Running text-based Q&As on digital platforms is something a number of news outlets have done, either on a frequent basis such as weekly or monthly, or as a more irregular feature.
Approaches vary, with some taking to Twitter to source and answer questions, while other produce liveblogs to host the chats on their own sites. There are also a number of other digital community-driven platforms such as Reddit and Quora which are being used to host such conversations.
In this how-to guide we gather practical advice from those experienced in running live Q&As on a range of platforms, from preparing the chat and its participants, to sourcing questions, moderating the discussion and keeping the conversation going after the Q&A.
- Why engage in a two-way conversation?
When it comes to chats hosted on Twitter, manager for journalism and news at Twitter Mark Luckie said news outlets which run live chats on Twitter often then see "a big increase in followers", as well as in engagement.
"There's a lot of reasons to have these sort of chats. We've seen chats around news topics, especially when someone is live tweeting or having a live conversation about an event that's happening right now. So we've seen political reporters come out of the election with higher Twitter followers because they're having live chats, they're doing live fact-checking."
He added that when it comes to specific subjects, running live Q&As can help news outlets and individual journalists establish themselves "and the accounts you interact with as an authority in the subject".
"People naturally want to talk about the news and so it's important for journalist organisations to be a part of that conversation and really steer it."
Using live Q&As, whether on Twitter or other platforms, helps reinforce the two-way conversation between news outlet or journalist, and the audience.So rather than us just feeding out information to them it's a way of them asking what they want to knowKate Hodge, the Guardian
Kate Hodge, who heads up Guardian Careers, which run career chats within its commenting facility, said the main reason they do so is because Q&As are "a way of engaging our audience".
"So rather than us just feeding out information to them it's a way of them asking what they want to know."
Chris Hamilton, social media editor at BBC News – which ran its first live Twitter Q&A last year – added that "it's a good way of encouraging some conversation".
"It allows correspondents to get some feedback, some feel for what your audience are thinking and what they're asking about big stories, which can be very helpful and of course it exposes their expertise to an audience, one that's probably going to be very interested in the story anyway.
"So we just think it's a good way of expanding what our journalists can do and expanding the exposure they get and the people that they talk to."
And for Ton Standage, digital editor of the Economist, getting involved in such conversations is an important way for journalists to appear "more accountable".
"Across the board journalists are generally engaging with readers in a way they didn't use to in comment threads, on Twitter, in various online fora, and I think we all accept that that's something that's worth doing, is a good idea, improves the quality of our journalism, improves the way that we're seen because we're seen to be being more accountable.
"We're not just hiding in an ivory tower somewhere and publishing and then just leaving it at that. So we're prepared to go out and defend what we right and explain what we're doing and be open about our methods. And I think all of that is a good thing."
Standage and the Economist have run Q&As on a number of digital platforms. They have used Ask The Economist Twitter chats and more recently Standage took part in a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA), and he also uses Quora to answer questions from the community.
First we take a look at some of the general, practical advice from Luckie, Hamilton, Hodge and Standage on how to run live Q&As which can be of use across platforms, and then we highlight more platform-specific benefits and tips.
- Spreading the word beforehand
Whether the chat is taking place on a social media platform or not, advertising the chat in advance on social media is one way to spread the word through a number of networks. Hodge also recommends asking those involved, such as the interviewees, to also help get word out.
"The key thing for us is we always want to reach new people who might not know that we're there and I think to do that you have to make sure that you are covering all bases and not just expecting people to come.The key thing for us is we always want to reach new people who might not know that we're there and I think to do that you have to make sure that you are covering all bases and not just expecting people to comeKate Hodge, the Guardian
"So we use LinkedIn quite a lot and we look at different groups ... on Twitter we'll look for hashtags that are being used in the area quite a lot, and getting our panellists to put it out to their networks as well is also really helpful."
Luckie added that by advertising the chat beforehand, not only will it alert people to the Q&A but it will also help "build up more of an appetite for it".
Hamilton added that even though they run their Q&As on Twitter, they take a multi-platform approach to the process, including pre-promotion.
"We obviously will tweet out on our main accounts and get the individuals who are taking part in the Q&A, the correspondents, to tweet about it, but we also try and get promotions on our mainstream output so that could be on our TV output, radio output, on our website".
