All A’Twitter: How Social Media Aids in Science Outreach – Chapter 11
Chapter 11: Set of Best Practices for Social Media Use
Pulling from data gathered in the survey, NOAA case study and interviews with
experts in the field of social media for science outreach, I developed a list of 11
guidelines scientists and scientific institutions should follow when starting out in
the field of social media.
Rule 1 – Get a Good Feel for the Site BEFORE Jumping in
The Coastal Services Center (CSC) staff I worked with was tentative to start out with
social media. As I taught them more about the sites, and as they used their personal
accounts more, they became more comfortable and lessened restrictions as well as
quickened the post approval process. Before starting into a social media site, take
the time to get to know the site. See how other people and other scientists are using
the site, look at the site’s “About” page and read up on the site, and even Google
search it to see what other help pages are out there for the site. Out of the scientists
surveyed, the sites that respondents were already familiar with were the sites they
were most likely to use if starting social media for outreach. It makes sense: familiar
is comfortable. After taking the time to learn, it will not be long before you will feel
like a pro at tweeting and know all about “likes,” “tweets” and “+1’s.”
Also take the time to know your audience before you start talking. Know how they
prefer to get their information, the formats they like reading, and the social media
sites they use in order to streamline your time and effort. Take time to listen to the
conversation before speaking – something that is often easier said than done.
But throughout all of this, give yourself a cut off point. Spending months of
researching each site, talking to people and getting to know your audience will turn
into overkill. At the end of the day, the best way to get to know these sites is to use
them. So gather the background information and then dive in, you will realize what
works and what does not.
Rule 2 – Analyze your Needs and Content Before Choosing the Site
Certain social media sites are better for pushing out certain types of content than
others. Determine what types of content you have: are you filled with quick quotes
or updates on your research or do you have a long list of links to great resources?
Twitter might be the best for you. If you want to take the time to explain the link you
are posting or have great visuals (such as pictures of cute animals or cool proteins),
Facebook or Google+ might be a better option. You will also want to consider where
your audience is. Narrow down your scope – aiming to reach the “general public”
will never be successful – and determine what sites those people are actively
participating in. It will allow you to streamline your efforts and maximize results.
Many institutions do the same thing. They require research groups to apply for a social media account and ask for information that forces the group to really analyze how the social media account will benefit the project’s overall goals. It is a good practice to get into.
But know that there is no simple solution. Social media is still very new, which
means that there is no recipe that states, “if you have information X, use site Y, but if
you have information Z, use site A.” Use your best judgment based on the type of
content you have to share and what the site offers its users.
Rule 3 – Strongly Consider Twitter and Facebook
At this point, it might seem overdone, but I will say it once again: Twitter and
Facebook are currently more widely used than other social media sites. Chances are,
your target audience is already using one – if not both – of these sites, as are
colleagues and other potential collaborators. Cover multiple areas with one step:
stay current on science events, keep up with researchers in your field and in other
fields and communicate and promote your research to a diverse array of interested
Added bonus: people who already know you are on these sites. You have a built in
audience for your first posts with potential for resharing and therefore reaching out
to new audiences. By tapping into your existing networks you add traction to the
information you are sharing rather than having to build from the ground up.
Rule 4 – Have a Blog
This rule might also seem obvious but it is worth stating. Blogs teach scientists to
focus and force them to effectively communicate to a non-scientific audience. If you
are confusing, readers will tell you. It will test your communication skills while
promoting your research. A blog will also give you a source to post on your social
media sites on a regular basis – because you should aim to blog on a regular basis.
This will bring even more people to your research.
The purpose here is to create a strategy of having a space to share your thoughts
and a space to promote what you have shared. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook
create an online persona for you to develop and enhance but these sites only take
you so far. Having a blog – or even a website where you can share your thoughts –
compliments that persona and adds depth to your online presence. Blogging also
helps you break out of the typical “research, submit for publication, get published
about the time you need to be updating those results with more relevant data” cycle;
it is real time and communicates the bottom-line of research in effective ways (LSE
Even if you can only blog once a month, there is still value. Many survey respondents
noted that they aimed to blog once a month on new research, and they were
pleasantly surprised with the amount of readers they received for each blog. You
can even use the blog to attract potential PhD and masters students; the point is to
define what information you want to share and to do so in a semi-structured way.
Rule 5 – Track your Statistics…but Don’t Chase Them
Free web software for tracking statistics is readily available. Majority of the sites
you can use to manage your social media accounts, such as HootSuite, even track
statistics for you if you use their URL shortener. Take advantage of it. Determine
what content is most popular, what time of day is best to post new content, and
overall how many people you reach. All this information is useful when figuring out
how successful your efforts are, what you can improve on and how much effort you
need to be putting into each site to reach your goals. You can then take this
information and share it with funders, potential funders and group members to
show the worth of your work.
On the other hand, do not get obsessed with your statistics. Growing your number of
followers is great but quality is still more important than quantity. Have a strategy
to disseminate information and stick to it. Do not get hung up in wanting to break
200 followers or the fact you lost three followers yesterday. The important point is
that you are taking the time to share your research with more people than you
would have reached otherwise.
Rule 6 – Get Help, Give Help
If you are unsure of how to use social media tools effectively for science outreach,
find resources to help you. Find another scientist or research group that is using
social media and talk with them. Tell them to answer honestly, ask them your
questions, talk out your issues and see what sort of insight they have gained on how
best to use social media tools. Let these other scientists be the testimonies that will
help you believe in the power of social media and teach you the ins and outs before
jumping in prematurely. Seeking help from other scientists can be less time
consuming than attempting your own research on all of these different sites.
