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!

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

  1. I would not worry too much. Some people when asked for an opinion, will give you one – even if they do not have one. It does make sense to get feedback and listen and learn.

    If someone is boring in delivery and content – it does not matter if they sit on the panel or if they sit in the audience. Result is the same.



  2. Second panel: Crowdsourcing the agenda is fine, if people take it seriously. I loved the idea. But then, I’m experienced on Twitter and know how to compose a tweet and send it to @micromedia2 (although it took me a while after I came in late to understand what was going on). But if you are partisan toward Twitter for serious purposes, as I am, you might have gotten a little annoyed at all the high school type comments posted by people who want to see themselves on a big screen.

    I take that back. As I write first and think later, I realise I just did what I condemned everyone else for doing. Blurting out a first reponse. as I consider further, I realize Twitter is a microcosm of the world, in which some interactions are worthy of attention and some are not, and we are in control of which to listen to.

    On balance, I thought the entire experience was warm (lots of friends in the audience and panel), funny, and worthwhile. Though not a tutorial on
    Why and How Twitter.

    Don’t beat yourself up.

  3. Certainly not beating myself up Francene, we’re just trying to figure out how to incorporate the back channel to maximize the experience. As you know, I’ve been playing with this concept for some time.

  4. As an attendee and speaker I hate slavery to the back channel. If you had simply planned questions and interactivity with the attendees into your panel outline from the very beginning, rather than planning to wait you never would have been boring to begin with. (Not that I was there to concur on your boring-ness, I’m just riffing on the feedback you said you got.) That’s our m.o. with BlogHer sessions…after BRIEF intros we try to alternate between questions to speakers and questions both from and TO the attendees right from the beginning.

    You don’t need a backchannel. You just need to talk to the people who are there. What is unique about a conference? For most people they paid money and showed up to be in the same room with other people. Why are we trying to find ways to make the face-to-face experience virtual? Instead I’d rather speakers really leverage the face-to-face opportunity.

    And why do I personally feel so passionately about it? Because as an attendee and a visual learner, I absolutely cannot hack the distraction of projected backchannels. I start reading and stop listening. I get distanced from what is right there in the room with me and stare at the screen. Why attend in person at all?

    I also get distracted when the inevitable rudeness, sexism or flames pop up. The few can get the many to focus on the negative that we may not have even felt or picked up on. I find it oppressive.

    Oops…4 paragraph comment deserves a post of its own [pr my personal rules. 🙂

  5. I think our culture is being overrun by big mouths & squeaky wheels. Not everyone wants to jump into the mosh pit or finds it boring to have useful information presented in a structured format. I wasn’t there, so I am not commenting on your specific event, but it’s up to the panelists not to be boring — or, at minimum, to know their subject so well & offer such compelling insights that listeners can’t help being engaged. I don’t know anything about fellow attendees, and I’m not sure I care about their opinions either.

  6. It was pretty easy to dismiss squeaky wheels in the near past. A person who hated a session, idea, experience with you or your organization could tell a few people, but they couldn’t do too much damage. These days, people reach a lot further with their blogs, FaceBook accounts, Twitter streams and more. You certainly don’t need to respond to every criticism, but you must pay more attention than before.

    Jeremiah, I also think you’re modeling the kind of behavior we all hope that the companies we interact with will employ. We want to know that when we don’t like something, somebody will listen.

    The simple fact is that we can all make ourselves heard much more than ever before, and so now we expect to be heard. Glad to see that folks like Jeremiah are listening.

  7. I have attended all of these Web 2.0 panels. I think the reason the Twitter session seemed successful is it was vertually a love fest for Twitter users. They spent an hour in person and online doing what they do anyway. But as a brand, i didn’t hear any business value discussed beyond one example, which was really more Social Media Monitoring (H&R Block example) than specific to Twitter.

    As a brand marketer what I find missing in the sessions is a brand perspective. Both the Facebook and Twitter panels were made of agencies and bloggers but no brands have been represented. On the Facebook panel it would have been very interesting to hear from brands who have done this. Target was sighted as an example, would have been beneficial to hear from them. Brands have had to do the policital selling and rationalizing with execs. Agencies can’t tell that story. For me that’s been a miss.

    On the bright side, the Forrester sessions have been the strongest at the show to date.

  8. I agree, Holly. It’s gratifying to see that people like Jeremiah are paying attention and responding to their audience. I just wanted to point out that it’s not everyone’s style to jump into the fray — and if that’s not your personality, it isn’t much fun or, in many cases, terribly helpful, to sit back while everyone shouts to see who’s loudest. Do we give up & hand over the agenda to the pushiest jackass (yes, i’m exaggerating — it could easily be the most persuasive speaker or the person with the most popular idea)? I’m sure we’ve all been in meetings or other collaborative settings where one or more people just would not let go of their viewpoint, forcing everyone else to throw up their hands in frustration and defeat. Ever see “12 Angry Men”? Do you want to be Henry Fonda at every conference you attend?

    Stating the obvious — one size doesn’t fit all & a combination of the tactics discussed here would probably be the right answer.

  9. I am a classroom teacher and LOVE the backchannel (they are great for test reviews — like group notes and more) and won’t do a conference presentation without one, that being said, I wouldn’t use twitter for it.

    Like you said, many people don’t use twitter or get it.

    I like to create a “backchannel room” so that it is archived and recruit ahead of time at least two people:

    1) A backchannel “moderator” – they answer questions and I call on them several times to ask for their summary of what is going on in the backchannel (this is when I’m the main presenter)

    2) A google jockey — they drop the links I’m talking about in the backchannel chat.

