Bloggers’ roundtables have been around for a while. They’re especially popular for book clubs, with the Department of Defense, and among politicians. (One wag even asked John McCain if he knew the difference between YouTube and MySpace.)

Yet roundtables never really took off as a form of outreach. That’s too bad, because as a vehicle for companies to engage many customers at once, roundtables can be as effective, if not more, than their headline-grabbing cousins, Twitter and Facebook.

Here, then: The what, why, and how of a bloggers’ roundtable.

What is a bloggers’ roundtable? Technically, it’s a conference call. Figuratively, it’s a virtual news conference or editorial board meeting. Instead of standing at a podium, the speakers sit by a speakerphone, while the audience—the bloggers—dial into a conference line.

When is a bloggers’ roundtable useful? A roundtable works best when you want to promote your initiative to a small, engaged group; when you want thoughtful feedback; and when you want substantive write-ups. (“Small” can range from a car-full of people to a dinner party to an NFL team.) The conversation is more intimate than a live chat, the invitation is more prestigious than a tweet or Facebook update, and the whole thing is more fun than an email.

What do you need to do? After compiling a media list of pertinent bloggers, send each one an invitation to this “exciting new program.” Just as you wouldn’t invite the guy off the street to your news conference, so it’s best to review each blogger’s work beforehand to ensure that he’s relevant and respectable. (To be sure, this often is a judgment call: What do you do with someone, such as a Keith Olbermann or a Glenn Beck, who’s very controversial but who commands a huge audience?)

Given the unwritten rule of RSVPs—of those who are invited, a minority will agree to come; of those who agree to come, a minority will actually show—it’s best to invite at least twice as many people as you’d like to participate.

Once you develop a distribution list, you’ll need to set up a conference line. If you have the budget, consider recording and/or transcribing the call, so that you later can publish the audio file and transcript. Not only will this win you plaudits for transparency., it’ll also produce continuing returns-on-investment.

Invitation best practices. Now you’re ready to start inviting people. A few best practices:

  • Make the invite compelling, so it stands out alongside the dozens of messages that fill up the typical inbox each day.
  • Send a calendar invite instead of or in addition to an e-mail.
  • Send the invite a week in advance, and dispatch a reminder the day before.
  • Instead of trying to cram everything into the invite, use links. Avoid attachments.
  • Mention that the number of spots is limited. This engenders scarcity and thus commitment once someone has RSVP’d.
  • If you sense a blogger is especially receptive, ask if there are others whom he’d recommend you invite.

If you have the time, treat your most receptive blogger to an exclusive: A heads-up that you’re launching the roundtable, a pertinent article before it’s published, or an advance one-on-one interview with your subject matter expert(s). Then, in your invitation, you can link to what the blogger wrote, which bolsters your credibility and inspires others to follow suit.

If you have even more time, consider conducting media training or murder boards* with your expert(s).

How does it work? Generally, a roundtable lasts an hour. After taking roll call, the host, who is typically the organization’s spokesman, introduces the experts and lays out the guidelines (for example, everything’s on the record, use mute when you’re not talking, state your name and the name of your blog before speaking, etc.). The experts each then provide a five-minute overview of the subject, after which the crux of the roundtable—the Q&A—commences. This is crucial: The roundtable shouldn’t be a yackfest, but a give-and-take between the expert(s) and the bloggers.

On one hand, you can control the colloquy by calling on each blogger in the order everyone dialed in. On the other hand, you can let the conversation ebb and flow of its own accord. Or you can pursue a middle ground, which avoids awkward silences and doesn’t put anyone on the spot, by asking each participant to press the pound sign for his phone to be unmuted, after which he’s placed in a queue.

Whichever approach you prefer, if you want to impress, consider preparing a backgrounder on each blogger, which your expert(s) or spokesman can use to great effect when responding: “Hi Peter – Before I answer, let me just say how much I empathized with your recent post on the misery of being a Redsox fan.”

How do you judge success? Success comes when the bloggers write about what they heard. When this happens, encourage your expert(s) or spokesman to do something to show support, like leaving a comment on the post or tweeting about it; public displays of affection go a long way on the Web.

The bottom line: There’s more to online outreach than “Twitbook.” Sometimes the best tool is the oldest: The telephone.

Have you had any experience with a blogger roundtable? What advice would you add?

Jonathan Rick, a social media strategist in Arlington, Va., blogs at No Straw Men.

*A murder board is when people pose sample questions to someone (usually someone testifying before Congress).

Thank you to BC Interruption for the image.