If you are an institution attempting to encourage your research groups and
scientists to start using social media, give them the tools to feel comfortable. Take
the time to develop How-To guides, find people that are willing to serve as points of
contact that other people can go to with questions, gather testimonies from the
others using these tools to create a testimony page/pamphlet/book for new
scientists to reference. Creating resources will help facilitate and encourage social
media use and increase science outreach.
But do not waste time re-inventing the wheel. There are amazing resources already
out there that you just need to find and distribute to your employees or use for your
own research. Granted, there will be institutions that prefer to have their own
guides and sets of testimonies, but feel free to pull from these other valuable
resources. Also, do not simply talk to one person and think that is the end all be all.
Everyone has a different opinion and even three people that all believe in social
media will have slightly different perspectives on how best to use sites and which
sites are best for which purposes. You need to talk to a wide variety of people to
gain a real picture of social media use for science outreach.
Rule 7 – Be Consistent, Be Committed
One key to social media is to have a schedule and stick to it. Make a pact with
yourself to blog once a month or once a week, tweet three times a week and post on
Facebook twice a week, for example. Set aside a day, an hour, a period of time to
work on your blog. Set aside 10-15 minutes a day or every other day to respond to
comments. It does not need to be much, but choose a schedule that works for you
and stick with it. This way social media will have less of a chance of falling to the
back burner when you get busy.
The other benefit to having a schedule is when new people find your site they will
notice that you post at certain time intervals and the blog or account is active. There
is nothing more disappointing than finding a new and interesting blog only to
realize the last post is from months or years ago and who knows when new
information will come through. Readers and followers want to know that following
you or reading your blog will be beneficial to them in terms of gaining new
information. Where is the return on investment if the blog you follow only posts a
new blog once a year?
Rule 8 – Don’t Let Social Media Take Over
It all has to do with discipline and balance. Dedicate time to social media but do not
get sucked in to the point where you lose track of your research or the other things
you need to be doing. Keep in mind you have to be participating in the real work in
order to have good information to bring back to the social media sites (Neeley
2012). There are tools available to make sure you do not miss anything big, such as
alerts for mentions or comments, and if there is big news it will stick around and be
promoted enough for you to see it even if you are not constantly monitoring your
sites and accounts.
Social media can be described as a river, as opposed to a lake or body of water – you
do not need to read every tweet, blog or post within the well of information. Merely
dip into the river when it is useful and do not worry about what is flowing past
when you are not there to witness it (Neeley 2012). It is simply impossible to keep a
constant eye on everything that is happening on social media while still
participating in research and other aspects of the real world.
Rule 9 – Keep it Simple
You have all heard the saying, KISS – Keep it Simple, Silly (or other, not as nice
names). But the saying holds true. Keep what you are saying at a level that people
will be able to understand. Think of your audience and meet them where they are in
terms of jargon and language use. If you are targeting GIS technicians, like the MMC
does for the most part, it is okay to use GIS related terms. But if you are targeting
elementary school children, do not using high school level language, you will not be
Think of your content before building something complicated on the Internet. Start
your blog with an idea and a focus and then as readership grows, expand to suit
your audience. For example, bloggers Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson started the
blog, “LSE Election Blog”, aiming to share election information in the UK in 2010
(LSE 2012). The blog gained popularity and quickly transformed into “British
Politics and Policy” that covers all aspects of what its name states. This was due to
the demands of readers. However, there is no reason to put in the effort to create
this ornate project at the outset; you will wind up tiring yourself out before you
have even reached the point of success, and you do not know what your readers
want until you gather readers in the first place.
Rule 10 – Share the Responsibility
Over half of the survey respondents stated that sharing the responsibility of social
media over the entire research group or lab group would encourage their use of
social media for outreach. Posting a blog once a week does not sound as daunting
when there are five authors contributing – all of a sudden you are only responsible
for blogging every six weeks. Monitoring comments on the blog, Twitter and
Facebook sites can consume a good amount of time. But splitting that responsibility
between the same five people means that it requires 10-15 minutes of your time
once or twice a week to monitor. The bottom line is that every lab should tweet and
blog (Wilcox 2011). Note: every lab, not every scientist. Spread the effort over a
collaborative team because that is how science is done – collaboratively.
Just make sure through all of this collaboration that you are communicating with
your social media team members. No one needs to see the same thing posted five
times or his question answered five times. Communicate with the other members of
your lab or research group and determine who is blogging when, who is posting
new content, who just tweeted that link to breaking science in your field, and who
answered that Facebook fan’s question. With the power of emails, texts and phone
calls, even if you are not actually in the same physical lab or office you can still
communicate to the team about your social media happenings.
Rule 11 – Go in with a Plan
Creating a new social media account or blog site is exciting. It makes you want to
jump in, write that first welcome to my blog post and feel like you are ready to go!
However, the more successful blogs are the ones that have been thought out before
they begin. Meet with your editorial team, research group, anyone that will be
working on the blog with you and draft the subjects – not the full blog – for the first
ten posts. This forces you to develop a template so that you can determine what
your blog will be about each week/month without having to strain yourself coming
up with something new. For example, if you are researching different varieties of
stingrays you could do a feature on each species. If you are going into the field for
two months, you could blog daily – or when Internet connection allows – and do a
“notes from the field” angle. The important question here is: what will the blog look
like in six months? Then go about planning to make sure it ends up that way