A Guide to Tweeting at Scientific Meetings for Social Media Veterans

A year ago, David Shiffman published How to live-tweet a conference: A guide for conference organizers and twitter users, an informative and exhaustive guide to using twitter to help promote scientific conferences. Since then, I’m certain you’ve internalized his lessons and become a veteran of the science twitterverse. Now that you’re among the top twitter users in your field, it’s time to address how that changes the way you use twitter to interact with your peers.

How do you know if you’re a twitter veteran? There’s no real, concrete rule but, being that this is a guide for scientists, let’s say that a veteran twitter has significantly more followers than the average twitter user attending the conference. If you sampled the number of followers that each conference attendee on twitter had, you would fall outside of the 95% confidence interval. For a huge tech conference, this might mean you have hundreds of thousands, even millions of followers. For a small, regional conference in a relatively narrow field, this could be a couple of hundred followers.

What’s important is that as a veteran, your tweets are more visible to the attendees and the public than most everyone else’s.

1. Your tweets will set the tone for the backchannel.

The backchannel is the discussion that happens about a conference through social media. It can really occur through any medium but, recently, twitter has been the major facilitator of backchannel chatter.

A veteran tweeter will dominate the conference hashtag, especially in the day leading up to the conference. How you decide to present yourself will set the tone for how other conference participants will engage with the backchannel. Do you want to use humor and play word games to lighten the mood? Will you use twitter as an opportunity to provide links to supplemental information during talks? Are you primarily looking for a way to organize people for social or professional meet-ups? Or are you using twitter as a broadcast platform to include participants who couldn’t be there in person?

Because you’re already successful on social media, other participants will model you online behavior. Setting the right tone and finding a balance between informational, social, and playful tweets will help make the backchannel feel more welcoming and will encourage others, who may be more hesitant, to participate.

2. Your tweets will be one of the most visible pathways for non-attendees to participate.

With few exceptions, I generally have an order of magnitude more followers on twitter than there are people attending the conference in which I’m participating. This means that most of the people listening on twitter are not conference attendees, but interested members of the public. It’s easy to forget that they’re there while trying to keep up with a stellar keynote talk, but you need to remember them and tailor some of you content to those who are trying to follow the conference remotely.

On the same note, be conscious of what you choose to broadcast to the world. “@DR_SOMEGUY’s talk was full of crap,” may get you some good laughs from the rest of the attendees in the venerable Dr. Sue Someguy’s session on fecal coliform contamination, but will, perhaps, be misinterpreted by those more than a step removed from the room.

3. Be generous with your retweets, mentions, and follows.

Assuming you’re not the only person at the conference tweeting, you can safely assume that other participants will have interesting, witty, critical, and observant things to say. Since there’s no fear that your tweets will be overwhelmed, there’s also no reason why you can’t sit back and let everyone else have their voices heard. Be generous retweeting good tweets from other participants. If someone with a twitter account gives a good talk, include their twitter handle in your tweets about it. These are colleagues with the same interests as you (after all, that’s why you;re at the same conference), so follow them and help boost their voice. The more people talking about your field the better.

You can also anticipate retweets. If you’re sitting in a keynote, and the speaker drops a seriously tweet-worthy quote, fact, or statistic, rather than rushing to thumb out a tweet, sit back and wait. You can be pretty confident that someone else will catch it, too, giving you the chance not only to retweet that same tidbit but also to help promote a less prominent user.

4. Be a resource for other attendees.

One of the great things about social media is that popularity is not a finite resource. Helping boost the profile of other users doesn’t negatively impact your own profile and, in most cases, it actually boosts it. You have the expertise. You’re all at this conference to share expertise. Don’t forget to let people know that you are a resource and are happy to help other people get started in social media. Organize a tweet-up, invite other participants out to dinner to talk about outreach. I usually include a note on my “acknowledgements/questions” final slide indicating that people should feel free to come talk to me about outreach after the session ends, even (and especially) on non-outreach talks.

Twitter has proven to be tremendously versatile for both professional networking and outreach. Those complementary strengths are especially clear at a scientific conference. By channeling your seasoned experience with this tool, you can help boost the profile of your scientific peers, the conference your attending, and the scientific discipline in which you work.