PRACTICAL GUIDE 2

Science communication with social media – the choice of the proper tools

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Science communication in social media is becoming ever more important for researchers, especially for economists whose research findings often lead to political consequences and impact on societal action.

However, trusting merely to one’s guts when posting will often not produce the desired effects. The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement has published a guide that takes academics through the process of planning for an effective online communication. We have condensed the key findings for you below. 

Your approach and platform will be shaped by your purpose and the people you are hoping to engage.

Two top tips for choosing the right platform:

  • Create a new account for work-related posts and keep it separate from your personal account.
  • Platforms surge and die, people using them shift. Keeping an eye on those changes means that you can adapt your tactics to ensure you’re always working towards your aim.

Here is an overview of the pros and cons of different platforms.

Twitter

Twitter is a news and social networking service where users post and interact with messages known as ‘tweets’.

PROS

  • It can be great for engagement with journalists, policy makers, MPs and other professionals and public interest groups (e.g. environment/ patient groups), especially if you have more than 1,000 followers.
  • Even if you have less than 1,000 followers, it is still great for reaching the scientific community (see “Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?”).
  • It has a vast user basis.
  • Hashtags can be used to follow campaigns.
  • Other Twitter users can be tagged in tweets to encourage dialogue and expand networks.
  • Images and videos can be utilised to generate more impressions.
  • It can be used to give an interesting headline and call to action by linking to external content.
  • The character limit helps ensure that your content is succinct and easy to read.
  • It is very open and public.
  • It is easy to gauge the mood on a particular topic.
  • You can use lists (like filters) and add subsets of participating followers.
  • Twitter Takeover Days are a useful tool for researchers to share their research with a different audience.
  • It is an extremely useful platform for disseminating information, consulting with individuals and also getting individuals involved with discussion.
  • It is easy to track the reach and engagement of each interaction via Twitter analytics.
  • Schools, colleges, universities and professional bodies often use Twitter as a form of communication about their activities.

CONS – things to think about

  • It needs direction and careful planning to be useful and there has to be real awareness of who uses Twitter.  
  • Twitter has the potential to be an excellent tool because there are few restrictions on who can be in your network (compared to Facebook which relies on accepted friends). However, visibility can be challenging if you are just one account in a network of hundreds.
  • Twitter often feels like lots of people shouting and nobody listening. Stimulating genuine engagement can be difficult and time-consuming.

Facebook

Facebook is a social networking website that allows users to post comments, share photos and post links to other websites, and watch and share short videos.

PROS

  • It is used by a diverse audience comprised of different age groups. Compared to other platforms, it is favoured more by older age groups, though.
  • “Groups” and “pages” can be created to bring together those interested in a certain topic.
  • It is great for engagement with general public audiences, for promoting offline engagement opportunities and getting online engagement through public events (e.g. live streaming). This may require paid advertising.
  • It allows you to share a headline, links, videos, images. You can tag other users to find out more.
  • There is no limit on the word count which enables you to be more nuanced.
  • Facebook LIVE allows for analysis of when engagement is happening during a broadcast.
  • It is good for promoting events and disseminating information, not so useful for stimulating two-way interactions.

CONS – things to think about

  • The focus is rather commercial and costs may ensue, e.g. for paid advertising.
  • It can promote and maintain short conversations but these tend to be slow (waiting for answers etc.) They need initial input and an audience.
  • The usefulness of Facebook is decreasing as the algorithms change. This means that financial investment is needed to maintain visibility.
  • Your network relies on accepted friends. These people may not want to engage with your research or work-based activity.  
  • Inbuilt analytic tools are clunky and difficult to assess.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an international social media platform that has seen enormous growth in 2020. It is useful for connecting people from different professional backgrounds.

PROS

  • It brings research findings into corporate practice.
  • It is great for offering application-oriented scientific topics and solutions to practical challenges.
  • It can help search for potential employers or cooperation partners in business.
  • It is useful for networking and disseminating information.
  • It is useful for disseminating content.
  • Most users have a full profile with their real name. Therefore LinkedIn conversations are very polite – quite the opposite to Twitter.

CONS – things to think about

  • There is commercial content.
  • You need resources to start a dialogue.

Snapchat

Snapchat is social networking application which is used to share photos, videos, text and drawings. Messages disappear from the application after a few second or after 24 hours depending on how the application is used.

PROS

  • It is great for “in the moment” online engagement.
  • It is suited to very specific types of public engagement – typically those that give great short, snappy visuals (like experiments).

CONS – things to think about

  • It is not suited for more dialogic, two-way interactions with audiences.
  • There are no known ways to capture metrics.

Instagram

Instagram is a social networking service which allows users to share photo and videos which can be edited with various filters and tags. Photos and videos are shared publically or with pre-approved followers.

PROS

  • Instagram is a great way to share images. It is also the most popular social media platform among young people. This is useful if they are your intended audience, but remember ethical and safeguarding considerations.
  • Instagram stories allow users to post images and videos that vanish after 24 hours.
  • As a marketing tool it is especially useful for reaching the under 25 year olds.
  • It shows great potential for dissemination and involvement. People have created small communities around #hashtags. This offers potential for utilisation in the future and for mobilising large groups.

CONS – things to think about

  • You can’t link to external content on posts, making it a bad platform for sharing links.
  • It is image-driven. If you don’t have an eye for a good photo, it’s problaby not suited to you.
  • Photos usually are not a good way to share complex ideas or findings that are difficult to communicate visually.
  • Posts can generate comments, but Instagram is not a forum for debate in the same way as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be.