    I also like to ask the people in the backchannel to share best practice and what they are doing. I’ve had people comment that the one hour with a backchannel and me presenting was more meaningful than a whole day at a conference. (More compliments to the backchannel, I’m sure.)

    I’ve seen backchannels handled very poorly and it was TERRIBLE. It was chaos. And actually downright rude to the speaker. (More like backstabbing than backchanneling.)

    I’ve also seen it used well and it was incredible!

    The archiving of the backchannel gave me rich links as a presenter and participant AND also feedback on the session which I referred to later as the presenter.

    The backchannel is great — I just like to use a backchannel ROOM especially for the session (inviting “friends” from around the world who are also watching on ustream) — and then creating an archived copy of it.

    I think backchannels are very important and you’ve hit on the core of what is happening in the evolution of professional development and conferences.

  10. Hey, peeps..

    Anybody heard of balance? Back channels can certainly be a mine for gems of insight as there exists passionate speakers and really interesting topics. And surely there will be completely opposite of those. Learning what is needed and tilting the balance towards an engaging session sure is a delicate mix of both.

    Easier said than done but completely doable.

    I love the experiments, Jeremiah.


  11. I found myself being monitored at SMX, and I thought it was kind of cool. Though at first it was a bit “oh. they’re listening.”

    I like it, the conversation is happening – might as well be part of it.

  12. Crowdsourcing by monitoring and engaging the audience, or refocusing a panel or presentation is just one more engaging the audience. If you don’t engage the audience you fail as a speaker. That doesn’t matter if it’s a panel at a conference or a preacher at the pulpit.

    To me it begs a larger question. Yes, I agree monitoring the back channel has real merit. OTOH, if you’re so disengaged from your audience that you can’t see in lack of eye contact, the crown on their computers/Blackerries, yawns and nodding heads…should you be on stage in the first place?

    That’s a rhetorical question and not directed at you Jeremiah, but having spent thousands of days “on platform,” it’s something I’m always sensitive too.

    If a speaker is on platform and a back channel like IRC or Twitter is what it takes to salvage a talk, it was already a dismal failure. That’s IMHO as a speaker who’s lived on platform.

  13. Yes, monitor the back-channel. If you can, get a separate person to monitor all the microb’s and anybody that is live blogging. They can then twitter just the highlights in an account the moderator is watching. Especially if the crowd is large.

  14. Yes, yes, yes! Of course should a moderator pay attention to the back channel and a speaker as well – though it’s a bit harder for the speaker.

    But I love the fact the the conversation is happening now in multiple media — and it’s a conversation, after all WITH the audience, both physical and virtual. (This is one Sarah Lacey certainly found out).

    I monitored the back channel during a panel I was on, and it was great to see:
    * questions people were asking there that give me as a moderator additional points to ask the panelists
    * clarifications that were needed — some people were, for example, unclear about some basic processes that we were able to explain right then and there, capturing these people instead of losing them
    * real-time feedback on how the content was being perceived so that we could modulate speed, complexity, and content

    As a moderator and speaker it’s my job to deliver as compelling and as interesting a session as I can for the audience. I can see people fitcheting in their seats when they get bored with a panelist but I will not know why and adjust unless I have information through backchannels from them (and remote peers I can not see) in real time.

  15. I think moderated crowdsourcing would be great at intervals. Moderators judge what comments/questions are relevant to the panel and go from there.

    Ideally, All panels should have an accompanying blog so that chat participants can also leave their thoughts in a comment.

  16. Jeremiah, the back channel idea is a great experiment. It is almost like the real time monitoring of the emotional reactions viewers get to political television ads used in some focus groups. Every second of the commercial is assigned a certain emotional measurement by the viewer using a dial.

    Now, the downside of it is the potential to hide within the channel (don’t jump me) I know it’s on twitter so it’s not really hiding, but point is tweeting a flip critical remark is easier on twitter than stepping up to a mic in front of a group and saying it to the person’s face.

    The beauty of what was done is experiment. I hope you or others take the comments from this experiment to a conclusion in a full discussion.

  17. I attended all three of your sessions, and thought they all went rather well. Twittering is definitely better than floor questions. I did want more contextual examples in each session, but that has been true of every session I have attended.

  18. After sitting through several of these sessions, I found that in my opinion that best sessions were the ones where the moderator did the job moderating, and simply used twitter as a reference. Just because one guy thinks a session is boring doesn’t mean it is, and anytime you get a bunch of people typing in questions, you are going to get some of that “high school” stuff one of the previous posters mentioned. In general I think that the “hyrbid” sessions were best – the moderator did his job, and he also got meaningful feedback from the audience to help guide his moderating

  19. I’ve attended SXSW Interactive since 2001 and have always been bemused when panels filled with social media “experts” ignore their own advice about “listening to customers” and plow on and on, leaving little or no time for audience questions. Trust the audience, they say! The best panelists realized that their audience has mostly read the stuff they’re saying anyway and are looking for either case studies or practical help with their own situations. The backchannel is an essential part of any panel. In the absence of a good moderator, it IS the conversation.

  20. […] Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester Research provides an example of how crowdsourcing helped improve a conference session by turning a boring panel into a more lively one […]

    We’re exploring how a Twitter backchannel might be used in a similar way for projects as diverse as travel support for members of the press that are covering the Democratic National Convention, to up-to-the-moment coverage of fantasy football.

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