#BioChat: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

August 12, 2011 |

Biofuels’ Twitter-based digital watering hole is a place to network, share news, opine, and meet good friends in the business.

For ventures and scientists, home to a must-know tribe of influencers who can mainstream your reputation at light-speed, or kill your street cred.

In days gone by, when cars were made in Detroit, news in New York, music in Nashville, and steel in Pittsburgh, local watering holes sprang up as gathering points for making friends, doing business, and catching up on industry news.

Now, we live in a digital age, and bioenergy is broadly based around the globe – but the desire to network, comment, gather, share, gossip, encourage, advise, warn and occasionally commiserate is still there. As the opening theme of Cheers used to proclaim:  “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”

Enter Biochat, a digital gathering point, found on Twitter, which has everything except the beer.

What is Biochat, anyway?

Scott Miller, who travels in Twitter circles as BioBlogger, explains: “#Biochat is a lively Twitter discussion group that acts as a 24/7 global repository of links to news, opinions, and comments for all things biomass – including bioenergy, biomass feedstock, biofuels, biopower, biowaste, and algae. It was founded by Sean O’Hanlon (@SeanOHanlon), the Executive Director of the American Biofuels Council, who based it on its counterpart #agchat – a chat group that appeals more to the Twitter farming community. Whereas blogs, press releases, ezines, and conferences provide great content, #biochat provides a quick, interactive forum for comments and viral networking.”

Founder Sean O’Hanlon recalls, “Roughly two years ago, Joanna Schroeder urged me to create a Twitter account. I blew it off for about 6 months because from what I could see at the time, it looked like a fad for kids in high school and college. Hardly anybody in the biofuels business was using it, so who would care to read what I thought? Then one day the light bulb went on. I came to the realization that if used smartly, Twitter has potential to be a catalyst across the entire bioenergy sector and not just biofuels.”

Greenpower Conference’s event development chief, Claire Poole, agrees. “I’ve connected with lots of new people on there, which with my busy schedule I wouldn’t have had the time to go out searching for, and it has allowed me to let these interested parties know about our conferences and what we’re up to in the space that might be of benefit to them.   In turn I’ve been advised of news, opinion and discussion that has increased my knowledge of various areas – and the fact it’s instant means that discussion is free flowing and natural.”

To try out Biochat

Have a look at BioChat, here.

How does it work?

Well, it’s simple as pie. You simply follow #biochat on Twitter. If you are new to Twitter, the Digest’s Newbie Guide from Scott Miller (BIOblogger) explains all.

Who’s “there”

O’Hanlon can reel off an impressive list of participants. “There are some very prominent professionals using #biochat like @AlgaeExec, @BarrywMagee, @EmgMarkets, @NathanSchock, and @RiggsEck. There are also companies like @AmyrisInc, @SapphireEnergy, @Solazyme and @GrowthEnergy who have social media people getting the word out about their companies with #biochat, sometimes in a more thoughtful way than the average press release.”

Miller chimes in with even more. “People who contribute to #biochat tweets include a mix industry notables like ABO Executive Director Mary Rosenthal (@AlgaeExec), Origin Oil CEO Riggs Eckelberry (@riggseck), Boyd Cohen co-author of “Climate Capitalism” @boydcohen, and NRDC’s Nathanael Green (@nwgreen). (Miller’s list of the 10 most influential frequent #biochat participants is here). Tweets become important tools for building personal brands online and most #biochat participants are “Specialists) according to @Klout.

It’s become a rallying point for lobbyists and trade associations to drum up awareness and support. “@Growthenergy’s Chris Thorne and Stephanie Dreyer often make #biochat users aware of legislation that need support in Congress,” Miller says, “sometimes mere hours before they are voted upon.”

The Weekly Session

Every Wednesday, visitors can participate in #biochat from 7-8pm ET. It is an open forum which usually has a predetermined topic and slate of five questions for people to chat about. People sometimes provide links to substantiate and expand their comments. All are welcome and encouraged to contribute their comments.

Why It Works – as a communication and networking tool

“As it has grown I’ve been become convinced that it will help make the industry much better connected,” says O’Hanlon, “and perhaps even effective at tackling difficult challenges such as sustainability and public policy issues. It’s already gotten to the point where biofuels folks who aren’t paying attention have put themselves a few steps behind everyone else who uses #biochat.

“Here’s why: With Twitter, information exchange is real-time, and comes from a much richer variety of sources than any other format. Because so many people from the various conferences are posting Tweets in real-time, and funneling them into one place by using the signature #Biochat, I’m able to monitor what is happening at multiple conferences in real-time from thousands of miles away. And these #biochat dispatches come from people with an broad array of expertise. (Agriculture, Algae, Biomass, Biogas, Biofuels, Biochar, Biotech, and Water)

“In this business, we need all the help we can get. And little by little, people in #biochat are showing others the way. Scott Miller, @BioBlogger, has become a mentor for others who are curious about entering the social media arena as he has expanded his professional network and reputation by making concise, witty comments about bioenergy news of the day.”

Why it works – as a personal outreach tool

Scott Miller’s take? “As @bioblogger (the editor of a series of blogs on bioenergy) I find that I can research and draft 20 tweets in a day compared to writing a maximum of 20 blog posts in a month! While the content of a tweet doesn’t compare to that of a blog, the interactive nature of Twitter makes contact networking much more immediate, personal, and engaging. I can use my five years of blog posts as links in my tweets which gives them new life and often gives me feedback I never got from blog comments.”

Claire Poole agrees. “The sometimes frenetic nature of Twitter means it can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of content, #biochat is a superb tool for finding likeminded people to ‘follow’ on Twitter, as well as discussing and reflecting on the topical issues of the day.”

Great, but could be better

Biochat regular, attorney Todd Taylor of Fredrickson & Byron, hopes for more. “Sean has started a very interesting and potentially valuable tool for the biomass industry. It’s potential is in it’s ability to reach and have interaction with a wide audience on social media.  It needs to expand and reach out to more people, then use that reach to drive to action.  Whether that action is agreement to support policy at the local, state, national or international level, or more simple action such as two businesses learning about each other and going to the next step to explore opportunities.  I’d like to see invited “tweeters” to whom the audience can interact and ask questions – like RFA, ABFA, ABO, NAA, NBB, BPA, etc…, as well as some critics of biomass including environmentalists, utilities, and most conservatives.

A biofuels hub

O’Hanlon sees more than simply a news-sharing forum. “#Biochat is already more than just a place to share links to biofuels news. It has become an important hub to communicate with others in the various fields related to bioenergy. Besides the weekly sessions, it’s a place to exchange information in real-time with some pithy quotes from a conference, add two cents on a hearing in Washington, or let my followers know where I am going to be in case they want to meet in person.”

How big will it become? “It really is broadening,” says O’Hanlon. “I can’t imagine being without this channel for sending and receiving news from a whole lot of very smart people. My bet is that a lot more people are going to see it the same way once they join the conversation.”

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