Live Blogging an Irish Dance Feis

My children enjoy Irish dance and frequently dance at competitions called feis (fesh).  My eldest started in Chicago but really learned her basics in Cincinnati at the Erickson Academy of Irish Dance.  The school’s feis is the Queen City Feis and, when the call for volunteers went out, I put my hand up to help with the Web site.  I’ve continued to help out with the site even though we have since moved to Canada and dance with a different school.

This year I live blogged the results at the feis and thought that I would write up what we did, what worked, and what I would do differently if I were to do it again.

Last Year

Last year, we added a Twitter account to see if we could raise awareness or reach out to different people.  Our Web site usage is the same each year – and I expect is pretty typical of a feis Web site – with very few visits until the registration open date, then a huge spike as the feis itself nears.  Here’s a comparison of our Web site stats from Google Analytics for the last two feis, both of which occurred in May of their respective years:

2010 and 2011 Queen City Feis Web Site Statistics2010 and 2011 Queen City Feis Web Site Statistics

We had a few dozen followers on Twitter but not much in the way of retweets, so it seems as though it was mostly an alternative method of communication rather than a new way to reach different people.

Adding Facebook

This year we added Facebook, which is a logical third leg to our online feis communications.  Lots of dancers and dancers’ parents have accounts and we quickly netted about the same audience on Facebook.  Prior to the 2011 feis, we had just over 50 people who had liked our Facebook page.  We had about the same number following us on Twitter.

I migrated the Web site to WordPress this year, which meant that we were using three technologies that could potentially be knitted together for better communication.  For example, there are WordPress to Twitter plugins, so that you can notify followers when you add a new post to your WordPress site.  Similarly, there are ways to link Twitter and Facebook together.

The ideal would have been to connect all three of the sites so that a post to WordPress would update the Facebook and Twitter accounts.  I attempted to make these connections but I found two issues that meant that we didn’t use them:

  • I do not have my own Facebook account, just the profile that enables me to administer the Queen City page.  It doesn’t appear possible to link up that sort of profile to Twitter; you need a full Facebook account;
  • The WordPress to Twitter plugins send a short tweet (message) notifying followers that there is something new on WordPress, but not what the content was.  I wanted to have Twitter include substantive information, and there didn’t seem to be a way to automatically push, say, the first sentence of a WordPress post.

Obviously, it’s personal preference.  A feis committee that has someone with a real Facebook account or is fine with that sort of Twitter message might be able to have better integration than we had.

Live Results

We discussed what to send out on the day and who the audiences would be.  There appear to be two audiences, and what you communicate depends on which audience you are trying to reach.  There are the attendees who may want to see results live to avoid going to the feis results board.  If you have never attended a feis, imagine a wall somewhere at the venue where a dance is listed, followed by the competitor numbers for the dancers who place.  A dancer may be in a half dozen competitions, at different stages around the venue (often a high school or hotel with multiple ballrooms).  Having access to the results without having to leave a stage can be useful for a parent.

The other audience are the ones who can’t attend, whether dancers or teachers or family.  They would also be interested in results just to see how friends or students did.

The three technologies we use have different restrictions.  Wordpress is the most open, with unlimited postings with unlimited words.  Facebook is the next most restrictive, with unlimited postings but only 420 characters.  Twitter is the most restrictive, with 1000 posts per day and 140 characters per post.

Since Twitter’s character limit was the lowest, we used that to determine what to send out.  In the end, we decided to send out a simple post that identified the dance and the dancers who placed.  We would also identify their school, which is often something people want to follow.

One thing that we considered was privacy and persistency of information.  Since dancers may not want their names to sit in Twitter or Web search engine indexes forever, we decided to avoid using individual names.  Most feis Web sites provide a list of competitors identified by dancer numbers prior to the competition, so that became the identifier for the results.  We  ended up selecting this format, which we announced on our Web site, Twitter, and Facebook accounts prior to the feis:

501LJ  (1) 111 Erickson (2) 287 Richen-Timm  (3) …

Someone who received this message could quickly determine which dance, dancer number, and school.  If it wasn’t a parent, they could look up the dancers on the competitor list at the Web site.  Except for really creepy parents who are trying to compare their dancers to others for competitive reasons, it didn’t seem as though anyone would be trying to follow too many dancer numbers.

How it Went

We had a good wi-fi Internet connection and I sat on the floor or in a chair in the results area.  The wall was covered with pre-printed posters listing the dances and 5 columns for places.  After the national anthems, the dances started and about 30 minutes later, the first results were written on the board.  I started to type the first message and the wheels started to come off!!

It became clear that the lack of integration between the Twitter, Facebook, and Web site was going to slow down the communication.  Also, identifying the school was very time consuming because I had not printed off the competitor list but was using the online version.  This meant toggling to the competitor list and then toggling back to the message.

In the end, I stopped including the school name after about the 5th Twitter message and decided to skip updating the Web site.  I typed the message into Twitter, highlighted it (CTRL A), copied it (CTRL C), and sent it.  Then I toggled over to the Facebook page (CTRL Tab), pasted the message int (CTRL V) and shared it.  For the next dance, I started it on Facebook and reversed the process.

