Thursday, January 08, 2009

Social reporting at events: a brief guide

In 2008, Social Reporters (and others without names) took conferences out of closed rooms and into the wider world.

This is a short guide to show what a flock of social reporters can do for you.

What are they?
Social Reporters can be professionals - coming from fields like journalism, consultancy, web development - or volunteers. They bring various skills which all help increase quality, but anybody with a willingness to chip in and help can find a role in social reporting for your organisation, event or meeting.

What do they need?
Social Reporters are friendly creatures and fairly easy to please. They definitely need a table, plug points, laptops are useful if you can supply a few spares and a wifi connection. Ideally, they like coffee and food. If you need social reporters with a definite role who you can rely on then you'll need to give them free tickets and most likely even payment, but you should ask all delegates if they'd like to take a role, at the very least through Twittering with a chosen hashtag.

What do they do?

Blog, Twitter, film and report in ways as various as you can think of. It is well worth you or your social reporting team thinking this through in advance and ensuring that common reporting methods are in place:
- a blog feed on the main event website
- a well-promoted Twitter hashtag (which doesn't necessarily need the hash) so people can follow and contribute during and after the event. An example to illustrate.
- plenty of ways to comment and contribute from outside as well as social networking tools so that participants can connect.
- flexibility on your website to add RSS feeds so you can add tagged photos, videos and other content from different services.

Whatever you do, keep it as simple as possible and use mainstream tools. Few people will have time to edit a wiki during a conference (unless this is a specific project you have decided to embark on) and people are less likely to register for a whole new service than one they are already on. Remember too that the best laid plans, or wifi connections, are frequently prone to be less reliable than you might have hoped for and people will be using different computers, so you need to keep everything accessible and simple.

But will anyone be watching?
More than likely, yes. Social reporting is a very good way of ensuring that all those who couldn't make your event due to time or money constraints can still join in the discussions if they want to. Don't kill yourself making everything too neat and slick, it's better to get some 'stuff' on than nothing. The tidying up and editing can come later. As well as helping people take part during the event, a good stock of content will help people refer back and follow up afterwards. Plus, of course, you don't know who will stumble upon you via Google or other sources.

So where do I start?
Find some of the established digital networks in your field and contact people within them about whether they would like to be involved. This will also pay dividends in promoting your event in advance. The best places to look are the social sites themselves: Twitter, Flickr, even Facebook. Of course, this approach will be more likely to succeed if you are already in some way engaged in the right communities, so if you haven't been so far now is a good time to start.

What are the benefits?
Social reporting adds value to your event by ensuring many of the good ideas and content don't just disappear when everyone goes home. Social reporting adds many more levels to a conference: instead of just all sitting there watching a bunch of slides, people can connect, collaborate and add content to your speakers' words even while they are on the stage.

What are the risks?
Undoubtedly, opening up your conference to social reporting has the same risks as any other engagement with the social web. Basically, you have no control. There is nothing to stop people using your tags to criticise your event and its speakers. Social reporters are very unlikely to toe your line, because you're probably not paying them enough. Some very cynical people are on Twitter. That said, the willingness to open up your event or your organisation to those risks at least suggests that you are genuine about building engagement - and while the conversation may be difficult, it is likely to be rewarding in the long run.

The other issue to be aware of is that if you are going to encourage social reporting, you might get blamed if somebody is quoted or photographed without their permission. Social reporting makes a conference space truly public and that might need to be explained to delegates.

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