Beware. They’re all around you, lurking in the shadows of The Twitteverse. No, I’m not talking about vampires that communicate in 140. The subject here is Twitter chats. And, believe me, they can suck your blood. Once you join in one and learn something new, or feel hashtag camaraderie warming up your typing fingers, you might find yourself devoting hours to these online discussion groups. Some people participate in several at once, revelling in the fact of Twitter jail (yes, when you tweet over 100 times an hour, Twitter will knock you out for a while), displaying all their “alternate” handles, such as “@TwitterjailAngie” or “@TwitterchatPete.” But no need to get out your garlic and silver stakes. Twitter Chats can be entertaining and useful when you know how to work them.
1. Find a chat that’s right for you. Perhaps the best way of joining a chat is to follow your Twitter pals. Around 8 or 9 p.m. ET any night of the week (including Fridays, but not so much on Saturdays) you might notice several of the people you follow ending tweets with #cmchat or #craftychat. Click on the hashtag and see what people are saying. Ah, #cmchat is about country music, led by Jessica Northey (@JessicaNorthey) from Tuscon, AZ and Nashville, TN. #craftychat is, well, about crafts and led by Maria Nerius (@favecrafts). One of the most popular chats, #blogchat, is run by Mack Collier (@mackcollier), who claims to tweet with a southern accent. Some chats, like Carolyn Burns Bass’s popular #litchat, attract people during the day, several times a week. (MWF, 4 p.m. ET: Well, lots of writers work at home and are on the computer anyway.) Others go on all during the day: #USGuys (and 3 p.m. ET on Mondays) and #smgirlfriends (and 12 noon – 1 p.m. ET, M-F). There’s also a widely circulated Google Doc (Twitter Chat Schedule http://bit.ly/ChatSched), originated by Robert Swanwick (@twchat) that now lists nearly 750 chats and grows daily.
2. Use a tool to help you follow and participate. Marking a column with a hashtag you want to follow is easy enough with Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, but several third-party Twitters tools have been developed specifically for chats. Many people use tweetchat.com. The site asks you to sign in with your Twitter handle. Then you enter the hashtag you want to follow. You can adjust the refresh speed so that the tweets move at a rate you can read. You can also retweet, favorite and reply — if you can keep up. TweetGrid enables users to follow the hashtag, the host and the guest. Some chat hosts use Twebevent (www.twebevent.com); topics and/or questions appear on the side of the chat stream. (The twebevent website is another place to check for chats.) Meanwhile, if you would like to follow a chat using what looks like a PInterest board — and displays links in the tiles — sign onto www.sees.aw and you’ll be amazed by this:
Check out this great list of Twitter Chat tools put together by Kevin Mullet (@kmullett), using List.ly, a new curation tool. http://list.ly/list/1Jr-twitter-chat-and-hashtag-tools?feature=mylist
3. Learn the format. While some chats are pretty much free-for-alls, or “open-mikes,” most moderators ask questions numbered Q1, Q2, etc., and the participants then answer the questions putting A1, A2 before their tweets. Here’s an example of a #pinchat — a chat about Pinterest run by Kelly Westhoven Lieberman, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET. Notice as host she asks a question. Then her guest, Chobani yogurt, a brand with a magnificent Pinterest boards, answers.
4. Always introduce yourself the first time you speak, and if you’re new to a chat, listen in for a while before you start tweeting. Generally, as soon as you tweet, “First time here,” lots of participants, and the host too, will tweet you back, “Welcome.” And they mean it. With Twitter chats, the more the merrier. If you’re a newbie, watch the tweets. Notice who speaks with the most authority and who gets retweeted the most. When you do join in, begin by manually retweeting (Tweetchat and Twebevent automatically cut and paste a tweet when you click on the retweet button rather than throwing out an auto-retweet of the kind you find in Twitter.com) something smart that has been said and placing a comment before it. Soon people will be talking to and retweeting you. (Hootsuite enables you to “quote” tweet, again making it easy to add a comment before your retweet.)
5. Begin by retweeting good ideas or interesting comments. The same rule holds true in a Twitter Chat that applies to Twitter as a whole: A RT is valuable currency. It gets you noticed; it gives you a chit in the back and forth of social media. You could RT something the host or guest has said: Retweets are the currency of Twitter, and Twitter Chats too.
6. Watch all the sidechat. You might find something exciting. Most sidechat during Twitter Chats reflects people online catching up with one another. Or sometimes people talk a bit of nonsense.This happened awhile back when Chobani yogurts was explaining their pinning strategy: Yes, guilty as charged. I was off-topic and not really minding my Twitter chat manners. Still, you can find great stuff in a side chat, such as a discussion about white hat vs black hat SEO during a conversation about a new tool — great for people who thought they’d just be learning about a tool, but end up getting an SEO lesson as well. Or look at the tweets below: not too long ago a new chat, #NostalgiaChat, arose from a few side comments during #toolschat. #Nostalgia Chat, hosted bye @BekiWeki (Becki Winchel) and @JoeBugBuster (Steve Case) gaining in popularity, is trying out the Sunday night 10 p.m. ET slot.
7. Thank your host. This isn’t just a matter of social media manners. Chat hosts are normal people who read their @ mentions. I thanked a host, and next thing I knew I was a guest on #MediaChat talking about finding your Twitter style. Here’s someone thanking @MackCollier, who hosts #BlogChat, one of the most active weekly chats.
8. Follow people you find interesting on the chat. As you get comfortable with a chat and tweet more, you’ll find that many people start to follow you. Some will drop off within the next 24 hours if you don’t follow back — Twitter-bot behavior that real people looking for new followers mimic. Check your new followers, however, against the transcript of the chat. Many hosts will tweet out the URL for the transcript, or you will often find a FB group related to the chat where the link to the transcript is posted. (Hashtracking is a favorite tool for transcripts, though new ones are popping up, and many chat hosts, and hosts and participants are using storify.com to capture the conversations.) If you notice someone who has consistently tweeted interesting comments during the chat or has made you laugh or otherwise engaged you, follow him or her. Use the same strategy you would to get anyone to follow you: retweet, engage, repeat. Even when fellow chatters don’t follow you back, you may find them worthwhile follows since the information they provide during the week may be as good as their chat tweets.
9. Power to the Women! Quickly eyeball any Twitter chat, and you’ll see that the male/female participation has a lot to do with the topic. #Pinchat has a lot of steady male participants, but most of the people there are women, reflecting its female demographic. Similarly, the #Toolschat group seems to skew male — but there are plenty of women there talking about online tools every week, and the most frequent host, Kelly Kim (@Twylah) is a woman. A recent column on CNN points out that women in business are flocking to Twitter chats for real time advice. If you have any doubts that women are playing a significant role in social media, spend a bit of time in a chat. But woman or man, once you start participating in Twitter chats, your tweet volume will increase, but so will your followers (and probably your Klout, Kred and Peer Index scores). Regular participation in a Twitter chat will make you part of a “hashtag community” — tweeters who come together around a subject marked by a #. You may not be conversing with these people face-to-face, but you will be meeting new people and making new friends.
Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @wordwhacker
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