twitter_chatIf you’re looking for a relatively easy, accessible way to bring a group of like-minded people together for networking and learning, a Twitter chat can be the perfect solution. It has been for me.

In early 2013, when I was preparing to launch the Nonprofit MarCommunity, I wanted to enhance the blog with some form of regular gathering, during which conversation about nonprofit marketing and communications could happen in real time. Something more ‘live’ than Facebook or LinkedIn groups.

I’d participated and benefited from the peer learning and networking of well-run Twitter chats. My favorite chat was the #NPCons chat for consultants to nonprofits, which started my thinking about a Twitter chat to gather nonprofit communicators with benefits being:

  • Not limited by geography/location.
  • No cost to host. Free tools like Tweetchat or Twubs and Storify are all I need to follow, facilitate and archive the chats.
  • No cost for participants to join.
  • Relatively light on logistics: e.g. no registration required, participants can join from their workplace/desk.

The model: Creating the Future

Not long after the idea occurred to me, I came across a Nonprofit Technology Network webinar, Building Community Through Twitter Chats [recording still available]. Bonus: the webinar was presented by Hildy Gottlieb, co-founder of Creating the Future and the #NPCons chat – the very chat I hoped to model!

The insights offered in the NTEN webinar are based upon the Creating the Future approach to community engagement, which is summarized nicely in this blog post,Community Engagement Planning: Starting with the End in Mind.

Twitter chat format, frequency, and facilitation

By emulating the #NPCons chat and applying what I learned in the webinar, I made a few decisions about format, frequency and facilitation style for the new #NPMC chat for nonprofit marketers and communicators:

  • Length: one hour. This is pretty common and perhaps even assumed when it comes to Twitter chats.
  • Frequency: monthly. I knew this frequency would give me enough time as host and facilitator to develop topics, start the conversation through a blog post, promote the chat, create a facilitation plan, etc.
  • Facilitation style: using questions to stimulate conversation. Rather than a ‘how-to’ teaching chat, this chat would use questions to build camaraderie, generate wisdom from within the group, and leave participants feeling supported and energized.
  • Date and time: last Thursday of each month, 1:00 p.m. ET. This was somewhat arbitrary since participants would be in different time zones. I avoided days and times that conflicted with other nonprofit chats and landed on the last Thursday of each month. Of course, since then, the number of Twitter chats has multiplied, so I’m no longer as confident about the lack of conflicts.
  • Hashtag: #NPMC. I played around with a number of variations and researched to see what was already in use on Twitter in general and by other chats. I chose #NPMC since many understand or use ‘NP’ as ‘nonprofit’ and ‘MC’ represents ‘marketing communications.’

Early implementation

From the beginning, implementation went very smoothly. Our first chat, in May 2013, was extremely well attended. I put a lot of energy into promoting the first chat by sending tweets and personal emails to nonprofit communicators who might be interested in participating, and who would stimulate conversation and provide valuable insights. This ‘seed planting’ supported a solid kick-off.

Over the following months the chat remained very lively, even during the summer – likely because of the focus I gave this new project. In those months, I continued to promote the chat enthusiastically, reaching out to past participants before each chat as well as people I simply hoped to see there.

The #NPMC chat did get a little quieter in the fall months of 2013, but by early 2014, the chat started to develop more momentum of its own; from that point onward, we’ve had a core group of participants each time and new faces (or rather, Twitter handles!) appearing at each chat – the perfect balance.

The result: a monthly networking and professional development opportunity

The result of creating this space for nonprofit communicators is a stronger, more connected community of nonprofit communications professionals. The feedback from participants is that they feel less alone in their work and enjoy knowing they can get answers to their questions during the chat. It’s a valued and welcoming space.

A few lessons learned and reality checks

Like any Twitter chat, #NPMC chat is always evolving; facilitating it is an ongoing learning opportunity for me. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:

Hashtag choice: I conducted my research on Twitter, where ‘#NPMC’ wasn’t being used at all. However, I later realized that it is being used on Instagram, and unrelated tweets come up from time to time when people cross-post.

Date selection: There is never a perfect date, but if you choose a date at the end of the month, American Thanksgiving and the end of December holidays will always be a conflict. Also, the last week of August is simply such a quiet time that I’ve skipped the August chats.

Reach: One of the obvious drawbacks is the fact that not everyone we want to reach is active or comfortable on Twitter – or comfortable sharing unfiltered professional experiences on the social network. We are missing people who might benefit, but the chat benefits those who can and do attend.

Future plans

My plans for the future are to keep going with the successful Twitter chat model and to spread the word further! The time commitment of being host and facilitator is a challenge for me, but as the community continues to strengthen and grow, promotion takes less time.

What’s more, individual participants help to spread the word, contribute chat topic ideas, and have even started writing the ‘conversation starting’ blog posts; for example, regular participant (and LightBox collaborator) Lauren Girardin wrote a post on content marketing goal setting and evaluation for nonprofits for the June 2014 chat. The role of host gets easier and more rewarding as time goes on!

Photo courtesy of flickr user Giuseppe Zizza

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2013HeadShot_moflowMarlene Oliveira (@mo_flow)is a copywriter and communications consultant to nonprofit organizations at moflow as well as creator and managing editor of the Nonprofit MarCommunity blog.