Twitter can be a direct line between a brand and its customers. Hosting a Twitter chat is upping the ante by promising to be available specifically for questions during a certain period of time.
"It can be a good way to build awareness and foster engagement around a defined topic," said Gartner analyst Jennifer Polk.
While "chat" sounds informal, making the proper preparations is crucial in order to create a positive experience for both the brand and its followers. When chats go badly, they have a way of turning into a special kind of can't-look-away bad press. Last week, before the chat was even finished, word got out that VH1's Twitter chat with singer Robin Thicke went off the rails. It was commandeered by folks tweeting about everything from his controversial hit from last summer, "Blurred Lines" to his VMA performance, to his estrangement with his wife — and of course there was a ton of snark.
Here are 7 tips for running a smooth Twitter chat.
1. Do research
Before deciding to hold a Twitter chat, it's important to take stock of your brand or client. Know context, know what's happening that might come up during the chat.
"If you're a brand that's in the midst of some crisis, now might not be a good time for a Twitter chat," Polk said. If you can postpone or cancel, do it. Or, if you absolutely must hold the chat, make sure you've got all hands on deck.
Emily Harris, content marketing manager at digital marketing firm Rockhouse Partners, said it's necessary to decide if a Twitter chat aligns with the brand's goals. Goals could be promoting a product, building a fan base, or generating awareness of an event.
For example, "chatting with a performer after his show at your venue might drive some engagement, but it's not going to boost sales," she said.
It also might be worth following or participating in someone else's Twitter chat to get a feel for the mechanics and flow.
2. Pick a facilitator
Depending on your situation, the facilitator might be someone from an agency, from the internal team, or an outside person like an influencer or an expert on the topic area of discussion. Polk said this person should be knowledgeable and engaging, with the ability to weave in brand message with the chat topic.
"Every party needs a host," Polk said. It is important, though, to also do some research on this host. If they've been recently involved in some controversy, it could reflect badly on the brand. Make sure they're drawing attention for the right reasons.
"Unless you're a glutton for pain, you want to avoid picking someone too controversial who could result in Twitter backlash," Harris said.
If using a celebrity, she advised finding someone who fans will actually want to ask questions.
3. Pick a hashtag
Create a hashtag and use it. It's also worth doing a quick search on that hashtag to make sure it's not in use elsewhere for some other purpose that could confuse the conversation.
David Erickson runs Twitter chats for the Minnesota Vikings. He uses #MNVikingsChat during every Vikings game, which differs from the standard #Vikings hashtag he monitors regularly.
4. Invite and promote
A Twitter chat doesn't do much good if there aren't any participants. Invite people and promote the chat a few days in advance, making sure to include the hashtag.
"To move fans to your Twitter, post about it on your other social channels, and maybe even send an email about it," Harris said.
5. Stay on topic
While there's always a little wiggle room, the Twitter chat should stay well-defined and focused on whatever the topic at hand is. Prepare questions in advance. Polk said about 10 questions for an hour-long chat is probably sufficient, but it's good to have extra just in case.
If there is any element of controversy, don't get derailed. In advance, make clear what the topic will be. Harris used the Robin Thicke example.
"Instead of implying Thicke is going to be an open book, you could say 'Robin Thicke is answering questions about his new single! Ask about the new song with #AskThicke.' Of course, people are going to ask those tough questions regardless, now you just have a reason to not address them," she said.
6. Don't just talk about your brand
Staying on topic doesn't mean just talking about your brand, though.
"No one wants to engage in a conversation that's only about you," Polk said. A Twitter chat could provide the opportunity to position your brand as a thought leader, instead of just merely pushing a product.
Erickson said to empathize with fans. Ask "Why are they participating and what do they want/need out of the Tweet chat? Provide that."
7. Archive your chat
Twitter, by nature, has a fleeting quality to it. Make sure that after all the effort of organizing a Twitter chat, you find a way to document it. Part of that means paying attention to the tweets that elicit reaction or further conversation, or that get favorited or retweeted the most during the chat, Erickson said.
"As you get to know what you're audience responds to, you'll be able to better predict what types of tweets get a reaction," he said.
You can also mine the chat for new content for your brand's blog or website, for example. Erikson recommended archiving the chat as a blog post, using the most compelling tweets of the chat for a post, or even putting together a roundup of useful links that participants shared.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.