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Twitter Chat 101: Hosting as a Government Agency


Twitter chats certainly aren’t the newest concept, but their popularity has been steadily growing over the past few years. As their popularity grows, companies, organizations and now government agencies are beginning to get in on the fun. But to run your own Twitter chat, you have to know how. And while there is a plethora of resources a simple Google search away, running a Twitter chat for a government agency has its own set of considerations, concerns and advantages.

While it’s not a requirement that an agency host their own Twitter chat, and many choose to simply participate in chats that are already happening (you can read my how-to for participating in a Twitter chat here) there has been a growth of interest in the government in hosting these chats and engaging with the public.

Should your agency host its own Twitter chat? This week, let’s look at the basics in a multi-week guide to help you decide:

The Basics

What is a Twitter Chat?
Twitter chats are a pre-scheduled conversation that happens entirely on Twitter through the use of regular Twitter updates (called tweets) paired with a hashtag (#) to join all of the tweets from all participants together into one massive virtual conversation.

Why host a Twitter Chat?
Before your agency hosts a Twitter chat, the first step is thinking about why you’re hosting the chat, what you want to get out of it, and, possibly most importantly, what you want your audience and the people you serve to get out of it. This “why” can be one (or several) of many things, including, but not limited to:

  • Building a connection with your audience
  • Changing particular audience behaviors (for example, a health chat aimed at decreasing opiate usage)
  • Expanding your agency’s reach
  • Establishing your agency as an authority on a particular topic

How is a Twitter Chat formatted?
There are several formats a Twitter chat can take, including:

  • Single Topic, Moderated with Questions
    The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, where I am currently lead Digital Strategist, runs their Twitter chats (#okhealthchat) in this format. Each Twitter chat focuses around a particular topic (in our case, it’s something like breast cancer, prescription drug abuse, baby safety, etc.) From that topic, we formulate specific questions in advance, all related to the umbrella topic. For #okhealthchat, we ask 10 questions, and the chat lasts for one hour, meaning each question gets roughly six minutes.
  • Multiple Topics, Moderated with Questions
    In this format, typically any participant can submit a question, regardless of specific topic, as long as its related to the purpose of the community. For example, if #okhealthchat took this format, the chat could include questions about breast cancer, prescription drug abuse and baby safety – all in the same chat.
  • Single Topic, Freeflow
    This format focuses on a topic, but there are no specific questions. The conversation is simply allowed to flow and grow organically.
  • Twitter Takeover (aka Q&A)
    In this format, a special guest is brought on, and either the moderator asks a set of pre-determined questions, or the audience is allowed to ask the guest questions. The audience is still allowed to share their thoughts on the questions and the guest’s answers as well. This format can be very successful, but necessitates particular caution, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and presidential hopeful Donald Trump both have learned.
  • Free form
    This Twitter chat format is, essentially, a lack of format. Other than the hashtag, everything else is left up to the audience, including topics. It’s messy, unpredictable, and not a format I’d recommend (although if your group has used this format successfully, please comment and let me know!)

So those are the basics! In my next post, I’ll be writing about the more in-depth and step-by-step breakdown of just how to launch your agency’s own Twitter chat. In the meantime, I’d love to hear – what Twitter chats does your agency participate in or host? What of these formats do you think would be the most successful, and which ones would pose the most risk or problems?

Kendall Brown is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Kristin Markham

Great post Kendall! Not many government agencies utilize Twitter. I think this resource will help agencies better understand what they can do with their Twitter.