October 28, 2011

A live chat is a production that requires clear roles and responsibilities. The moderator role is central; he or she works behind the scenes to create a smooth experience by relying on  a strategy proven to increase participation and engagement. This strategy enables a moderator to open lines of communication between journalists and the public by fostering a meaningful discussion about the news of the day.

Drawing on my experience moderating Poynter.org chats via Cover it Live, I’ve come up with 10 tips on how to moderate a successful live chat.

Determine your topic.

We’ve found that chats based on timely topics tend to draw the most participants. If this is the case with your news site, think about which stories would lend themselves to good chats. Last Thursday, for instance, we knew journalists were grappling with whether to publish photos of Moammar Gadhafi’s body, so we set up a chat on how to handle the images.

If there’s a breaking news event in your community, look at what readers are saying in the comments sections of stories and on social networks. Use their reactions to help guide you toward a topic. What are they saying? What do they seem confused about? What questions do they have that you could help answer?

Select your panelists.

Panelists will answer participants’ questions throughout the chat; ideally, participants will answer each other’s questions, too. Choose panelists who will add value to the discussion by drawing on their expertise or firsthand knowledge of the chat topic. It helps if the panelists have an active following on social networks so they can help spread the word about the chat.

You may not have to look further than your own news organization. Last week, msnbc.com held a live chat with NBC correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, who answered readers’ questions about Gadhafi’s death and what it means for Libya. The Concord Monitor held a live chat with reporter Ben Leubsdorf to answer readers’ questions about Concord’s city budget.

You can also turn to experts or stakeholders. In a live chat about journalists’ coverage of the Occupty Wall Street protests, I invited Columbia University’s Todd Gitlin to be a panelist because he’s written about the media’s coverage of protests.

The more panelists there are, the more difficult the chats are to moderate. One to two panelists is ideal.

Help panelists prepare.

Send panelists an email with details about how to prepare for the chat and what to expect. This can help put panelists at ease, especially those who haven’t taken part in a live chat before.

Share pointers that will help the chat run more smoothly. I ask panelists, for instance, to break up long responses into shorter ones. That way, we can keep the flow of the chat going without making participants wait five minutes for a response. We try to publish fresh content in the chat at least every two minutes.

Prepare yourself.

Consider what you could do ahead of time to make your job easier during the chat. Here’s a checklist:

  • Set up the chat in Cover it Live or whatever software you’re using. (ScribbleLive, which Reuters and other news sites have used, is another option.)
  • Create an article page with a brief introduction to the chat. See some recent Poynter.org chat pages here for examples. I usually start each headline with “Live chat today” and then change it to “Live chat now” once the chat has started. (If you’re live blogging something, call it a live blog rather than a live chat. Live blogs highlight an event that’s taking place. Live chats create a discussion around news and often address “how” and “why” questions.)
  • If you haven’t already, create a “live chats” tag that you can use to group together your site’s chats. I like how The Washington Post organizes theirs.
  • Come up with a few questions to ask panelists during the chat in case there aren’t many questions from the audience (especially in the beginning, when you can also set the tone and expectations). Also, collect some links to related coverage so you can add them to the chat when necessary.

Spread the word.

Once you’re ready to start promoting your chat, spread the word about it on Twitter and Facebook. If I’m moderating a chat in the afternoon, I tweet about it once in the morning and then again right before the chat. I also send the panelists a link to the chat page and ask them to help spread the word about it on their social networks.

If there’s someone who I think might have something important or interesting to add to the conversation, I’ll send them a link and invite them to chime in as a participant. When doing a live chat about how journalists can use Tumblr to build their brand, for instance, I told Tumblr’s Mark Coatney about it via Twitter. He ended up joining the discussion and tweeting a link to it.

Talk with panelists.

If you’re working with panelists remotely, it’s best to be on the phone with them throughout the chat. I typically call panelists 10 minutes before the chat begins to go over any last-minute questions they have. Then, I review some of the pointers I emailed.

As questions come in, I’ll chose one and read it out loud to the panelists before posting it. That way, if they have an objection to the question or don’t have an answer to it, we can talk about it before the question goes live.

It helps if you ask panelists to hold off on posting their response until they get the OK from you. That way, you can make sure they don’t accidentally post their response before you’ve published the question.

Prompt the audience.

At the beginning of every chat, welcome participants and let them know that they can start submitting questions. If you find that you’re not getting any, start off by posing one of your own questions to the panelists.

If you’re using Cover it Live, you can post poll questions to prompt engagement. We ask the same five polling questions every chat to get a better sense of who our audience is and how they found out about the chat. Sometimes, I’ll ask questions that are more specific to the chat topic. During a recent chat about nonprofit news sites, I asked: “How important will nonprofit news sites be to journalism’s future?” and then commented on people’s responses.

Look for themes.

I’ve taken part in a lot of chats where the moderators approve all comments as they come in. This approach can be confusing because you end up with a stream of information that lacks continuity and context. Be deliberate about which comments you post and in what order. While panelists are responding to comments, look through the comments you haven’t published yet and figure out which one you want to post next. Try to group them by theme, if possible.

If there are questions that you know you won’t get to for a little while, let participants know that you appreciate their patience and will try to get to as many questions as possible.

Tweet highlights.

If a panelist says something you think is worth sharing with a larger audience, tweet the quote (and a link to the chat) from your account or your news site’s account. This is a way to highlight some of the strongest material from the chat, and it can attract additional participants.

If there’s a popular hashtag for the topic you’re chatting about, use that in your tweet. You can also create a hashtag for all your chats. We use the hashtag #poynterchats and let readers know they can use the hashtag to submit questions before or during the chat. We then monitor this hashtag during each chat.

Re-evaluate strategies.

Towards the end of a chat, we always poll the audience on how it worked for them. Once a chat has ended, I update the story that the chat appeared in. Then I use Cover it Live’s Event Stats feature to see how many people the chat attracted and how many comments were submitted. I also look at how many replays our chats receive over time. This can be valuable information for advertisers, who may want to sponsor a series of chats on your site.

As you look for ways to increase participation and engagement in your live chats, ask your audience what types of chats they’d like to see more of. And always be open to re-evaluating your strategies.

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
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