Social Media 101: Notes From My Talk At Sharing Science

Photo credit: Luis de Bethencourt, via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo credit: Luis de Bethencourt, via Wikimedia Commons.

I was recently invited to speak at a conference called Sharing Science: Writing and Communications Skills for the 21st Century. The June 27 conference was aimed at “science and health writers working for universities, non-profits and hospitals,” and was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with support from the National Association of Science Writers.

Specifically, I was asked to speak, along with Lee Aase of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, on issues related to new media and social media. (Full disclosure: I’m not clear on the distinction between new media and social media.)

Lee and I decided to split our talk into two parts. I offered an introductory overview of how to use social media effectively, and Lee offered up a case study.

These notes offer a concise overview of things that public information officers (or anyone, really) should consider before launching new social media initiatives. It is meant to serve as an introduction, but I hope it is also useful for people managing existing social media projects. I think it’s incredibly important to re-evaluate a project’s goals, strategy and tactics over time, to make sure they all still make sense. Now, here are my notes…

Social Media 101

There are certain things you should think about before launching any new social media venture. (And reviewing your existing social media activities is always a good idea.)

What do you want?

This is Communication 101, but it’s just as relevant to social media as it is to every other part of your communications planning. You need to ask yourself two key questions:

Audience – Who are you trying to reach?

Goals – What are you trying to accomplish?

The answers to both of those questions can be pretty long, but they establish the baseline that will drive the rest of your decisions. If you do not have clear answers to these questions, your project is unlikely to be successful, if for no other reason than that you have not defined what success will look like.

What tools should you use?

You shouldn’t launch a blog, create a Twitter feed, or open a Pinterest account just because it seems like everyone else is doing it. Three things to think about here:

1. Which platforms will help you reach your target audiences and meet your goals? “Social media” refers to a vast collection of tools, which are constantly changing. Do some research. Which social media platforms are your target audiences using?

2. What resources do you have available? (Be candid.) You want to play to your strengths. For example, do you have staff capable of creating a lot of good written content? (If so, maybe a blog might make sense. If not, a blog does not make sense.) Similarly, can you produce high-quality video content on a regular basis? Does your institution have an extensive image library you can draw on?

3. Are you driving content off-platform? Sharing on platform? Both? Social media was once used primarily to drive traffic to websites elsewhere. But users increasingly want to consume their content on the platform they’re using. E.g., they want to see images and videos on Twitter or Facebook, instead of having to leave those sites in order to consume content.

Use your answers to these three questions to figure out which tools might work best for you. For example, if you have access to a lot of great, engaging images, Tumblr or Pinterest might be a great fit. If you don’t have good images, those platforms will simply not work for you.

But there’s one last thing to consider here: What are the platform’s inherent limitations?

For example, on its face, Facebook seems like a great fit for reaching young people. According to 2013’s numbers – which are admittedly ancient history by now – well over 60 percent of people ages 15-34 use Facebook, as opposed to less than 30 percent for Twitter and Google+.

But can you reach them? Facebook has now made it extremely difficult for page administrators to reach their followers unless you pay to “promote” what you’re sharing.

And, depending on the discipline, Twitter seems to be home to more engaged online research communities.

In short, there are a number of variables to consider. Be sure you consider them.


Some ideas sound great, but bomb in the real world.

For example, I launched a series on my university’s research site called “Research Visuals.” The goal was to work with researchers to identify great research pictures, from microscopy images to field work photos, and accompany them with extremely concise descriptions of the related work.

Not an awful idea, right? But it had two fatal flaws: there was lackluster initial response online, and so few researchers bought into the idea that we couldn’t post on a regular schedule. That effectively killed whatever momentum the project might have had.

But some ideas that might seem unremarkable end up doing remarkably well. For example, I’ve used the same research site to answer everyday questions (many of which are questions my daughters ask me).  For example, I did a post on how bees make honey.

Guess what? A lot of people want to know how bees make honey. It gets approximately a thousand hits every week, almost all of them from search engines. There’s never been a day when it got more than 1,000 hits, but it has now racked up tens of thousands of visits. And it’s in line with one aspect of my university’s “land grant” nature, highlighting our role as a place for people to go when they want answers to real world questions.

Want to write a series of blog posts highlighting research milestones in your institution’s history? Try it. Want to make a video explaining the CRISPR-Cas system using finger puppets? Try it. (Actually that one would probably do really well.)

Allow me to quote FDR here: “Take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it and try another. But above all, try something.”

Use metrics to see what’s working

There are a lot of baseline analytics out there for blogs and social media platforms. They’ll tell you how many followers you have, which posts people are most interested in, etc. But don’t forget that you didn’t get involved in social media purely to rack up followers.

Some of these metrics are useful. For example, shares, likes, retweets, and click-through rates are reasonable proxies for engagement.

But the most important metrics are probably ones that won’t show up on your dashboard.

You need to bring critical thinking into play: Find metrics that actually help you measure progress toward your goals.

Here’s an example, involving a coffee mug.

A research assistant at my university, who had recently graduated with his undergraduate degree, had turned a senior class project into a new kind of coffee mug. He then teamed up with another inventor to bring the product to market, setting up a Kickstarter page to fund an initial production run.

This story had a lot going for it.

A student project? Student entrepreneurship? Easily understood and practical application of a chemical engineering degree? Coffee?

This was not the sort of thing we’d do a formal news release on. Instead, I wrote a blog post, pushed it out via social media, and pitched it to reporters.

The post led to more than a dozen stories in external news outlets, including the largest newspaper in our metropolitan area. It was also shared more than a thousand times on social media. That means the university successfully highlighted student entrepreneurship to a large audience, and that the audience was extremely interested. Primary goal accomplished.

Did we also help the recent grad meet his goals? Yes.

One of the unconventional metrics here was the amount of traffic we drove to the research assistant’s site. The assistant reported that there was a huge jump in visitors, which was good – we had stirred up interest in his project. The second unconventional metric was activity on his project’s Kickstarter page. Donations jumped by more than $200,000 after our blog post (and ensuing media coverage) went online.

In short, the post did exactly what we hoped it would do, raising the university’s profile in a positive way and helping our employee/student achieve his goals. We had the unconventional metrics to prove it.

But – and this is important – if we had relied only on conventional metrics, the post would have looked like a failure. The post received only 3,800 unique visitors and had a bounce rate of more than 93 percent.

It’s okay to look at all of the numbers, but remember that not all of the numbers are equally important.

Refine your approach

Be willing to admit when something’s not working. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches and tactics. And don’t be afraid to throw in the towel if you recognize that a platform is no longer useful for you. I’ve played with and deleted plenty of social media accounts.

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