweets of main points so that they come out at the appropriate time during your presentation
  • Using the generally accepted hashtag on your tweets, and the session hashtag for concurrent sessions

The discussion then moved towards what gets people to follow a conference hashtag in the first place.  As an attendee of the conference, it’s usually a good idea to follow and interact with the conference hashtag as far in advance of the conference starting as possible.  Of course, this implies a generally accepted hashtag for the conference exists in advance,  I look at the DevLearn conference as an example of a strong backchannel that was in place weeks before the conference.  Not only did it build buzz and excitement for the conference, but it set the stage and built a foundation for many of the connections that were made among the participants.

For non-attendees, there were two major themes for following a conference hashtag.  The first is somewhat obvious; You follow a hashtag for a conference you would like to attend but are unable to in person.  The second reason is somewhat less obvious, and possible more valuable.  When you see a tweet from a respected follow that includes a hashtag you are not familiar with, search that hashtag.  Often, you will discover a valuable conference backchannel that you did not even know existed.  Even better, you will likely encounter new people to follow and add to your personal learning network.

The session concluded with a discussion on what we can due to further bridge the gap between live and backchannel conference attendees.  I always like questions like this in #lrnchat, as it almost serves as a brainstorming session for your Personal Learning Network.

There were a number of good ideas shared, including:

  • Have conference organizers foster the backchannel in advance, which could be as easy as publicizing a hashtag for the conference
  • Have someone assigned the task of being the ‘voice’ of the backchannel, monitoring the feed and bringing the backchannel feedback into live sessions
  • Setting up a schedule backchannel chat where people can interact live – similar to what #lrnchat does

This was an excellent session that I think shared a great number of ideas that can help improve the quality and value of backchannel communities at future conferences.  I look forward to putting many of the tips shared into practice myself.

There are always at least a couple of tweets that resonate well with the topic and seem to really strike a chord. As always, you can find the full transcripts at  Here are a few that stuck out to me from today’s sessions:

On what is good or easy about the Conference Backchannel for ATTENDEES:
@hamtra: Finding like minded attendees, finding out what is happening in other sessions
@cellodav: Lets me know what others are thinking as we’re listening to the same thing
@kylemackie: Backchannel connects people, builds community, crowdsources knowledge

@trchandler:  RT @KoreenOlbrish: the backchannel lets me take real-time notes <– and tap into everyone’s notes as well
@jaycross:  It’s great watching us create understanding and knowledge around our professional areas 140 characters at a time.

On what is good or easy about the Conference Backchannel for NON-ATTENDEES:
@learninganorak: That sense of inclusion when you couldn’t make it to the event
@CraigTaylor74: Great for picking up useful links & for making new contacts
@innerquest: It removes the financial and geographical barriers to participation and learning

@KoreenOlbrish:  Backchannels as a nonattendee give me insight as to where i need to be the NEXT year

On what conference tweeters can do to improve their tweets for the non-attendee backchannel:
@c4lpt: As a conf presenter I auto-tweet my presentation (key points, questions etc) to try and engage non-attendees
@joshcav: I think it’s great when there’s photos/video/audio attached to the tweets
@jzurovchak: Definitely include session hashtags and even room numbers and times (in case attendees want to switch sessions…)
@mrch0mp3rs: Engage constructively with other participants. Be the voice of the virtual attendees, asking questions out loud they can’t ask.

On what gets you to start following a conference backchannel:

@sguditus: When members of my PLN use a hashtag, along with a catchy reason, in 140 characters or less!
@learninganorak: When I’m following someone who RTs something that catches my imagination
@StephanieDaul: Conference Organizers being part of the channel

@minutebio: The pre-conference back channel can psych me up to follow during conference

On how we can better bridge the Non/Attendee gap:
@cellodav: Designate someone to ask Qs on behalf of non-attendees and someone to post the answers
@Dave_Ferguson: Conf folks could propose, even publish session-related hashtags — ideally short ones. DL10 good. ABCDconference2010, bad.
@KristinTho: Teach conf planners & attendees to include articles, photos, videos, blogs etc, not just quotes and reactions
@nickfloro: Setup scheduled conversations (ie #lrnchat) where they can chat, exchange, learn, ask questions and request info

@kelly_smith01:  Provide reviews/blogs on sessions include names, sources, links, publications through SoMe and #lrnchat

For me the most thought provoking tweet came not as an answer to one of the five guided questions, but from an exchange I had with @moehlert in which he said “Let’s be clear about the value of a conference”.  That concept of value was a key theme of the chat.

There are three key stakeholders in a conference backchannel.  In the #lrnchat discussion we really only touched on two of them: Attendees and Non-Attendees.  We looked at what defines ‘value’ for both, and how they can meet in the middle to make a better experience for all.  But what about that third stakeholder – The conference organizers?

The conference organizers are in a great position to foster a strong backchannel for their event.  It’s important to remember though, that their key metric for a successful event is paid attendance.  The backchannel is an excellent resource that can add to an overall experience for attendees, but it can also be a leech to live attendance.  It may never replace face-to-face, but as technology continues to evolve, the learning gap between attendees and backchannel will continue to shrink.

Think about this.  I have no doubt that the next phone I purchase will give me the ability to post the following link to the backchannel:
Great session being led by John Smith on protecting intellectual property.  Click here to watch the live feed from my cell…

That sort of option would no doubt affect attendance.  I think in order for backchannels to continue to evolve as a learning resource, conference organizers must be actively engaged to ensure that their is balanced value for all.

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