Get better at: Using #twitterchat to build community

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Teton Sports, a Utah-based camping and hiking gear company, hosts a weekly #hikerchat on Twitter that draws more than one hundred people to the conversation and has since fueled in-person meetups, growth in the company and improved product design. Marketing and product developer Shawn Parry says the key is keeping it real.

Each week, more than 100 people show up online to participate in Teton Sports’ #hikerchat, a conversation via Twitter designed to engage a new audience with a lesser-known brand. Each week’s conversation, which begins at noon Eastern Time, centers around a theme. The moderators—Shawn Parry at the helm for @TetonSports, together with a co-host from the online outdoors community—throw out a series of questions for participants. They attribute the success—and the positive effects it’s had on company growth and product development—to building genuine connections that have since led to in-person events, #MountainFest, the next of which will be in Whistler this fall.

Shawn Parry

Shawn Parry. Photo by Teton Sports staffer Landon Faulkner

Parry, who runs both marketing and product development for Teton Sports, says part of the success in this conversation, which draws repeat attendees but is also commended for its ability to welcome newcomers, lies in focusing on the core of what makes people buy gear: a love of the outdoors.

“We saw a void in the way that we communicated with people. We needed a central hub to kind of get people together and because Twitter is so live-action, we thought that would be a really good platform to jump in on and start using,” said Parry, who helped to start #hikerchat almost four years ago. “I thought that it would be an excellent platform to spread education about Teton, but more than that, the outdoor community is amazing. … So we wanted to find a space to bring people together.”

Parry offers these tips for other companies hoping to harness the power of Twitter:

1. Remember it’s a conversation, not a sales pitch.

Teton Sports doesn’t market itself on #hikerchat or tolerate advertisements in that space, Parry said. The only kind of campaign that might appear is one to bring awareness to an issue that needs addressing, like a clean-up, or an event.

“We're not pushy-pushy with our Twitter chat and I think that’s probably the biggest pieces of what’s made #hikerchat so much fun over the last few years,” he said.

And yet, he sees that conversation as a proponent of the brand’s growth in recent years.

“Social media, for us, has been an entirely game-changing experience,” he said. “We leverage that for product development, for reaching out to people, for awareness.”

Everything that happens on #hikerchat is monitored closely, including who participates, who’s new and even what wants and needs are described—and how those might be translated into gear design. At this point, you could name a person on #hikerchat and he can tell you if he’s met them - conversations have sprung off screen and led to events and meetups - and what that person is in to.

The last #hikerchat meet up in January 2015 at Days Fork Trail in Utah. Credit: TETON staffer Landon Faulkner

The last #hikerchat meet up in January 2015 at Days Fork Trail in Utah. Photo by Teton Sports staffer Landon Faulkner

“It's a pretty tight knit community. If you come in once or twice you definitely find awesome people and stay,” Parry said. “We learn quite a bit about our audience that way.”

2. Be prepared in a way that pre-empts your audience’s response.

Parry reaches out to people in the community to co-host the chat each week, and that person chooses a theme to discuss and plans their own questions, with hosts and themes mapped out four months in advance. But Parry waits until the night before to decide on his questions.

“Throughout the week, we’ll send out feelers of questions that might relate to the topic, drop little pieces of information and see how people react, then based off their reactions, we go back and we fill in all of our questions with that information to best serve that community and the questions that they have about X topic,” he said. And they take very detailed notes about those responses.

Teton Sports starts to build the buzz around a topic in the days leading up to the chat.

Teton Sports starts to build the buzz around a topic in the days leading up to the chat.

In a recent week’s conversation about adventure travel photography, those early feelers came back with a lot of interest in learning how to take pictures of stars, so three or four questions in #hikerchat that week focused on just that.

3. Keep a human at the wheel.

“We also do have a lot of tools that help automate for us, but a lot of it is digital face to face, Twitter handle to Twitter handle interactions,” Parry said. He’s actually worn out computer keyboards on that mission.

But now that the online gatherings have led to real get-togethers, and this community meets on a regular basis—including twice at year at Outdoor Retailer shows when they somehow sneak away for hikes and paddleboarding excursions—it’s been all the more important to be known as people, not a faceless company.

“Be real. Be authentic. Don't let ‘corporate confines’ hold you down to certain things. Just have fun. People are always looking for an enjoyable time. That’s my biggest piece of advice,” he said. “The next one is, get three screens. It helps.I have three screens going. One where I actually answer to people on Twitter, one where I watch the stream, one where I watch for direct messages and then I have Twitter and Twitter alerts up if we trend, and the questions. It’s pretty wild.”

And turn off notifications on your phone or you’ll drain the whole battery in an hour.

Parry keeps an eye on newcomers to the conversation and follows up with them, making a point to comment and respond to them. He will even try to entice them back to the conversation if they’ve been out of it for a few weeks.

“Making people feel welcome is No. 1, because if you get a new person who's just getting into hiking and then all these veterans jump on—little intimidating,” he said.

Kam Altar(@CampfireChic), a blogger and social media strategist, recently returned as a co-host of the event and is a repeat participant. Organization and preparation between @TetonSports and the co-host prior to the Friday morning chat also helps the conversation run smoothly, she said, as does @TetonSports’ powerhouse effort to engage with participants so everyone feels included. That approach appears to have been contagious for regular participants.

“What I love about #HikerChat is that there are so many experienced people who are willing to share their knowledge of different topics. We can't all be experts in every outdoor-related activity, so it's awesome to have a community that comes together where at least one person will have first-hand knowledge of topics being discussed or questions that come up during the chat. I also like how quickly things move and that many participants are okay with side-conversations if you have a question,” she said via email. “The pace can be overwhelming to new participants, but I like to think of it as a game of double-dutch: Keep your eye on the conversation and jump in when you feel the time is right.”

The Get Better At column spotlights standout work, unique skillsets and opportunities to improve how we do business, build community and contribute to positive change in the world. Email suggestions for people and topics to cover to snewsedit@aimmedia.com.

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