A Twitter Chat Survival Guide: In 140 characters…or More

May 14, 2013

Moderator's Note: The subject of this blog post is also being featured this week as a poster presentation at the International Society for Research on Internet Interventions (ISRII) 6th Scientific Meeting in Chicago, Illinois.

As with most health care and research organizations, the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) has tip-toed cautiously down the social media path.  However, our Center’s Founder and Co-scientific Director Flaura Koplin Winston, MD, PhD  has been tweeting under the handle @SafetyMD to a growing group of followers since 2009.

During the 2012 National Teen Driver Safety Week (NTDSW) on October 18, we stepped up our game by organizing and hosting our first hour-long Twitter Chat. A Twitter Chat seemed like a great vehicle through which we could share our message of inclusivity, spark dialogue, celebrate what folks accomplished during NTDSW, and encourage continued action throughout the year.

While our aims for NTDSW aligned well with the format of a Twitter Chat, this was a big experiment for us. Here are lessons learned and resources that might help fellow injury prevention communicators to host a Twitter Chat: 

1. First and foremost, get familiar with Twitter and Twitter Chats. Create a Twitter account, participate or observe other Twitter Chats, and become familiar with the unique lexicon and etiquette of Twitter. 

I first observed a weekly Twitter Chat hosted by ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor, @DrRichardBesser. I also called colleagues who were more experienced with Twitter and asked explicit questions that couldn’t be found on Google.

To get an understanding of who was in this teen driver space and its chatter, I searched Twitter for keywords and various hashtags (see definition below).

2. Develop a strategic plan that includes goals, audience(s), and a primary theme for your chat.  Old fashioned outreach planning will confirm whether you can reach your goals or audience through a Twitter Chat.

Teen driver stakeholders are on Twitter. And our stated theme reinforced our goals for NTDSW: “What Did Your Organization or School Do to Mark National Teen Driver Safety Week?”

Setting metrics that align with your goals is important. But this was our first Twitter Chat. Success was simply executing the mechanics of the event and establishing a baseline.

3. Pick a hashtag. A hashtag is a short set of word(s) or numbers preceded by a pound sign (“#”), marking the keywords or topic of a tweet. This allows others tweeting on the same topic to participate in a shared conversation, regardless of who follows who.

We first developed a short list of hashtags that fit our theme and then picked the one that would be the easiest for people to type quickly without making an error. We also searched hashtags on Twitter to ensure ours was unique. The winner: #teendriving2012.

4. Use a planning template for Twitter Chats.

We found a terrific resource from US Department of Health and Human Services called Health Literacy Online Supplement: A Guide to Hosting a Twitter Chat.  As much as we want to believe that Twitter is organic and unplanned, you do not want to “wing it” when hosting a Twitter Chat.  Before the Chat, you need to determine clear roles and responsibilities for your team members and prepare pre-scripted 140 character-or-less tweets for before, during and after the Twitter Chat.

Our prepared tweets fell into two categories: 1/ initial and “next topic” introductions; 2/ accurate evidence-based tweets-- some with links to relevant content on our teendriversource.org website and other resources. When trying to represent complicated research data in 140 characters or less, it’s easy to make mistake. We wanted to make sure specific data and stats were solid.

We also used a free link shortener called “bitly” to save on character count when linking to resources.

5. Involve special guests.

On the recommendation of many experts, we reached out in advance to colleagues at the organizations we knew were key to sparking a teen driver safety dialogue. AAA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ford Driving Skills for Life, Governors Highway Safety Association, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Safety Council and State Farm not only provided content expertise, but also brought their own networks of people and followers into the conversation, conveying “inclusivity” and allowing for diverse tweets.

6. Promote the Chat. A Twitter Chat is defined by setting a specific day and time to chat about a specific hashtag topic. People need to know to tune in and be prepared to tweet.  Promotion tactics deployed in October:

  • pre-event tweets from @SafetyMD
  • special guests’ outreach to their networks
  • enewsletter announcement
  • e-blasts
  • posts on CHOP’s Facebook and Twitter feeds 
  • web page on teendriversource.org that described the theme and set of nine related topics as well as instructed folks on how to participate via Tweetchat.com

7. Collect metrics. Set benchmarks to see if tweaks in your strategy are effective over time.

We collected basic data available from Twitter, so that we could set goals for future Twitter Chats. Here is what we learned from a review of the Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API) and Google Analytics:

  • 435 tweets were generated from 150 unique Twitter users
  • These 150 users had a cumulative following base of 658,120 (mean=4,387) and a cumulative history of composing 864,698 tweets (mean=5,765)
  • 137 re-tweets were generated
  • 10 percent of the unique users re-tweeted the @SafetyMD facilitator 25 times.  This group had a cumulative following base of 61,143 (mean=4,076) and generated a total of 58,796 (mean=3920) historical tweets 
  • Traffic to teendriversource.org increased 41 percent on the day of the Twitter Chat compared to the other days of the month of October 2012.

These numbers may be proximal indicators of greater inclusion, message dissemination and grassroots action, so more is better.  Increases in traffic to our website may indicate that a Twitter Chat engaged participants, because they clicked on the links to resources.

Twitter can be an important tool in your communication tool chest, but evaluation needs to catch up with the technology to determine its effectiveness for health promotion. Twitter is free, but using it effectively requires staff resources and a degree of faith. We’ll continue to monitor our Twitter metrics and general E-Health trends to guide future decisions.