- Sourcing questions
"People can leave questions on the web page, we post it on Facebook, people can leave questions in the Facebook post comments and also on Google Plus and people can even text in questions. We have an SMS number that we use for listing contributions from the audience on news stories and we use that as well.
"So the idea being that you get a really broad range of questions across a broad range of platforms, you're not being exclusive".So the idea being that you get a really broad range of questions across a broad range of platforms, you're not being exclusiveChris Hamilton, BBC News
If you do get questions in advance, this can help to ensure the chat gets going straight away, rather than potentially waiting for questions to come in.
Luckie also added that he finds this approach to be helpful to ensure "a baseline of questions that you can start from to get the conversation going".
Another option though, if questions are not sourced in advance, is to have a moderator get the discussion started while questions from outside are being sourced.
Where questions have been sought in advance, Luckie recommends news outlets send a message to the person who sent in the question originally, to flag up when their question is being asked. This in turn helps prompt "even more questions", he said.
The Guardian's career chats open up the comments facility ahead of the discussion, to enable questions to be submitted a few days before, and they are also kept open after the chat "in case anyone wants to continue", Hodge said.
She also noted the need to keep discussions as broad as possible to enable a rich conversation and for the chat to appeal to as large an audience as possible.
"You can't run a Q&A that's really focused in one area because you won't get a huge audience for it, you have to keep it quite broad and that just allows you to discuss the key themes throughout the whole discussion and let those be quite easily followed."
- Importance of briefing participants before the chat
The briefing might include "explaining that they don't have to take on trolls and that we will do that", and just generally "encouraging them to pitch in, where they feel comfortable".
- Deciding on the size of a panel
Hodge warned that "overly large panels are very unwieldy and they can really stunt the conversation".
"What you don't want from a panel is a group of people who are all going to say the same thing. So you have to look at the topic and ensure the topic you pick has got a broad enough appeal that you can a, get the audience you want and also b, get a real variety of panelists."
She advised a maximum of eight to 10 people, and a minimum of four panellists in order "to get a good discussion going".
- When to run a chat
Luckie said when it comes to Twitter chats, it is usually considered best to run them in the afternoon, "depending on the timezone which you're in".
"The advantage of doing it in the afternoon is you're not getting people during their morning commutes, you're not getting people who are off and about in their lunch breaks. Usually they're sitting at their desks or they're sitting at home. They've got their mobile phones or they've got their computers open and they're able to join in on the chat."
He added: "Of course different things work for different people, some people do Twitter chats in the morning, but what we see with the success is finding a time when there's a lull in the content on Twitter so that people have something that they can join in for."
Interestingly the Guardian's career chats are run in the afternoon, from 1pm to 3pm, while a new weekly liveblog Q&A with local experts launched last month by the Daily Post in North Wales runs from 12 to 1pm.
For those planning on holding "a global conversation", it is also important to consider the different timezones audiences may be based in.
Luckie added that when it comes to the length of a Twitter chat in particular, "you want to consider making sure it doesn't go too long because what you end up doing is inundating people's Twitter timelines".30 minutes is that real sweet spot because you can get people in, they can ask their questions and then if people have more questions you can direct them back to your websiteMark Luckie, Twitter
"What you want to do is strike that balance between 'am I providing enough time to answer questions?' versus 'am I going on for too long?'
"And usually some time between 30 minutes and an hour depending on the subject and depending on the number of questions is a good time.
"But 30 minutes is that real sweet spot because you can get people in, they can ask their questions and then if people have more questions you can direct them back to your website and possibly turn that into a future feature."
- Managing questions/moderation
As well as the ability to submit questions within the commenting facility, the career chat team also allow questions to be sent in via email.
"That can be quite difficult to handle at times, especially if they're particularly popular, making sure everyone gets answered and everyone's questions have a clear line of questioning as well and something our experts can respond to. And making sure that everyone gets fair exposure."
She said a couple of the members of the team will monitor the chat and are actively involved by "posting in and getting our panelists to expand where we think it's necessary."
Their role is also to deal with any trolls in the conversation.
At BBC News, when they run their Twitter Q&As, questions will be collated collaboratively somewhere, such as using Google docs, which also helps when the correspondents taking part in the chat are not based in the same office.
