Twitter has been used at a number of events recently, often as a discussion channel for participants and, on occasions when a live video stream is available, as a channel to facilitate discussions and questions with remote participants.

However there are potential problems with use of Twitter in this way. If, for example, only a small number of one’s Twitter followers are at the event (or interested in the event) the tweets can be annoying – as I found when I used Twitter to comment on a conference I was attending in Taiwan back in April.

There are other micro-blogging tools which may be better suited for use at events, which I’ll comment on in a forthcoming post. In this post I’d like to comment on the approach taken to use of Twitter to support the recent IWMW 2008 event.

For this event an ‘official’ IWMW Twitter account was set up. This was intended to provide a channel for the event organisers to deliver messages to participants who chose to follow the IWMW Twitter account.  A particular benefit of use of Twitter is that you can configure your Twitter account so that posted from selected Twitter accounts can be delivered as SMS text messages to your mobile phone free-of-charge.

The need for a communications channel for event organisers first occurred to me several years ago, when travel was being disrupted by floods. I asked participants at an event I was attended if they would be willing to give details of their mobile phone number to an organiser of an event, for use in emergencies.  The majority indicated that they would be happy with this and we became aware of the need to have the mobile phone numbers of speakers at our events when a bus failed to turn up to take delegates (including one of the speakers) to the lecture theatre at IWMW 2004.

So we updated our IWMW booking form back in 2005 in order to record mobile phone numbers.  The event organisers had this data available on a spreadsheet, but this could only be used to contact individuals – we didn’t have the backend processes to send bulk text messages to the delegates, and we were not keen on spending additional time and effort on evaluating and deploying software to allow us to do this. But as the middle day of the IWMW 2006 event took place on the 7/7 (the day of the London buy drugs no prescription bombings) we felt this was something we would need to explore at some point.

After gaining experience in use of Twitter over the past year it struck me that this might provide a communications channel between the IWMW event organisers and the participants. And as the participants simply need to sign up for a free Twitter account and can then choose to have posts delivered to their mobile phone it avoids the need for us to store and manage the mobile phone numbers and to establish a service for sending text messages.  Perhaps best of all, the users are in control of whether or not they wish to receive text messages.

Twitter was used to send a small number of posts.  One of these was sent (automatically, using the Easy Tweets service which can be used to schedule posts) at 12.30, at the start of the event, reminding people to send their mobile phones to silent mode.

And we did have one example which demonstrated the potential benefits of this service – I was handed a set of keys belonging to one of the delegates. I sent a message out on Twitter and within a few minutes someone came up to me telling me that he had misplaced his keys. A great example of the benefits of Twitter? Well, not quite, as he wasn’t using Twitter and he came to see me as I was one of the conference organisers 🙂

It should also be noted that if Twitter followers sent a message to the IWMW account this could also be delivered to a mobile phone, thus providing a 2-way SMS communications link, without the need to divulge a mobile phone number to conference delegates or organisers – the trusted party, in this case, is Twitter.

Twitter, it seems to me, has great potential in the support of events. Prior to encouraging its use we created a page describing Twitter and how it could be used.  I guess one issue we will need to address is what would happen if Twitter was unavailable during an event? This has been happening a lot recently, and some may argue that you shouldn’t rely on third party services which have proven reliability problems. I don’t agree with this – I regard this use of Twitter as a value-added service and if Twitter is not available we will use the communication channels we used previously. But what do you think?