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January 8, 2012 / caitlynzim

Persuading the MMC Team: Why Twitter?

Persuading the MMC team will be a 3+ part series where I will discuss my findings from my social media research (the research I did for the MMC, not from the survey – that will be analyzed in February). Therefore, this will mainly be in terms of the Marine Cadastre project, however, I will end each post with my take on greater implications of my findings beyond the MMC based on this research.

So, why should the Multipurpose Marine Cadastre use Twitter?

I started off by researching Twitter (furthering what I know from my personal use) in terms of the total number of current Twitter users, average daily growth, potential for user engagement, amount of potential content the MMC puts out, number of current  partners and stakeholders already utilizing Twitter, comparison of similar users (such as National Ocean Service and NOAA) in terms of successes and failures and average daily use of Twitter overall.

There’s no question that Twitter has a large number and wide variety of users. After Apple’s integration with iOS, some sources believed the number of users increased by 460,000 per day. Marine Cadastre might not be directly targeting all of these people but our data has the potential to be used for a variety of purposes so this large number of users is still of interest while the growth is definitely a key point.

Potential for user engagement is, in a word, high. Twitter allows users to have a one on one conversation with another user (in this case, a government account) which, under normal circumstances (email and letters) this individual interaction is less likely or a more lengthy ordeal. Twitter gives a more personalized approach to user feedback which is extremely valuable in terms of product advancement and using these interactions as testimonies for validity of the project.

I might have mentioned this before, but all information posted on a government social media site must first be posted on .gov site. This meant that content for a Marine Cadastre Twitter account was based on what we had on the marinecadastre.gov site and how often we updated it. Some sites believe that in order to have successful Twitter accounts and a large following you must post multiple times a day; however, government criteria is at least once a month, ideally once a week. With the amount of information and data the Marine Cadastre pushes out, we estimated we could tweet at least once a week, most likely 3-4 times per week.

I gathered a list of stakeholders and partners from the website and talking with colleagues and set out to find each person/organization on Twitter. I was incredibly surprised to see that a large majority of these groups already had a strong twitter presence. Agencies such as the Navy, Dept of Interior, NOAA, National Ocean Service, EPA, The Nature Conservancy and many more already saw the value in Twitter, so why shouldn’t we? A typical business mantra – if you’re customers are on social media, then you need to be on social media – made me think that this would prove a strong point in convincing my team members of Twitter’s potential.

I then looked in to how other, similar, agencies – such as NOAA and NOS – were using Twitter and if they were having success. Part of this was following and keeping tabs on their Twitter accounts and part of it was listening to the social media webinars held through the National Ocean Service (NOS) Communication department. The Twitter seminar was very basic (aimed at the people who didn’t even know how to create an account through Twitter) but gave great insight into the overall success of NOS’s Twitter account. NOS (@USOceanGov) currently has over 35,000 followers, on average links are clicked 250-500 times, Twitter posts account for around 5% of traffic to oceanservice.noaa.gov, and in May 2011 alone, NOS recieved 9.7 million hits – up 3 million from May of the previous year. I realized that it’s highly unlikely Marine Cadastre will ever reach NOS’s popularity level (they get to post pictures of cool ocean scenes and videos of big boats while we post about GIS data…) it still demonstrated that there was a thirst for ocean knowledge on Twitter and that there was a niche we could help to fill.

The webinar gave me the answer to my last question: there are, on average, 140 million tweets per day. On one hand, this could support the belief that your information will get lost in clutter; or it could show how often Twitter is used throughout the day meaning that your content has the potential to be seen by a wide variety of users no matter what time your message is posted. Double edged sword of sorts but I believe it works in our favor.

Other government sites have experimented with discussion boards, forums and other means of communicating with users. However, feedback on these means have always been dim. Users believe that these methods are difficult to use and therefore are unlikely to utilize them. The Marine Cadastre was looking for a way to interact with its users in a fast and effective way. I believe Twitter has the potential to help with the issue.

Twitter also has the power to further promote the Marine Cadastre’s RSS feed. The feed started as short posts mainly updating new data releases, data updates and support. It has since been expanded (see my previous posts) to include a more stable, substantial blog series. Twitter is fabulous at promoting blogs and I don’t think I need to emphasize that to the people reading this.

In the end, this was enough to convince the team that Twitter was a wise decision. And we’ve seen the results to prove it; over a 300% increase in webhits for the first 3 months, 105 followers and great analytics to prove the marine cadastre’s worth.

As for the rest of you, how do these findings translate?

Knowing how to use Twitter as a conversation tool (the basics of retweets, mentions, and messages) and taking the time to answer and respond to questions and comments will go a long way in strengthening your science outreach. As Kevin Zelnio described in his post, and as many of you already know, outreach is often described in mission statements and more often ignored in practice. Twitter is a baby step in causing the outreach neglect cycle to stop.

Potential content is also an important consideration. I’ve read some places (such as here) that you should aim to tweet 5-10 times per day or once per hour if you can handle it. This sounds daunting but with scheduling tools can be made much easier. I believe that there’s value in not tweeting just to tweet, however. So analyze your potential content (research, other science blogs, interesting happenings during daily life) and decide how often to tweet from there.

Next, decide who is your target audience. Is it fellow scientists? Politicians? Potential funders? Or simply, the general public? Knowing your audience will allow you to determine if those stakeholders are using Twitter and therefore, if Twitter would be worth your time and helpful in reaching that audience. My suggestion is to establish a more specific audience than simply, “the public”. “The public” is notoriously hard to reach seeing as it’s everyone – it’s a tireless job with no end in sight and no good way to measure success. Choosing a smaller audience is a more effective way to disseminate information.

Lastly, take time to listen before you speak. Look in to how other similar scientists, researchers, writers or communicators are using Twitter to gather knowledge and skills for how you can be successful. Take time to speak with other Twitter users, as well. See if they have any tips or tricks for starting out and ask them to offer suggestions for good accounts to follow.

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