The producers will then select the most interesting and pertinent questions which are moved to the top of the document and then the correspondent or the producer will "go through those and they can put them into their Twitter stream as a cue, as a question, and then compose their answers and get them out".We've been quite careful to make sure we include questions that people would expect us not to answer, around, for example, bias, so we're quite careful to make sure we answer a full range of questionsChris Hamilton, BBC News
But the questions chosen are "not necessarily the most comfortable", Hamilton added.
"We've been quite careful to make sure we include questions that people would expect us not to answer, around, for example, bias, so we're quite careful to make sure we answer a full range of questions".
He added that having "someone on hand to help", has proven to be very useful, such as to process questions and deal with duplicates.
Luckie added, in reference to Twitter chats, that news outlets may find it useful to "get a producer or somebody on hand to use Tweetdeck or use some sort of filter, to look through the tweets and find those nuggets".
"If you try to have the person who is participating in the session, whether that's the host or the participant, trying to look at the tweets and answer them at the same time, depending on the volume, they may get buried in tweets.
"But having that extra person on hand to say 'okay, here's a good tweet, here's a good tweet', and then passing that along, to the host and the participant, it makes for a smoother flow of the conversation."
- Following up after the chat
If you ran a Twitter Q&A, this might mean embedding tweets or timelines onto a news site, or creating a Storify of the discussion.
As Luckie said, "not everybody will be able to join the chat at a particular time", so it is important to consider how to make that content available after the event and "actually moving the chat forward".
Hodge added that at the Guardian they also follow up on their career chats with round-ups of the conversation to make the chat more digestible for those coming to it after the event.If you're faced with a Q&A that's had 150 comments on it, you might not feel like you want to read them all and so rounding them up and just picking the top bit out of them of what people have said is a really nice way of ensuring that you've got that as a resourceKate Hodge, the Guardian
"If you're faced with a Q&A that's had 150 comments on it, you might not feel like you want to read them all and so rounding them up and just picking the top bit out of them of what people have said is a really nice way of ensuring that you've got that as a resource."
But these do not replace the original web page featuring the chat.
"You might find that perhaps in the round-up you've missed a key point that actually someone might find really handy, so having them always there is really great."
At the Daily Post in North Wales, the liveblog Q&A is also followed up in the print newspaper the next day.
- Thanking contributors
"Acknowledging them and saying 'hey, thank you for your question', it really makes the world for the person. It really gives them a time to say 'hey I got a chance to participate with this news organisation', and then they tell their friends and their friends tell their friends and soon enough you're growing your followers and you're growing your engagement on your account."
- Trying different platforms
"We have considered having Q&A-style features on our own website. We haven't done this, we don't have discussion forums, a lot of sites do and we do have particularly good comments on our site and particularly well-informed readers so we have thought 'well why not have a Q&A feature' and we kicked that idea around quite a while.
"Another reason for using things like Quora and Reddit is that they are different implementations of Q&A-style or forum discussions, and so it's a way of road testing different approaches to it as well."
Potential platforms for live Q&A chats
So what platforms could journalists and news outlets use to run live Q&As? Here are just a few ideas:
- Own comment facility
Tips and benefits of using Twitter, comments and RedditOn top of the general guidance given above, below are some more platform-specific benefits and tips for getting the most out of each one.
- Reach out to a new audience
That being said, some news outlets will still use social media platforms like Twitter to spread the word about a Q&A, even if it is not being hosted on Twitter.
And for BBC News, which does use Twitter to run its live Q&As, they still ensure the experience is "not Twitter-specific", to keep it open to as much of its audience as possible, Hamilton said.Twitter's a great platform for making it live, it means the conversation can flow a bit, you get questions inspired by other questions or by other answersChris Hamilton, BBC News
This is achieved, for example, by directing people to Twitter page running the relevant hashtag, or just reminding the audience that "they don't even have to have a Twitter account to be able to follow it on that Twitter page".
Another way to achieve this is to adopt the follow-up approach mentioned earlier.
"Twitter's a great platform for making it live, it means the conversation can flow a bit, you get questions inspired by other questions or by other answers. But for us it's hosted on Twitter but it's not Twitter-specific, that's very important for us."
- The ability to filter tweets
- The power of the hashtag
"It enables you to thread the conversation, it allows you to track responses. If you have people simply @ mention you then people who are watching the conversation won't necessarily have a way to tweet back at you unless they are following you."
In terms of creating the hashtag, he recommends people make them "incredibly descriptive, but also short".
