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As you might have noticed, I’ve been away. While I get my head back together you should check this guest post out from Justin Goldsborough. By day, he works at Fleishman-Hilliard on social media and comms. He also runs #pr20chat a Twitter chat consistently recognized as being one of the best out there. Check it out if haven’t. Justin and his #pr20chat co-founder Heather Whaling have recently launched a new website which expands on the mission of #pr20chat. Thanks Justin! Very grateful to have you!

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You ever have those moments of clarity where you all of a sudden see something a different way than you’ve ever seen it before? I had one of those more than a year ago now. I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember exactly what happened. I had several people ask me why I was such an avid participant in Twitter chats and how they worked. Up until that time I had always answered something like: “It’s a good way to meet people and learn about a certain topic. And you just have to follow a hashtag for an hour a week.”

Only God knows how many times I answered that question. A lot. But one day when I was writing an e-mail response to it, a light bulb went off. Just like in the Looney Tunes episodes. And I started to see hashtags and Twitter chats as what they really are – communities.

So if you ask me how to manage a successful Twitter chat, my question back to you is going to be: “How do manage a successful community?” I think that’s the mentality #pr20chat founder Beth Harte used when she came up with the chat idea and turned it into a thriving community. And I know it’s the mentality Heather Whaling and I have employed since we were lucky enough to take over the #pr20chat reins from Beth so she could start her new #imcchat venture.

With that in mind, here are eight key building blocks anyone starting a Twitter chat needs to consider:

  1. Fill a need. Just starting a chat to start a chat is good and all, but it probably won’t be very successful. Some type of community exists around almost any common interest. Your job is to identify that passion you have, then target others with the same passion. Organize a chat that can add value to the conversations you are having around that topic and that can bring like-minded people together to network.
  2. Partner with a community leader. When I say community here, I’m referring to the area of common interest that got you thinking about starting a chat. Two heads are better than one and so are two networks. Find a partner that has as much passion about the topic as you and agree to co-host the chat. It makes the time commitment more manageable and extends your reach by bringing two networks together. I think Heather and I consistently benefit from the differing perspectives and connections we bring to the table. She brings up topics to discuss I wouldn’t have thought of mentioning. And vice versa. Plus, we both are connected to different people on Twitter, which widens our potential audience.
  3. Crowdsource. The best way to increase involvement and buy-in on something is to ask peoples’ opinions and make changes/decisions based on their feedback. The easiest way to do this via a Twitter chat is a call for questions. Ask people what they want to talk about. If someone gives you an idea for a question, they’re probably going to show up at the chat to see the responses to their question. Beyond questions, ask for help making decisions about the community, such as potential guest speaker ideas, topics to cover, how members can engage outside Twitter. This type of approach makes it easy for participants to feel some ownership in the community and shows you know the chat isn’t all about you.
  4. Consistency. Have your chat at the same time, on the same hashtag and find a format you like and stick with it. Make your chat part of someone’s routine. People discuss their routine events on Twitter and other social networks all the time. If they make your chat part of that discussion, their peers will see it as a recommendation. And people want to do what their friends are doing, which means more exposure to the chat community you’re building.
  5.  Guest moderators. Some of the most successful #pr20chat sessions we’ve had in the past year and a half involved guest moderators. People want to hear and learn from those who have built a reputation in your industry. That’s why conferences are so successful, right? Well, bring that idea to your chat. It’s good PR for the guest moderator and it gives you a chance to provide a different perspective to your community. I’ve seen a  couple of Twitter chats that started recently open with two-three big-name guests in the first month or two, which has really helped generate buzz and get them off the ground.
  6. Provide community beyond Twitter. Some of the signs I look for to judge if our Twitter chat is resonating with our target audience is a) Are we seeing consistent numbers of participants, b) Are people using the #pr20chat hashtag to alert the community to news or trends outside of when the chat takes place, c) Are people engaging with each other about the topics we discuss outside of Twitter and are we making it easy for them to do so? #u30pro does a great job of this through its Facebook group and their e-mail digest by offering consistent discussion topics and recapping the weeks chat, including highlighting members. For #pr20chat, we have a Ning community – pr20chat.com – that more than 100 of our chat participants have joined. And we do a weekly video segment about relevant PR issues called #pr20chat TV, which Heather and I both post on our blogs to allow for discussion.
  7. Invite people to the chat. This one may sound simple and even kind of silly, but I think how you invite people can often be key to whether or not they attend. We have definitely noticed an increase in attendance when we send DMs to regular participants sharing the topic and asking if they can make the chat this week. People want to be included and feel wanted. Make sure they know you want them to be part of your discussion and community.
  8. Do the little things. This is good advice in everything you do, not just building your Twitter chat. Paying attention to detail is key. What I mean by doing the little things is:
  • Promote your chat the day of
  • Tweet out that call for questions
  • Tweet that you are discussing question ideas when building your list for that night
  • Say hello to people when they join the chat and thank them for stopping by
  • Tweet “you’re welcome” when people say thanks for hosting the chat
  • Share a transcript and note how many tweets and participants the chat had
  • Call out chat community members accomplishments for all to recognize
  • Look to engage with chat participants outside of the normal chat time

These eight building blocks should get you started. But there’s always something else you can do to keep your community engaged. Create a strategic plan and an editorial calendar for your chat. Treat it like a client project and show your chat network you value them and the perspective they bring to the table.

And never treat your chat like just a hashtag. Because anyone can create a hashtag. Building community is much more difficult – and much more rewarding.

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