As founder of the #measurePR Twitter chat, I was invited to, and participated in, #chatmixer last night (party image, David Domingo, Creative Commons).

The idea was to bring together folks who routinely participate in specific chats, in an online/Twitter “mixer,” in an effort to widen their Twitter circles (would that be Twircles?) – hence the choice of #chatmixer as a hashtag. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, though Justin Goldsborough, Heather Whaling and Valerie Simon were meticulous in their planning.

Turns out, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It had a great party feel to it, and the last time I can remember the feeling of Twitter being such a party solely due to an effort like this (i.e. not related to an offline event) was the “kindness party” last year. I don’t even remember who organized that, except that Kim Wells brought it to my attention, and I had a whale of a time.

A chat is born

Anyhoo… during the course of #chatmixer, a new chat was born: #cookchat. (I cannot wait for that one.) And a few different people mentioned they were interested in starting chats as well.

This can be a very smart thing to do, especially from a marketing point of view.

But as with all bright ideas, you should play devil’s advocate and batter the heck out of your bright idea before you launch it. Better you find the holes in it & mend them before anyone else does, right?

First, read these excellent posts on participating in (by Jeff Hurt) and running (by David Spinks) a Twitterchat.

Now, just as when designing a PR strategy, here are three questions to ask – and answer – when launching a Twitter chat.

1. What gap will this chat help to fill?

If you look at What the Hashtag?! (now part of What the Trend™), you’ll see it’s currently tracking 9,900 hashtags. While not all of those are chats, that gives you a sense of just how many hashtags are out there.

Image: skipnclick‘s Flickrstream, Creative Commons

The primary reasons people participate in chats are, first, to learn something and second, to extend their networks. So if your chat is to be successful, it must fulfill these two desires.

If you look at this handy-dandy spreadsheet that Robert Swanwick created to track regular chats on Twitter, you’ll see a few chats that are fairly similar, as well as those that are quite unique.

There’s certainly nothing wrong in several people having the same conversation, albeit with different hashtags – it happens all the time. But if you want to give your chat a shot at succeeding (more on what this means in a bit), try to make it unique.

This is what Sarah Evans did with #journchat, what Kellye Crane did with #soloPR and, I’d like to think, what I’m doing with #measurePR.

What do the people you want to reach want to talk about? If you can answer that question – particularly with an answer that no one else has come up with yet – you’re off to a good start.

2. What will make this chat attract its target audience?

The quality of a chat – which is what will determine the perception of the chat and hence its profile – is dependent on who participates. You can design a great chat, but if you don’t have engaged, thoughtful and thought-provoking participants, it might end up being a one-hit wonder.

How do you bring the right people to the table?

Figure out what time of day and how often you’re going to hold the chat (this is particularly important if yours is not the only chat of its kind around)… and sustain it. Don’t set yourself up for failure; if your other commitments preclude a weekly chat, make it bi-weekly (or monthly, if you dare).

Whatever you decide, be consistent, since that is what will build your audience and community.

What you’re essentially asking people to do, as you build your chat community, is give up something else – work, family time, a movie, pizza – to devote their attention to your chat. Over and over and over again.

So make it easy and desirable for them to attend – that will go a long way in making it worth their while.

3. How will this chat become recognizable and identifiable?

Let’s face it, we in the social media sphere have the attention span of gnats. And I say that with no disrespect to gnats (image, Kaptain Kobold‘s Flickrstream, Creative Commons).

Like anything else in the branding space, repetition rules. So once you’ve figured out the name and aim of your chat, brand it well.

I’d go so far as to say, message the heck out of it.

Choose a smart, easy-to-remember hashtag that’s as short as possible; you want to make the most of those 140 characters of Twitter-estate. Register it on WTHashtag and add it to your bio.

Brand your chat frequently, but consistently. Because if you don’t, someone else might, and that will leave you considerably unhappy.

Which brings me to success – what does a successful Twitter chat look like?

It could be the dominant player in its niche with thousands of participants; it could be an extremely engaged conversation that leads to genuine discovery for a small but passionate group.

It could be the place where thought leaders in your field congregate; it could be people pitching you to be “on your show”; or it could be the generic use of your hashtag in conversations with a related theme.

Whatever the measure of success, you’re going to have to define it based on why you set out to build it… and if you really want to be successful, define this at the outset. I haven’t yet come across a Twitter chat that’s being sustained purely for fun, even if it was launched impulsively; if it builds, there’s a great deal of time and effort being put into it.

So figure out what you want to do with the chat, as well as what you want the chat to do for you (and it’s ok to want the chat to do something for you, that’s what business is about).

When you begin at the end, there’s a much greater likelihood you’ll get there.

What do you think, am I off the mark or on the money? If you’ve implemented successful tactics in launching and maintaining Twitter chats, please share them in the comments section below. All 9,900 hashtags (and growing) and I will thank you.