"So people know, without even knowing what's going on, what the conversation's about. So #askexpert, or #politics, or #sport or something that's really descriptive and very particular to that news organisation."
He also highlighted the importance of checking the hashtag is not already in use, to avoid "cross streams".
"Finding that unique hashtag, making it short, and also that, like I said, enables you to track the conversation better. You can find everyone who's using the hashtag, versus trying to find people who are @ mentioning you, it gets a little bit messy versus just having this one clean hashtag that people can use."
Using your own comment facility
At the Guardian Hodge said the fact that its career chats take place in the commenting facility of the article page fits in with the Guardian's approach across the site to encourage commenting on articles.
"If it wasn't within that environment it might not work quite so well," she added.
And when it comes to particularly sensitive or difficult discussions, the commenting facility enables users to get advice anonymously.
"Giving our audience that opportunity to anonymously comment about what's happening in their lives and get information about it in a very specific way I think is really valuable to them.
"For us that retains our audience so that they know that we're there to help them and it really is their chance to invest in the site".
A recently-added feature to the Guardian's comment facility is a respond function, which enables users to reply to a comment directly. Hodge said this "makes it much more user-friendly because you can see exactly who has responded to what".
"It just helps the discussion move ahead and flow better because everyone can see exactly what everyone has said about that particular strand of the discussion."
In the same way a Q&A run on a liveblog, or just within the body of a normal article web page, by running the Q&A in the comments section it means the news outlet can maintain an archive of the chat, which can then act as a useful resource for audiences in the future.
- A permanent record and resource
The permanent record nature of a Q&A run within the comment facility is a benefit shared by hosting a chat on a liveblog, for example.
In fact, Hodge said she had used liveblogging software CoveritLive once before, which she found to be "a really, really good platform".
"It was really interactive, people could comment, you can respond and you can embed tweets and things like that.
"So that was a really great platform to use but I think for our advice sessions where it's more formal and people need to know exactly where they can look for this kind of stuff, the comment section works better."
The Daily Post in North Wales chose to liveblog its new Ask The Expert Q&A, which it is running once a week.
Communities editor Antonia Jones said the reason the Post chose the liveblogging platform was "mainly the immediacy of it and connecting with our audience in real time".
"We wanted to continue to engage with our online audience. We found that the breaking news blog, which we started late last year and also uses ScribbleLive, is going really and is appealing to our readers so we decided to do the Q&A to offer our online audience something new.
"If you're not online at the time the liveblog runs, people are still able to see it online afterwards and for those not connected with us online, they can see the Q&A the next day in the paper."
Just like using a liveblog or the comment facility of a web page, using Reddit – unlike Twitter – does not place a 140 character restriction on answers, as Standage highlighted.
"You can scan lots of questions and you can get a sense of all the things you're being asked easily. And then of course you aren't limited to 140 character answers, you can write a whole paragraph."
Standage added that with Reddit Ask Me Anything posts, questions are sent in to be replied to at a specific time, which enables the interviewee to prepare their answers in advance.
"So you can produce lots of answers quite quickly, whereas with Twitter you really do have to do it all on the fly which can be fun but it's much more like doing a live radio interview, only with the constraint of squeezing everything into the 140 characters. So you don't feel quite so under the gun with a Reddit AMA."
Reddit also offers an "up and down voting system", Standage explains, which he said "allows you to see which answers people appreciated or which questions they think are most important for you to answer".
"So I think in that sense you get a bit more of a sense of feedback, or a different sense of feedback ... than you do from Twitter because people can say 'oh that's a really good question I'd really like to hear what you think about that'."
But he added when it comes to answering questions, if a journalist goes down the route of offering to run an 'Ask Me Anything', they should really abide by the name of the Q&A, and be prepared to answer 'anything'.
"If you're going to say 'Ask Me Anything' then you really need to be prepared to go off the script and just answer anything."
- Tom Standage, Kate Hodge, Chris Hamilton and Mark Luckie all discussed audience engagement with live text-based Q&As in a recent Journalism.co.uk podcast.
Free daily newsletter
- Project Text allows US-based local journalists to connect with their audiences through mobile messaging
- App for journalists: Nuzzel, for digesting the news from social media
- What do journalists struggle with the most on social media?
- Tip: How journalists can use Twitter advanced search
- How social media impacts mental health in journalists