During the recent CIM Global Summit I noticed what seemed to me as a rather strange phenomenon: a room chock full of digital folk passing comment on the number of people who were tweeting through the speakers presentations. Ironically there were even a high number of people turning to Twitter to comment on this apparently quite unacceptable behaviour.

As someone working in digital for many years, perhaps my attitude towards engaging online during live events has come from an entirely skewed frame of reference. I expect that events focussing on digital would be set up to not only allow me to interact online but actively encourage it by providing hashtags, adequate access to wifi and having the event organisers engaging with me online during the event.

As the keynote speaker, Daniel raised an interesting point that audiences can miss up to 24% of presentations while they are interacting with Twitter. Of course it could have been this comment that sparked off the numerous follow up grumblings overhead throughout the rest of the day, however it does raise the question of whether we are too focussed on our online conversations to the detriment of those that are happening right in front of us.

Before social media, and even mobile internet came along it would have been unthinkable to be seen staring at your phone or laptop while someone was speaking. Only a few years ago if I were seen using my phone during a presentation I may well have been called out like a naughty schoolchild and asked what was so much more important than listening to the carefully prepared information being presented to me at the time. Now I wouldn’t give a second thought to conversing online while a speaker was in full flow. But does that make it ok? Is it still considered rude and am I missing out on valuable insight?

The answer probably depends heavily on the industry you work in. When I attend conferences held by public sector agencies such as the NHS there is a definite lack of online interaction and I would probably get a few ‘looks’ if I were tapping away on my mobile during the presentations. On the flip side, when I’m attending a digital conference there’s a good chance at least 50% of the room will be checking their phones at any one time.

Education Professor Christine Greenhow from Michigan State University conducted a study with her adult students around the use of Twitter in classes and found that, instead of being a distraction, it actually aided the learning process by creating a more engaging experience. This makes sense, as instead of passively listening, participants are engaging with the speaker’s content, sharing it online, vocalising their opinion about it and discussing it with others. All of this will enrich the learning experience and keep the attendees focussed on the topic. And yes, while that may mean we miss bits and pieces of information, the same was true when we all spent events frantically scribbling notes because this was our one and only chance to hear this information.

The rise in digital technology has transformed the way we interact with events, and it also makes events much more accessible for those who aren’t able to attend in person. With most digital events being filmed for later viewing, attendees can sit back and soak up information, dealing with the occasional distraction safe in the knowledge that they can revisit the session as many times as they like once the event is over. And if we do miss a nugget of pure gold, there’s a good chance someone else has tweeted it so by interacting online we’re not only supporting a shared experience, but providing opportunities for collaborative learning with our fellow attendees.

As a conference organiser or a speaker worried that your audience are being distracted by social media, my response would be to consider these points:

Your audience are engaged! – The content has motivated them to share it online, pass comments and seek discussion with others about it. This is not a bad thing, it gives you real time access to how people are feeling about your event and if they want to talk about it then you’re doing something right.

Your speakers are interesting! – A room full of people all facing front and listening to you doesn’t mean they are actually engaged. If your audience are quoting your content online then it has excited them, angered them, amused them etc which is far better than boring them.

Your audience are doing your job for you! – All of that shared content shared is being accessed by thousands, maybe even millions of people who aren’t at your event. This means they now all know about you, who you are, and what you offer. Unsolicited advocacy of your event is worth its weight in gold so make the most of it.

You can engage with your attendees! – When your attendees share their opinion it gives you, the organiser, a chance to engage with them further. Answer questions, share insight, thank them for what they’re doing, it could lead to a better relationship and potential new clients for your other services.

Even with these benefits there’s no doubt that using Twitter at conferences has its downsides and there are many posts out there trying to set rules for using it. But the opportunities offered by social media are also what makes it difficult to set boundaries around.

The days of simply turning up to a conference or event, making a few notes and then heading home again are long gone, but how we adapt to the new landscape is still evolving. Technology is moving faster than our ability to deal with it and as such the etiquette around it is still constrained by our traditional ways of working.