Don't Ignore The 'Back-Channel'

The concept of a 'back-channel' during presentations, meetings, classes and similar events has been around for a while (the analog version was called 'passing notes', and who knows, maybe even the cavemen did that during boring recitations on hunting/gathering strategy :)).

The modern equivalents started with email, but now even that quaint old service is derided as 'too slow' in the world of instant messaging, and more recently, Twitter. There are two types of back-channel - private (usually in instant messaging), and public (Twitter). I know very few people who don't utilize the former during long conference calls (especially if they are with clients, and you need to address something that came up during the call privately with a colleague). This can be a huge advantage if someone can go off and get an answer/research an issue while the call continues. I can easily see a role for junior-level associates to perform this function, as I think it makes good business sense, and shows a commitment to your customers to serve them in the most efficient manner. It also lets the 'creative juices' flow between members of your team and gives them all a sense of engagement in helping to quickly find the answer for your customer. Of course, you do need to guard against everyone abandoning the actual call, so it's good to have one or two folks whose job it is to do this.

The public back-channel, as implemented in Twitter, is starting to gain more prevalence in conferences and other public presentations/events. Olivia Mitchell recently penned a great guest blog post at the Pistachio Consulting site on this very topic, with great information from the perspective of both the audience and the presenter. You should definitely read the post, but the key takeaways for me were:

  • Audience gets more out of presentation & is more engaged when participating in Twitter back-channel

  • Smart presenters learn to harness this back-channel, and tailor their content accordingly

What's interesting to me (as a community manager) in this recent usage of the back-channel is how short-lived communities are formed during this time, take on a life of their own, and are then disbanded immediately afterward. I am heartened by the fact, though, that, unlike private IM sessions, the content is automatically archived and easily searchable (especially if using Twitter 'hashtags'), allowing people who didn't attend the presentation to benefit from the community long after it has gone away, and also make potential contacts that can help them with the ideas presented.

I've long used the private back-channel for my own benefit, but I'll be interested to see how my next public presentation goes with all of the Twitterati tapping away - or, at least I *hope* I'll have something interesting enough to say for them to tweet. :)


  1. @Guy - I think you've hit on a fascinating phenomenon - the "flash flood" community. I'd be really interested to hear more on your experiences as a community manager on this in various forms you've seen on the web etc, because I think it's a really important (and pervasive) phenomenon that a lot of people haven't taken the time to really understand. Thoughts?

    Way to point to Olivia's post btw - it's still the best post on the subject of the back channel I've found.

  2. Steffan,

    Thanks for the comment - I *really* like your characterization of 'flash flood' community, and may steal it (with your permission of course) for a future blog post here or at my CollabNet blog. :)

    The idea of these 'temporary' communities is probably not new, but obviously, technology such as Twitter makes it much easier to capture the relevant bits both during and after the communities form/break down.

    I've been rolling around in my mind the idea of a tool (maybe one already exists) that lets you 'mine' these kinds of communities for interesting data - not just what was said in that particular community, but also what the participants may have said in related communities that formed as off-shoots.

    I don't pretend to have all of the answers on this topic, but I agree that it is a fascinating concept to ponder, and who knows, there may be a tool out there now, or in someone's mind, to pull these disparate threads of community together.


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