Social media is transforming and revolutionising research communication, particularly in terms of reaching new audiences outside the science arena.
Research communicators cannot afford to ignore the power and potential of these new media tools. Here are some of the reasons why you should join the conversation.
Social networks allow you to follow projects, organisations in which and people in whom you are interested. It can be a great source of inspiration, ideas and new contacts.
Social media creates powerful and influential virtual communities. It allows people who are sharing a common interest, for example attending the same conference, to network effectively in real time.
Social media has a participatory culture where anyone can provide content and comment on what others have shared. As such, it can be a useful tool to find out what people are saying about science.
Similar to other communication activities, social media should support your overall communication strategy or plan. However, don’t think of social media as something extra that you have to do. Rather integrate it with your current activities and see it as a way of adding momentum, value and visibility to what you are already doing. It is also a tool to network (directly) with scientists, journalists, policymakers and leaders in research communication.
If you are responsible for communication within a university, it may work best to create separate accounts for research on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. In other words, don’t mix the news feeds coming from the campus with general research news. This allows you to promote and share research done at your university without it being diluted by corporate and campus news. Use these social media channels to make research (and the people doing the research) more human and engaging. If it is done well, it adds a fun element to your media releases and web site.
“Science communicators should be aware of their resources. This may mean that you have to focus on one social media channel only, since they need to be monitored and ‘fed’ constantly.” Susanne Benner, head of communications, Max Planck Institute für Chemistry, Germany
Choosing the most relevant social media tools
Social media is so popular that new tools and platforms are added all the time. This guide will provide some tips for Facebook and Twitter, since these two platforms are still most widely used for sharing research with external audiences.
Other popular social media tools include LinkedIn (for professional networking and profiling); Instagram and Pinterest (for visuals and visual ideas); Google+ (general networking); YouTube and Vimeo (video sharing); SlideShare (sharing presentations) and Tumblr (short blogs, mostly with multimedia).
ResearchGate is a professional network for researchers where they share their publications with other scientists and find out about the latest articles published in their field of interest. ResearchGate also rates scientists based on interactions and publications shared.
All of these tools are really easy to use once you make an effort to get started. Most provide excellent online tutorials and forums where you can get help.
Create your online profile
Your profile is the first point of contact between you and your followers on social media. It should make it easy for people to find you and to see what your work and research interests are about. When you first register on a social media site you will be asked to set up a profile. You can update or change your profile at any time. The three essential ingredients of a profile are: (1) a username; (2) an image and (3) a short biography:
Choose a unique username, ideally 15 characters or less, that is easy to type and remember. You can use your own name, or become creative with a username that says something about yourself.
The image (a graphic or a photo) that you add to your profile will be the image people will have in their minds when they interact with you on social media. Use this as an opportunity to say something about yourself or your work by, for example, using an “action photo” of you doing the work you love. Remember that this picture will often be displayed very small on the screens of readers, so make sure it is clear and bright, focused and not too busy.
A brief biography – the final part of your profile – should describe who you are, what you do and your interests—all of which should indicate what you intend to talk about.
Social media activities should be ongoing, but not ad hoc. Plan well. Social media marketing demands a thoughtful, measured approach, transparency and an authentic voice. The most powerful way to ensure impact is to roll-out well-timed and manageable social media campaigns. These can be linked to relevant events, national days, news happenings, weather phenomena and any number of other things.
Your social media strategy or plan should include a risk management plan for when something goes wrong!
Once you have mastered the power of social media, you may want to look at training some of the younger scientists at your university to mobilise social media to promote their work and the university in general. It is easier having a core team active on social media than doing everything yourself.
“Maintaining a research news site, newsletter and research report are essential tools for creating an online community for researchers. Blogs and other engagement tools also contribute towards building a science hub from which all other online and social media platforms can pull content. It is essential for researchers to keep their online profiles updated as well as for institutions to maintain updated experts directories. This will expedite your online exposure and is a lasting advertisement for the research, researcher and research institution.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
Remember that you can create an online profile (and, for example an account on Facebook or Twitter) in your personal capacity or as an organisation. That means you could, for example, create a name and account for the research you want to share – across the institution or for a specific faculty, department or research group.
Do you know which social media platforms are used by researchers and research groups at your university? What social media analytical tools do you use to measure its impact and reach?
By nature, social media is not easy to govern or control. But, does your university at least have a policy about the recommended/wise use of social media for research communication?