Listening to the Audience (Twitter) at Web 2.0 Expo: The Balance of Value vs Entertainment

I had near polar experiences on my two panels yesterday, the first one I moderated called Community Building: Good, Bad, and Ugly, and the second as a panelist: Short Attention Span Theater: The Birth of Microblogging & Micromedia.

A “Boring” panel that shifted to audience questions
Now the first panel had very enterprise technology companies present: Jive Software (Dawn Foster), Intel (Bob Duffy), PC/Mac World (Kellie Parker) and Forrester. We were very pragmatic, informational, and provide best practices information. While the majority of people enjoyed the discussion, I noticed an increase of Fortune 5000 attendees who are craving ‘how to’ information, some found the panel “dry” or “boring”. I tend to agree, the content we provided had lots of nuggets if insight, practical examples.

I was watching twitter in real-time to gauge the audience reaction (a best practice I prescribe in how to moderate a panel) and saw two tweets, in particular this one:

“I agree with @nickionita…community building panel is a snooze”

Like any speaker, when you start to see audience feedback like this your heart flutters and your mind jumps forward to images of SXSW. Quick! what do you do?

I think of the audience members as customers (they’ve paid with time and money) so I acknowledged them in twitter, and let everyone know we would quickly shift to questions, so the audience could drive the agenda. We received over a dozen questions, and I hope the audience was satisfied, lots of good hard questions from many folks on the ground that are trying to solve these problems: getting management to agree, measuring roi, dealing with detractors, etc.

After which, I think we won him over:

Questions made the panel: Love hearing viewpoints from people with boots on the ground

Thank you Chrisainsworth and Nickionita for giving me the feedback. The summary of the whole session can be found from this love blog from Lasandra. Update: another summary from Manage to Change. A review came in, 3/5 stars.

Crowd Sourcing the Agenda to the Audience –Using Twitter
Now, the next panel (Greg Narain, Brian Solis, Stowe Boyd) wasn’t traditional by any sense, it was an experiment, where we crowd-sourced the agenda to the audience –they used Twitter. Greg Narain setup an application where members from the audience could message (@micromedia2) and their tweets (comments, questions, requests, answers, and sometimes jokes made at Scoble’s expense) were seen live on the screen. The focus was less on the panelists and the things we were to say, and more on the discussion between hundreds of people in the room –all from computers and mobile devices.

While certainly very, very entertaining, and very very interesting, the panel offered little insight or value. My colleague Josh Bernoff even tweeted that while it was entertaining, he was waiting for that breakthrough insight. Josh is a uber-analyst, and probably would have benefited from my first panel more than the second, although he enjoyed himself.

I asked for raise of hands at the end of the session, two thought it was ‘ok’, two thought it was a ‘bad’ session, and the majority, over 90% thought it was a good session. The people rule. Later, I talked to the gentleman who thought the session was negative, and his reason was because he was left out, and didn’t know how to get twitter started. I spent a few minutes with him, giving him the basic, and told him how to start an account at twitter, how to tweet, and how to add followers.

The session was far more ‘remarkable’ than the first (we can tell as people actually took the time to blog about it…yes that old thing) and you can read about Examples of how to use Twitter for Business Purposes. Micromedia and Microblogging session capture, and our new friend Shanti from Sun who didn’t get twittering before the panel, decided to give it a try (please welcome her if you’re on twitter). Update: Jacob highlights how the conversation in Twitter went downhill –as it spread around the globe.

So what does this all mean?
I need to improve my panel skills, make sure we’re entertain while providing value, and also know when letting the crowd control too much results in little value. While agenda setters and panelists certainly lead the presentation, for this audience of tech-minded folks, learning how to listen in real-time, make course corrections, and listen to the audience is key for today’s modern conference.

The audience is now more of participants, literally up on stage –well at least at my panels.

Update: I had my third and final panel (moderator) at Web 2.0 Expo today on Facebook Best Practices (plus I was an advisor to the event), and received the following tweet that made my day:

Olsen should be monitoring Twitter like Owyang was for his sessions!