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The next big thing on Twitter: #TwitterChats

From niche tech to mainstream use

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Atul Jha likes to stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest in the tech world; after all, that's part of his job as a consultant and technology evangelist for CSS Corp., which is co-headquartered in Silicon Valley and India.

But living in the southeastern urban center of Chennai, India, Jha doesn't necessarily get the chance to have a lot of face-to-face meetings with users, customers, analysts and other techies. So, he makes do using alternatives, and one of his platforms of choice is Twitter.

Jha is a regular contributor to a number of Twitter Chats, which are real-time discussions, usually at a recurring day or time, focused on a particular industry or interest, according to Katie Keating, IBM's cloud social business manager. IBM has been hosting a Twitter chat about cloud computing, using the hashtag #CloudChat, since 2011; a recent Twitter Chat about OpenStack generated more than 1 million impressions, IBM says.

Twitter Chats seem to be all the rage on the microblogging site. Vendors, social media experts, regular users, customers, analysts, journalists and just about anyone can join in on the conversations, which range from a variety of topics. There are Twitter Chats on any number of subject areas, but in the technology industry, they seem to becoming more and more popular.

"It's really interesting to see how social media has evolved over the past couple of years," says Christine Needles, senior director of global communications at CA Technologies, and one of the organisers of the company's biweekly #CloudViews Twitter chat. Just a few years ago Twitter seemed to be a niche platform, but today, Needles says it's become mainstream. "It's definitely grown up in terms of maturity," she says. "There are a lot of great thought leaders and users making some really interesting connections."

For people like Jha, Twitter and Twitter Chats are a perfect fit. Jha has connected with vendors and analysts, and uses Twitter to stay in touch with people he meets at trade shows and industry events. More specifically, Twitter Chats offer him a way of meeting and engaging with new people, hearing ideas and perspectives from industry leaders, and giving him an opportunity to share his thoughts. The real-time interactive nature of the platform makes it great for staying up-to-date on the latest and greatest in industry trends, he says, while providing users with direct access to vendors and industry influencers.~~

But it's only 140 characters

Of course Twitter is not the perfect platform, and Twitter Chats are not the most ideal way to have a conversation. Red Hat's Cloud Evangelist Gordon Haff pointed this out on Twitter when Network World asked the Twitter masses how people feel about Twitter Chats:

@bbutlernww like #CloudViews with @cloudcommons and @andimann. (Though in general find hard to have deep discussion in this format)

That's perhaps the most common complaint about Twitter and Twitter chats -- it's just hard to have a conversation in 140 characters. Twitter power users find ways around this. For one, organisers of Twitter chats, like Needles and her colleagues at CA Technologies, try to ask concise questions that are yes/no or agree/disagree. Still, sometimes it just takes more than 140 characters to answer a question. Shorthand and abbreviations help, but users can also post multiple updates in a row, and indicate they are part of a stream of thoughts, by using parenthesis. Tweet (1/2), for example, and then (2/2).

Others don't like Twitter chats because they can clog up their Twitter stream. Such is the case, organisers say. If you don't like the Twitter chat, you don't have to participate. Organisers say there is more good than annoyance that comes from Twitter and Twitter Chats, though. For those still opposed to Twitter, there are other platforms as well, such as Google+ hangouts, which are video conversations.

Not replacing marketing, but supplementing

CA Technologies has jumped all-in on the Twitter bandwagon. The company has about 50 branded Twitter accounts managed by its communications team, with goals of encouraging audience development, engaging with users and thought leaders, and creating demand generation. Beyond the Twitter Chats -- which the company has plans to expand beyond just the #CloudViews conversation in the coming weeks -- individual workers at CA are encouraged to use the platform as well. Sales representatives use it to research potential clients to "do their homework" to see what users have on the top of their mind before a call; marketing folks use it to comb popular hashtags to influence product marketing language.

But the real million-dollar question is: Is it worth it? Needles says for the most part, it's a fairly low-risk but potentially high-reward proposition. It doesn't cost a lot of time or money to host a Twitter chat, so it's basically a no-lose situation. The worst that can happen is nobody participates, then so what? Needles says it does take time and energy to get good at it; generally, the more time and effort put into it, the more users will get out of it.



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