Next week, New York Times columnist Melinda Emerson, known to many as @smallbizlady, will host the 200th #smallbizchat on Twitter.
Those weekly, hourlong chats are a force to be reckoned with, garnering around 1.2 million impressions each Wednesday evening.
They didn't start that way, of course. Emerson launched her chats in April 2009, after five months of being on Twitter and noticing PR consultant Sarah Evans' #journchat and seeing the degree of people's involvement. Emerson then started her own peer-to-peer mentoring program for small-business owners.
How did Emerson grow her chat to what it is today? She offered 11 hints to aspiring chat hosts:
1. Be aware of time.
"I made my chat only one hour and picked a time in the evening so it wouldn't be during people's work day," Emerson says.
That doesn't mean chats have to be in the evening hours, however. It just depends on the audience, she says. Small-business owners don't have a lot of time during the day, but people in other fields might.
Whoever your audience is, be sure you start on time.
"I'm really serious about my show starting and stopping on time," Emerson says. "I want to maximize the value of people's participation."
She says people looking to start chats should see what other chats are out there and when they happen. You don't want to go head to head with a chat that might appeal to the same audience. Also, Emerson says you've got to pace your chat. Don't make it go so fast that people can't keep up.
2. Have a structure.
Emerson is a former TV producer, so she made her chat into something akin to a TV talk show. It has commercial breaks and a script.
"I kind of formulated it in a way so that I could control it and to have a way to make sure that the guest experts were providing valuable information," she says.
About 90 percent of the content in the chats is pre-written, Emerson says. She and the guest will copy and paste their pre-determined questions and answers into Twitter. However, they do take some live questions from the audience. Emerson says she stays on the phone with her guests to decide which comments or questions to address.
3. Vet your guests.
Don't take people on Twitter at their word if they claim to be an expert, Emerson says.
"We got burned a couple times in the early days. We had people tell us they were this, then we'd get them on the show and they were answering ridiculously to questions."
So now, Emerson asks all her potential guests to send her their books or other credentials. She checks the answers that guests provide to her questions beforehand to make sure they aren't too promotional. She also schedules guests two months in advance so all that can be cleared up in plenty of time.
4. Have a following before you start.
"You wouldn't want to get on Twitter with 50 followers and start a chat," Emerson says. "You've got to do your work up front. You've got to do what I call friend-raising."
Those friends can't just be anybody, either. You've got to be a part of the community you want to involve in your chat topics.
Emerson says chat hosts should have somewhere in the area of 1,000 followers before they try to get a chat going.
5. Pick the right hashtag.
Emerson's hashtag, #smallbizchat came from the keywords people use to look up small-business information on Twitter.
"In my case, people search for 'smallbiz' every day," she says. "Because of that, because 'smallbiz' is in my name and the name of my chat, people find me."
6. Use a monitoring tool.
Emerson uses TweetGrid's search dashboard to keep up with chats as they happen.
"To watch a chat from actual Twitter is really kind of hard," she says. "Hundreds of people come to #smallbizchat every week. It's hard to manage that from a regular Twitter account."
7. Don't expect everyone to participate.
About a quarter of the people who visit #smallbizchat don't say anything, Emerson estimates.
8. Archive your chats.
Emerson always posts transcripts of her chats to her blog the next day, just in case someone missed one and needs to catch up. She uses a program called TweetReports to pull the transcript each week so she can blog it, as well as getting an idea of who's participating.
"We also have sponsors for #smallbizchat, so we have to keep track of our records and our reach," she says.
9. Promote and remind.
Even four years after the chats started, new people find them every week, Emerson says, so she'll tweet multiple times on the day of the chat just how to participate and how to become a guest. Those are the two most-asked questions, she says.
Emerson also announces the guest schedule a week in advance so people can catch the guests who pique their interest.
10. Have a face.
Big brands that try to hold Twitter chats on their own come off as inauthentic, Emerson says. They need a visible, knowledgeable person—internal or external—to host them, or perhaps they should sponsor existing chats.
"They can't do it alone," she says."If you want to do a mom-blogger chat, you've got to go to the queen mom blogger."
11. Stick with it.
"We have been relentlessly consistent with #smallbizchat," Emerson says. "That has made all the difference to my brand and my business."
That change won't happen in a day, she warns.
"It took about 18 to 24 months before we were able to really monetize it," she says. "You're going to pay your dues."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.