What Makes a Great Conference Backchannel?

The topic of this past week’s #chat2lrn session was “Backchannels”. I was invited as a guest for the chat and wrote a post to set things up entitled Backchannels: How to Make the Most of a Conference.  This week I’m reflecting on the discussion and expanding on some of the thoughts in a series of blog posts.

In my previous post, I explored the value of participating in an expanded event backchannel, including participation before, during, and after the actual event. This week, I”m exploring the second question asked during the chat: What makes up a quality backchannel? What makes one great? What can you take away from a backchannel’s value?

There isn’t one answer to what makes a backchannel great.  First off, ‘great’ is an adjective that is subjective. The list of items I describe in this post consist of what I find makes a backchannel great, based on my own experiences and the feedback of those I speak to about the backchannel posts on my blog.

Great backchannels expand on the content of an event

There is value in sharing the learnings of an event through a backchannel. Many find tweeting to be a great way to capture and share key learning points from an event. I especially appreciate this when I’m following the backchannel of an event I am unable to attend in person.

What’s better though, is when attendees expand on the content being presented, instead of simply sharing it.  It could be sharing a related article, tweeting a link to a YouTube video that was just shown, or sharing an example of how the learning applies in your work.  When additional information is shared that expands and complements presentation content, value increases tremendously.

Keep in mind, this extra sharing isn’t always being done by attendees. Often the additional related content is shared by speakers themselves or even non-attendees following the backchannel from home.

Great backchannels are recognized, supported, participated in, and monitored by the event organizers

This point is a bit of a slippery slope. Some may read “recognized, supported, participated in, and monitored by” and see a fifth unspoken word: control.  The word ‘control’ has no place in a backchannel discussion.  I’ve been asked a number of times about how an event goes about creating a backchannel.

The short answer? You don’t.

A backchannel is organic.  It is born by the connected messaging of those attending an event. What it becomes isn’t set in stone and might even shift focus a bit during it’s life cycle. A conference organizer doesn’t create a backchannel, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t do things to encourage people to participate in one. Here are a few ways they can do this:

  • Recognize that backchannels do not threaten the value of their event content; it expands on it.
  • Support the backchannel by including the hashtag for the event in marketing communications and encouraging speakers and attendees to participate
  • Participate in the backchannel themselves, not just for marketing purposes but also the engage with the online community
  • Monitor the backchannel for feedback on sessions and issues being discussed that might need to be addressed.

Great backchannels provide a resource for continued learning well after the event itself has ended

The more sharing that takes place in a backchannel, the more information that is available for future reference.  A great backchannel can provide a treasure trove of resources for attendees (and non-attendees) to reference to continue their learning for weeks, months, or even longer after the event itself.  The official event resources like slides, articles, and videos combined with additional shared links, tweets and resources can provide an entire library of resources that function as an ongoing resource.

One point of clarity: I’ve heard people use the words curation and backchannel almost interchangeably, and that would be incorrect. I believe this happens because many people do not actually participate in a backchannel or follow it’s stream live; they simply reference a post in which someone has curated key learning points or shared resources.

Curation is quite popular after conferences, and it’s not that uncommon to find people that have curated information from a conference backchannel in a blog post or news article.  I do this often for events for events geared towards learning professionals.

Backchannels are, at a very basic level, sets of data.  Curation is the  deliberate act of pulling out specific pieces of data from a much larger set of data to deliver a specific message. I’ve followed a number of events over the past few years that resulted in a draft of a post of curated resources that was never published, simply because the backchannel did not feature enough quality shared resources to warrant a posting. Backchannels are not themselves examples of curation, but the better a backchannel is, the more valuable a data source it may be for curation.

Great backchannels build connections

Some of my favorite experiences with backchannels come from the connections I make and strengthen with others. I have met a great number of people virtually via backchannels. Some of my favorite conference experiences are hallway conversations that started with a backchannel interaction.

Those connections last well past the end of an event, and are a great resource for extending your learning well beyond the close of the event. That in itself is very valuable, and yet it’s almost a secondary benefit.

I can honestly say that some of the most valued friendships I have today have their origins in connections that started in a conference backchannel. And in that, there is value of a scale I can not adequately put into words.

What do you find makes a backchannel great?  Please feel free to post your idea in the comments.

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