YouTube

YouTube allows users to upload, view, rate, share, add to favourites, comment and report on videos and subscribe to other users. Available content includes video clips, music videos, movie trailers, live streams, documentary films and podcasts.

PROS

  • It is a great broadcasting channel – the most popular video sharing platform.
  • It can be linked to other social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram, and it can be embedded in websites and blogs.
  • It can be used as repository for project videos, e.g. events.
  • It can be used for the dissemination of podcasts because it allows comments.

CONS – things to think about

  • It is not suited for two-way engagement. It is better used for dissemination.
  • It can be visually great, but camera work needs time and training. While video production costs have decreased dramatically in recent years, producing quality video content can still be resource-intensive. It’s also worth noting that content created specifically for YouTube has its own conventions which differ from corporate, conventional videos. It’s more direct, DIY, personal etc.

Reddit

Reddit is a social news aggregation, web content rating and discussion website. Registered members submit content to the site such as links, text posts and images which are then voted up or down by other members.

PROS

  • It has almost 2 bilion users every month from nearly every country on earth.
  • User can share links and images or start conversation with communities of interest (Subreddits), directly connecting niche content with relevant audiences.
  • It has over a million communities (Subreddits) organised around every topic imaginable, including academic disciplines like science (20m subscribers), history (13m) and philosophy (13m).
  • Closely moderated Ask Me Anything (AMA) posts give experts the opportunity to engage users (Redditors) in informal, time-limited, question-and-answer sessions, often generating thousands of comments and questions and reaching millions of users.
  • Posts, comments and questions are organised by popularity with users “upvoting” content they like and “downvoting” content they don’t. This democratic approach provides a transparent means of taking the temperature of public opinion on different topics and could provide researchers with quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Because Reddit is fundamentally about the conversations that happen “below the line”, it is possible to gauge not only the reach of a post, but also its impact on users’ opinions and beliefs.
  • Reddit has a reputation for crowd sourcing and initiating collaborations between users that often transcend the site, leading to positive change IRL (In Real Life). Researchers have linked to online studies and gathered huge datasets in a matter of hours.
  • Reddit is anonymous and user data are not used to target advertising.

London neuropsychologist Dr Ashok Jansari took part in a massive online Q&A on Reddit that identified over 650 people around the world with near superhuman facial recognition abilities. Read more about it here: https://www.gold.ac.uk/news/reddit-facial-recognition-research

CONS – things to think about

  • Reddit’s interface and appearance is not as user-friendly as those of other social media platforms and can be off-putting for new users.
  • Reddit is a space for internet culture. Memes and self-referential content are prevalent and can be alienating for those out of the loop.
  • Reddit’s million plus Subreddits include NSFW (Not Safe For Work) communities and toxic / hate groups.
  • While user anonymity prevents the gathering of identifiable personal data, it can also lead to trolling and antisocial behaviour.
  • As the visibility of posts is defined by their popularity through the voting system, quality content can get buried if poorly timed or articulated. There is no guarantee your posts will be seen.
  • The average user (Redditor) is male, middle-class, a native English speaker and socially liberal.

What makes content shareable?

Format

Photos and videos (in particular) are always popular – visual elements increase appeal. Add captions to videos to increase engagement and aid accessibility. However, note that people don’t always listen with the sound on. Videos should be short – seconds rather than minutes. However, this varies by platform.

Content

  • Try to make your content fun and make sure it is relevant. Such posts are likely to be shared.
  • People want to interact with people. Consider including posts that show your human side and that there is a person behind the post. The most successful brands on social media act like people.
  • Make your post clear and accessible and develop your tone.
  • Content must be tailored to the platform.
  • Be realistic about your content. Is ist interesting? Why is social the right medium for it? Is it visual and shareable? Does it invite or provoke responses? Is it playful and / or related to the internet culture?
  • “Piggy back”’ on other events that are topical, e.g. awareness campaigns, anniversaries, national days. Planning is key!
  • Share content that people like to see. Be creative!
  • Set up specific opportunities for people to engage, e.g. set questions to create conversations.
  • Keep it simple, unique and useful. In the everyday flood of social media content, you will need to stand out in terms of relevance and uniqueness.
  • Shareability. Look at your content and analyse its shareability. Think “if I saw this post on social media, would I want to share it with others?” If not, why not? Can it be reformatted?
  • Don’t just keep reposting other people’s content. Ask people what they think about the important article or image. Make your audience aware that there’s a human behind the screen.
  • Remember to give people the opportunity to ask questions and engage in conversation by leaving that opportunity open. But beware of feeding trolls.
  • Your content should include a “hook”. This could be an interesting perspective, a question, provocation or theme. You are aiming to stimulate curiosity.
  • Exploit hashtags. #hashtags can be a useful way to keep track of discussions/ debates/ interactions on social media (and may feed into the “paper trail” above). But, they need consistency (e.g. avoiding different spellings) and wide uptake to be representative.
  • Shorten your links (e.g. bit.ly) to make them look more appealing. This makes the post easier to read as they are shorter and will take up less space.
  • Targeted postsand collaborations with schools/ organisations are a very useful way to ensure that your posts have a wide reach.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. You’re not going to stumble upon a winning formula straight away. Social media are ever evolving and you can be ever evolving along with them to find a way that allows you to engage with your audiences in the best way for both parties!

Good luck!

Date: March 2021
Questions, comments and notes are welcome at open-science@zbw.eu



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