8 pillars of backchannel learning

This month I was invited to appear on Learning Now TV to talk about the value of backchannel learning. This refers to the learning opportunities that arise from providing a stream of curation from a live event then sharing that with people in the room and further afield (sometimes with folk on the other side of the world). To accompany my interview with Kim Edwards I thought it might be useful to summarise my pillars for providing a backchannel to an event. It doesn’t have to be a large-scale industry event like Learning Technologies it could even be an internal event. But the pillars remain the same

1.The live event

You might think that an event backchannel begins and ends with the live event itself, but that is only part of the story. When planning backchannel activity, think about each of these points so you can get the most out of it (and ideally the event organisers will have already done the leg work of putting together a compelling agenda with some great speakers and sessions!)

2.Choose your channel

A lot of the focus of event coverage tends to be on Twitter. It is a channel that lends itself well to events because of its real-time nature and extensive use of hashtags, but it isn’t the only option. Something I have been asked about a lot is internal events. So, it might be that L&D want to put on a series of roadshows internally, or it might be your company’s annual leadership conference – the principles of sharing and the value that people can get from that still stand. But clearly when it comes to internal events, what goes on tour should stay on tour – it isn’t usually fit for public consumption on Twitter.

But using platforms like WordPress or even your intranet have the potential to work just as well. Create a site or dedicated area that houses all the event information, including all the logistical information around the location, timings and session overviews. Then for each session, open up a comments area that lets people have their say on the content as it’s presented. And if it’s kept open, it can be used for ongoing reflection after the event. Also consider that sharing doesn’t just have to be done through short, tweet-style updates. Consider:

  • Live video can be done on multiple platforms like Facebook, Periscope and Instagram
  • Record video clips, short interviews and reflections on your phone then share on YouTube
  • Tumblr and Flickr are good for gathering photos and more visual resources
  • Audioboo can be used to create an audio diary (check out this from Martin Couzins)
  • If you are lucky and find someone like the talented Krystyna Gadd then these sketch notes add fantastic variety to the insights gathered on the backchannel

Sketchnote example

Don’t let the choice of channel limit the sharing process!

3.Signpost your audience

This sounds basic, but if you want to involve people who aren’t in the room then you need to let them know what’s going on and when. They aren’t there to hear your facilitator direct you to your first session or that it’s time for a coffee break. I always look at the event agenda and set up timed tweets in advance that tell people which sessions I’ll be covering as they start (Tweetdeck is a free tool, Hootsuite is better but I do pay for that). Also share when sessions finish and let them know that it’s lunchtime or that you’re going to have a nose around the exhibition. Your audience can then get on with their day job or switch off for a bit – not wonder what’s going on in the live setting.

4.Involve passionate people

David Ogilvy famously said ‘hire people that are better than you then leave them to get on with it’. I choose people who are passionate and knowledgeable about their subject and get them involved. They don’t have to have the most Twitter followers or be the biggest influencers. If they care about the topic they will share insightfully and usefully. If you are running an event with more than one track, try to let people choose the sessions they attend – the more engaged they are with what’s being discussed, the better the quality of the output. If you want more profile for your event, picking one or two people with a decent level of followers/influencers helps, but engagement and propensity to share matters more.

5.Create session hashtags

This is the most blindingly obvious of my tips but the one that is least used in event backchannels. Most industry events are a huge mash up of tweets from conference attendees, speakers, exhibitors, sponsors etc. Finding the key takeaways and main learning points can be like panning for gold as you wade through a sea of updates either during the live event or afterwards.

Creating session hashtags enables people following from afar to zero in on the content that interests them the most. And it helps those who look back at the updates after the fact to find out what happened in the sessions they couldn’t attend for example. As an example, at Learning Technologies I use the main event hashtag e.g. #LTSF17 and then include a short session tag to sit alongside it #T1S1. Brief your passionate people to do the same and let the learning commence.

Kate Graham session hashtag example6.Let it go…

Once the live event starts, face up to the fact you can’t control the backchannel. There might be dissent from the audience in some sessions, there will inevitably be a) spam and b) snarky comments if Twitter is your chosen channel (because that’s Twitter all over) and there might be perhaps more detail shared than you originally planned. But you need to let it go. You can’t control the face to face conversations that people have at the event and outside its four walls – the backchannel is no different. Recognise that there is value in the discussion and debate. I have had detailed conversations with people via Twitter as a result of a throwaway tweet in a conference session before now, and to be honest there was far more value in that debate that than the actual session content. Embrace it (although do block spammers – no value there at all!)

The other element of letting go comes in certain sessions that just don’t lend themselves to live updates. I remember seeing Professor Greg Whyte present at Learning Live and my tweets just came across as a bunch of sporting clichés when the fact was that there was great value in what he was saying. Professor Richard Wiseman who was so entertaining, was similarly difficult to do justice to in live updates. Jane Bozarth runs sessions around learning the ukulele and Deborah Frances-White often has everybody up on their feet playing games, both of which are impossible to tweet! That’s OK – just let it go. Tell your followers that it’s a tough session to share from, you’ll try and do a couple of updates to sum up at the end or maybe distil what happens into a blog afterwards.


Backchannel learning does *not* stop once the post conference drinks come out. Curating content from the event is something probably best demonstrated by David Kelly who regularly follows events from afar and curates links to book recommendations, videos referenced by keynote speakers, pre and post event blogs written by attendees…the list is endless. I had FOMO recently around missing an event in the US so I curated it here and was able to get a real flavour of the highlights and key learning points. It’s a brilliant way of being able to look back on an event you’ve attended and catch up with anything you might have missed. It also dovetails perfectly in with my final pillar…


Learning isn’t about a single intervention. We absolutely shouldn’t be attending events without taking the time to reflect on what we’ve seen and heard there. A backchannel is not essential to this but it does help. Live events often happen in a whirl for me. I’m dashing between sessions, chatting to people in the breaks, looking at the exhibition, possibly even grabbing something to eat and drink at some point! I don’t have time to process the content and discussions until afterwards. And for me, sharing my thoughts via Twitter or any other channel has become a form of note taking. It enables me to look back at what stood out and reflect on what my personal takeaways are. And if others have been doing the same then you have the opportunity to reflect on their insights too before forming your conclusions. It’s all too easy to go back to your desk and get stuck into the dreaded inbox. But by setting myself the challenge of reflecting through at least one blog post, I find my learning is more concrete and stays with me much longer.


About kategraham23

Start-up founder, writer, connector, librarian's daughter. Interested in learning, HR, technology, online, media, marketing, fashion and cricket. Not always in that order. The views expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect the thoughts and opinions of the company I work for currently, or those I've worked for in the past.
This entry was posted in Conferences and events, Content marketing, Learning Technologies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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