How to host a Twitter chat: A step-by-step guide

Journalism students at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) want to share their experience organizing a successful Twitter chat – How to choose topic, design questions, invite panelists, promote the event, moderate the chat, what worked and what didn’t.

This post is contributed by Alex Corey, an undergraduate journalism student at CSUN who was charged with organizing a Twitter chat on “digital tools and branding.” The chat was held on Nov. 27, 2013 and organized by Latino Journalists Club at CSUN.

Social media metrics from show that the chat produced more than 600 tweets. On the day of the event, the chat hashtag, #JtalkCSUN, was trending on Twitter. The chat is archived as a Storify story; Alex can be reached at @acoreynews.

In October, a board member of our journalism club recommended that we organize a Twitter party. At first, I didn’t know what she meant. She explained that it wasn’t exactly a “party” but more like a “chat” or “Q&A” on Twitter.

I’d participated before in #WJchat, a weekly Twitter chat (or Q&A) on varied topics in journalism and we looked to it for inspiration when putting ours together, at least in structure. Below are several characteristics of #WJchat that we incorporated into our own chat:

  • A reminder that the event is going to be happening an hour before, 15 minutes before, etc.
  • A tweet asking people to introduce themselves
  • A Q&A structure with one question at a time
  • A reminder to people to use the hashtag (ours was #JtalkCSUN)
  • Retweeting notable tweets so that they’re not lost in the greater flurry of tweets

Choose topic and questions

The first thing that we did was to choose a topic. I wanted to do something involving digital tools and our club member Rubi Martinez wanted to emphasize branding.

What we didn’t do right away – which I encourage others to do – was come up with at least 10 questions before reaching out to people. We had an idea of things that we wanted to ask but this changed as different journalists agreed to join the chat.

We tried to keep questions sort of broad because we wanted different interpretations. We also thought hard about how the questions would be interpreted by the different journalists.

We sent out tweets asking people to send us questions but didn’t get many responses. But, having questions prepared helped to ease people into the chat until participants felt comfortable asking their own.

Choose a hashtag

Deciding on a hashtag was tough. A lot of hashtags have been done already and we didn’t want to lump our event in with an established brand. Above all, we wanted to incorporate our school, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), into the hashtag. That alone took four precious characters.

We finally decided on #JtalkCSUN which was catchy enough to help us trend on Twitter. One of our Twitter guests said to me, “the hashtag that you sent is short, unique, focused and under 10 characters – which I think will work well.”

Location of the chat

We wanted a physical “home base” where we could display Tweets on a projector, as well as an online gathering. We rented a room on campus (our club gets two hours free) that had a projector. We had cookies, refreshments and a computer hooked up to the projector to display the tweets in real time for attendees.

Invite panelists

We had eight panelists altogether. We knew about half of them from networking events – network – and the rest we just reached out to on our own.

Rubi knew someone in New York who was known for social media and branding, so it helped that we were able to use that network and get someone locked in early on. I didn’t really know anyone in the “digital tools” realm but I began reaching out to people I’d seen at the Excellence in Journalism conference in August.

We looked at who we knew who followed @WJchat and invited them. This helped because when we told them “it’s sort of like #WJchat” they knew what to expect. We also reached out to a couple of professors on campus who had done similar events and contacted the campus newspaper.

We used our club’s email to reach out to people instead of a personal account. We tried to keep the emails short and simple and included a digital flyer that we’d put together.  A couple of things to be clear on in the email:

  • That they don’t need to attend in person, just virtually.
  • Is the event time Pacific Standard Time or CST or EST?

Sending the journalists a reminder the day before and probably a week before is important.

Schedule the chat

We hosted our event in the late morning (when our club usually meets), the day before Thanksgiving. This wasn’t an ideal time/day to host it, but we did our best because of scheduling difficulties with other club activities.

We plan to host our next Twitter event in the evening. Evening is probably best because professionals are more likely to be out of the office and students are more likely to be out of class.

Moderate the chat

The event happened fast. Our social media officer Michael Arvizu was manning the Twitter feeds/posting the questions and I was amazed by how quickly people responded. I also saw how quickly a question can get played out.

There are also little nuances involved like alerting people that a new question is coming and retweeting good responses so that ideas aren’t lost among the other tweets.

At the beginning, it’s helpful if you encourage people to introduce themselves because it makes everyone feel more comfortable chiming in.

Looking back, I think pacing is key.

We tried to make the questions flow. I wanted a coding question at the end but I didn’t want an awkward transition. We also tried to anticipate how one question would lead to another topic that we wanted to touch on.

For example, we wanted to transition to the topic of coding, so we asked “Blogs: What are the best sites to build a blog? And what is your recommendation for a online portfolio site?”

Some of the reporters talked about using a less hands-on tool for a blog like WordPress and others said we should build our own with html and css. This made the transition to our final question, “Coding: Is coding a waste of time or the future? How can learning to code be beneficial to journalists?” much smoother.

We had about 15 questions the day of the event but we only got to about eight of them. Part of this was the one-hour time constraint and part of it was that we’d made readjustments. The day of the event we realized that some questions could be combined and that others were redundant.

I hope this helps. In the comments, please share your experiences hosting Twitter events on college campuses.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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