Late morning I started to have a problem with Twitter, which stopped posting messages.  It turns out that you have a 1000 post limit each day but there are other limits throughout the day, and we had reached one.  Keep in mind that there were nearly 300 dances that day, and we hit a threshold of too many posts after about the first 150.  I continued to post to Facebook and posted a message on our WordPress blog.  I swapped in the blog instead of Twitter so there was still a non-Facebook alternative.

Relatively early on it was clear that we were missing one set of results, the Preliminary and Open Championships.  These were not posted on the results board, and were announced separately.  A few people figured this out at the same time and we worked out a process where I would receive the folders with the results after they were announced.

I sent out results continuously from about 9am to just after 3pm.  I was using a Dell Mini 9 with an extended battery, and made it on a single charge!  We had power nearby if I had needed it.

What Worked, What I’d Change

Lots of things!  It went really well as a first attempt but there are lots of areas for improvement.  In no particular order, here they are:

  • Preparing the followers. We posted the concept of live blogging to the Web site, Twitter , and Facebook.  We should have communicated two more pieces of information to help manage expectations.  First, to warn people that we were going to send out about 300 messages in about 6 hours.  Second, that these were not meant to be a replacement for the typical post-feis posting of results.  We had some comments after the feis that (a) we were being unfriended and (b) that the results were too hard to navigate.  This would go some way to addressing those two issues.
  • Results format. This I would keep.  Dropping the Irish dance school name did not seem to cause anyone problems.  We had a number of family members post both to Twitter and Facebook to congratulate dancers, so those who needed to could figure out the shorthand.  Only one dance required two Twitter messages to complete all of the dancers that placed.
  • Engagement.  I’m not really sure that is the right word, but we doubled our Facebook friends by the end of the day and are up to nearly 3x as many today (one week later) as we were the day before the feis.  We added nearly 30 to Twitter.  Anecdotally, those appear to be attendees, which means that the concept of an audience interested in saving time and avoiding the results table seems to have been justified.  Only one person unfriended us, so overall the numbers were positive. 
    Queen City Feis Facebook StatsQueen City Feis Facebook Stats, the day of the feis

  • Twitter.  This could have been pretty disastrous.  If it had been our sole channel and we had gone dark for an hour, that would have made the service of sending live results unreliable.  One alternative would be to use a hashtag (#qcf2012, for example) and have more than one account sending out tweets.  That way the per-account threshold would not be reached but followers could still get the messages by following the hash tag.  Tools like TwapperKeeper could be used to aggregate the results later.
  • Four hands.  No, not a four hand reel.  The first hour was difficult, because so many dances were completed.  It was just about all I could do to keep up with them (and I know I missed a couple and repeated a couple).  It would have been helpful either to (a) have had two people involved (another benefit of using a Twitter hashtag rather than a single account) and (b) or to have been less anal retentive and accepted that the world wouldn’t end if it took me longer to get a particular result posted.
  • Paper.  A paper competitor list might make including schools useful, although now I think it is unnecessary.  A paper stage assignment list would have been immensely useful.  Then, as I sent out a message, I could mark off the dance and just work through the list.  After the first two hours, there was much more ebb and flow, and I could have filled in some of the slack time with dances that I had missed.  One tip:  I could use the Twitter search to look for a dance number since they are so unusual.  If it came up, I had posted; if not, I needed to send the result.  That was helpful when I was in the flow and wondering if I had missed something.
  • PC/OC Results.  We figured this out before too long but I think we need a better process if we do this again.  I did not live blog the championship results or the special dances as well or as completely as we might have accomplished.  These dances are, as far as I understand, some of the results that are most sought after by the non-attending audience and so this wasn’t a success.Also, I wrapped up my live blogging when all of the slots on the results posters were filled, and I thought that I had heard the last stage wrap up.  In fact, there were still some champ dances going on and so not only was the feis not over but their were still some PC/OC results to share.  This is more due to the fact that, although a dancer’s dad, I don’t get out much and there are still significant gaps in my understanding of what happens at a feis.  I’ll know better next time.

Feis often suffer from a lack of volunteers, so adding a single person to do live blogging of results is probably a low priority.  However, if there was another feis committee interested in doing it, I think this would be the model I would suggest:

  • Use some dancers, perhaps two at a time, who are not dancing, and have them do it.  They’re digital natives, blah blah blah, anyway so you might have some takers.  One of my dancers was initially interested but exhausted herself dancing.
  • Use whatever device the senders are most adept at.  I used a laptop because I can type on it, but you could probably use smartphones or iPods just as readily.
  • Wi-fi is nice, but even if your venue doesn’t have it, the short results messages are fine over any 3G wireless connection.  You don’t need a lot of bandwidth.
  • Have some paper and perhaps even a table to sit at to keep track of what results have gone out.

The reception by our audience was pretty positive.  I think it was a success for the parents and dancers who were attending, and it was nice to see some engagement from folks who were not there.  From my perspective, it wasn’t very difficult work and by lunch time, I had gotten better at it and the results had slowed down tremendously so it was no harder than any other volunteer role on site.  It will be up to the feis committee to see whether to do it again next year, but it was an interesting experiment.