World Rod Assocation congress Network Resilience 2014 Belfast

Conference organisers missing out on huge opportunities to engage audiences

Conference organisers in the highways and transport sector are failing to embrace social networking or challenge the traditional conference model sufficently to enable transformation of local highways services

The World Road Association UK congress on Network Resilience, on 4th and 5th November 2014 in Belfast will be the fourth major highways and transport industry conference I’ve liveblogged as part of my social media experiment to support transformation in the highways sector.

Follow the World Road Association Congress liveblog here

As part of my MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, I’ve been exploring the value to organisers, speakers and delegates of liveblogging highways and transport industry conferences:

  1. October 2013 – World Roads Association congress on Road Safety 
  2. November 2013 – Association of Directors for Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport
  3. June 2014 – Interchangeability, an international creative conference for School Transport

Chair of the UK Committee for the World Road Association Andrew Boyle joins a number of leaders encouraging the sector to embrace social media to engage and collaborate more effectively to improve Highways services:

“Many colleagues will have been unable to make time available to travel to Belfast and for them we are providing a liveblog which they will be able to follow on social media platforms. There is no doubt that this is where today’s generation finds its information and shares it live with each other. If we are going to make the best use of our expertise and discussions this week such platforms are essential for us all and I would encourage you all to embrace this.”  Andrew Boyle, Chair of the UK Committee for the World Road Association

In November 2013, Steve Kent, Immediate Past President for the Association of Directors for Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) and Advocate for the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) spread a similar message at the ADEPT annual conference (@ADEPTLA)

In the journalistic world liveblogging, or the live coverage of an event through social media, has been proved to be the most effective medium for increasing audience numbers and reach, both online and in the physical world, as research conducted by the Guardian shows.

My theory is that applying social media to amplify the networking potential of conferences generates greater value for everyone involved.

It turns out I’m not alone. Su Butcher a former architect and lecturer set up her social media consultancy Just Practising, with a specific focus on the construction sector:

“It is about time that Social Media was put to work for Construction. Stop tinkering around on the edge and get a structure in place”. (@SuButcher)

Su has been liveblogging conferences and events including Workplace Trends for several years. Su’s advice to conference organisers is clear and simple:

“Live blogging is a hugely important tool to enable your events to last beyond the day itself and reach a much wider audience for weeks and months afterwards:

    • Create a long term footprint of your event
    • Enable a worldwide audience to participate
    • Encourage online discussion
    • Give your speakers extra value”

Challenging the traditional conference format

Conferences provide great networking opportunities, but presentations and talks are a passive form of engagement. They depend heavily on the ability of the speakers to convey a story and inspire, rather than just impart facts.

Social networking (using twitter and other social media tools to connect and share with people) is a powerful way to amplify your networking efforts, as I demonstrate with real life examples here.  But it doesn’t solve the problem of the boring speaker syndrome.

At their Future of Highways conference in June 2014, organisers Landor Links (@TransportXtra) ditched the traditional afternoon round of talks in favour of a speed learning session to increase engagement and sharing of knowledge between delegates.  This got people moving around and was fun, if a little noisy (!), with us all in one room.

In the case of School TransportInterchangeability co-founders Sian Thornthwaite and Kirsti Robinson wanted to prove it was possible to design a conference that would enthuse, inspire and motivate people’s own creativity to generate the transformational change needed for School Transport.  In developing the concept for their international Interchangeability conference, held in June 2014, Sian and Kirsti began with this mindset:

“The reality is I don’t think we’ve anything to teach people in the field; they know their jobs, they know what they’re doing, they know the policy, they know the legislation. What they don’t get the opportunity to do is to really reflect on how that benchmarks with the rest of the world, but also opportunities to self enthuse, gather energy and go out and take that energy and distribute it amongst pockets that need it. It’s as much about generating energy and people leaving with a sense of energy as it is about imparting information and knowledge.”  Kirsti Robinson, co-founder, Interchangeability (@in2changeable)

Feedback on the conference showed 100% of attendees would recommend the event to a colleague, and 96% said they would attend again in the future.  The three key successes for Interchangeability were, in my opinion:

  1. They didn’t rely on speakers from the sector. In fact they actively sought speakers with no knowledge of school transport, but who were doing inspirational things elsewhere
  2. The choice of venue gave people space, made them feel special, and encouraged openness and informality . All speakers and delegates mixed as equals, eager and willing to learn from each other.
  3. Hands on workshops led by inspirational people left participants with tangible new skills, or perspectives they could take and apply in their own work.

Old dog new tricks

Mastering social media challenges us to channel our own knowledge and skills in a way that can benefit others. We are each on a journey to becoming our own editors, publishers and distributors.

We’re learning how to share first and self-promote second. Ego versus higher good. Willingess to share versus willingness to own.

The primary goal is to provide interesting and relevant content that others want to share. These are a few tips I’ve learnt in the last year (and I’m still learning, we all are!):

  1. Choose a short and relevant twitter handle (@xyz). Your name is good, but otherwise something that’s easy for others to remember and type, that reflects you
  2. Include a picture, and introduce yourself  so others can sense what they expect to receive if they choose to follow you.
  3. Everything about your twitter account is public, so make sure you’re happy for everyone to see what’s there. If you’re planning to use an existing account, you should apply this advice from Paul Bradshaw to new journalism students to review and if necessary delete your history.
  4. Follow others first, picking companies, people or organisations that interest you. Watch and learn. See what style of tweets makes you want to read and share what others have to say. Why?

When contemplating what to tweet, consider:

a) What can I say that’s helpful to others? (It might be to brighten their day, educate them or share a similar experience but if you can’t think of a good reason, don’t tweet it!)
b) How can I make it relevant and easy to understand in 140 characters. Always a challenge, but a hyperlink or photo adds valuable context
c) Who can I copy in directly that would find it interesting? (include their twitter handle (@xyz) in the message itself)
d) If you’re tweeting at an event, include the event hashtag (e.g. #wracongress) in your tweet to enable it to be searched and collated by others more easily.

Get involved

Why not join in on 4th and 5th November, either in person or online via the liveblog, to hear these speakers perspectives on what we can do to keep our old and outdated highways in shape in the face of future climate change challenges:

“This congress seeks to address the need that highway authorities have to ensure the road network stands up to the needs of 21st century traffic given that the effects of climate change are resulting in more frequent extreme weather conditions.  In addition, the need for financial probity means that resources are thin and need to be stretched further. I am sure that these concerns exercise the minds of all colleagues in the industry and this congress will give us all the opportunity to share experiences, thoughts and solutions. Do facilitate this interaction with the experienced and knowledgeable speakers who will no doubt challenge us to think together about the problems and solutions. Hopefully we can work together to find those solutions during this time together.”  Andrew Boyle, Chair of the UK Committee for the World Road Association

We’ll be tweeting from @teresacjolley and @cihtuk, with support from @transport_net using the #wracongress hashtag, so tweet us to say Hi. Follow events on the liveblog at

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