Science Blogging for Institutions: Your Virtual Roundup of the ScienceWriters2014 #OrgBlog Session

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Rachel Ewing, a science and health news officer at Drexel University. Ewing is the organizer and moderator of a session called “Science Blogging for Institutions: How to Make Your #OrgBlog the Best it Can Be” at the National Association of Science Writers annual conference.

This weekend at the National Association of Science Writers meeting in Columbus, OH, we’re going to talk about a topic that may be familiar to readers of Matt’s blog: blogging for institutions.  Luckily for attendees, we snagged Matt as one of the panelists! And luckily for everyone, we’re going to go beyond the excellent getting-started tips that Matt has already offered here on Communication Breakdown. Our goal is to answer attendees’ questions and discuss real tips on how to plan, write, edit, promote and moderate an institution’s blog so it meets the institution’s goals and also doesn’t suck — and fix the problems if the blog is feeling lifeless, stale, or just a little lonely if you have sparkling content and not enough readers.

This post is your cheat sheet and opportunity to attend virtually, if you can’t be with us in person in Columbus. Or, if you are attending the session, your note-taking just got a lot easier because we’re providing our own notes right here. You can also follow along during and after the session and our discussion on Twitter, using the hashtag #orgblog.

Read on for a summary of the tips from our four panelists, Carol R. Clark from Emory University and the blog eScienceCommons, Karen Kreeger from Penn Medicine and the Penn Medicine News Blog, Henry Scowcroft from Cancer Research UK and its Cancer Research UK Science Blog, and CB blogger Matt Shipman, from North Carolina State University and The Abstract. I’ve asked just two of our panelists to weigh in on each of our main topic areas below, but I hope all of them will add on more perspectives during the session Q&A, and here in the comments afterward.

Getting started – How to begin blogging for an institution, sell the idea, and get the blog up and running

This is a topic well trodden by Matt Shipman, who offers these tips and links back to where he has previously discussed them in greater depth, and Henry Scowcroft adds his top few tips as well:

  • Make sure you have the time and resources to start a blog *before* you actually start the blog, says Matt.
  • Matt also points back to his Communication 101: Know your audience and your goals before you start writing. Who are you trying to reach, and why?
  • Even if you want to dive right in without mapping your strategy in great detail, determine some objectives in advance and get them in writing. That’s what Henry’s team did. At the time, he says, it “seemed like a box-ticking exercise… but actually was incredibly useful later on when senior types started asking if it was going well!”
  • Anticipating possible objections is also a key part of selling the idea to management, Henry also notes. Dealing with problem commenters is one of those, but needn’t be a worry. “You can delete them, ban their IP, and – in practice – they’re incredibly rare. You learn so much about your audience from negative comments too!”
  • Start your blog on a free platform to build an audience and then build a business case for expanding it, Henry says (and I agree). “Saves you going jumping through IT procurement hoops when you’re still learning.”

Sourcing content – finding ideas, corralling contributors, and keeping it fresh

Rachel Ewing. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Ewing.)
Rachel Ewing. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Ewing.)

Where do you come up with ideas for an institutional blog, where do you find contributors, and how do you keep it fresh once the excitement wears off? Carol Clark and Karen Kreeger provide these tips based on the Emory eScienceCommons blog and the Penn Medicine News Blog.

The process of sourcing content starts with the standards you set for the type of content you’re looking for:

* “The standard I try to uphold for content is that it must be a published discovery, or a topic that is newsy or quirky enough to be of interest beyond the Emory campus,” says Carol. (We hold a similar standard at Drexel, limiting our news blog to stories we think are externally newsworthy.)

With that in mind, you can think about where to look for the right kind of content:

  • Start with what you already do, and think about ways you can expand the impact using the blog. For example, Karen notes, many stories on the Penn Medicine News Blog are ideas the team wants to pitch to the media, e.g. “Penn-Developed Mobile App Speeds Lifesaving Information to EMS During Allergy Emergencies.” Karen and Carol both recommend writing blog posts about published discoveries as an alternative to news releases when the blog seems a better fit (and of course you can still pitch a blog post to reporters, just as you would with a news release).  (And Matt has previously written an entire post here about how he decides between blog posts and news releases.)
  • In addition to producing most of her blog’s content, Carol also draws from other institutional sources including the institution’s YouTube site, alumni magazine and scientists’ own blogs.  Likewise, Karen notes that at Penn Medicine, some blog posts offer a new angle on a story covered in the institution’s other publications, e.g. “Two Doctors at War” and “A Smile Makes A Big Difference.”
  • Reusing news media coverage for blog content is sometimes a good way to spread those stories. “Occasionally I will include reports about Emory science that appear in major media by posting a couple of paragraphs of the outside media story with a link to the original source of the article,” Carol says. Karen adds that these posts can offer fresh insights, such as the story behind the media placement, comments left on the cutting room floor during an interview, or a closer look at the issue or study that was featured in the story.
  • Consider inviting your scientists to contribute to the blog. Karen notes that the Penn Medicine News Blog has expanded the role of faculty guest posts. Students also contribute guest posts for special events, such as the annual Match Day, and these posts have proven very popular.

To keep things fresh and find more great content, there’s still more you can do:

  • Keep it timely by responding to what’s in the news, Karen suggests. Are there popular topics in the media that your scientists can comment on, or can you point out your institution’s involvement in a larger story?
  • Cultivate “sci-com super spreaders,” says Carol. These are “scientists who really ‘get’ what the eScienceCommons blog is all about and will alert me to potential cool stories.”
  • Talk to professors about their hobbies,” Carol says. “Some of the best stories involve the subject having fun. When a mathematician told that he loves rock climbing, I thought, hey, how about a video about the math of rock climbing? He agreed, and it’s now up to 200,000 plus views on YouTube.”
  • And pay attention! “Browse those random little notices tacked up in hallways and on bulletin boards,” Carol says. “I happened to see a flyer seeking people to listen to screams as part of a psychology experiment. Ironically, this Emory professor who is one of the world’s only scream researchers is very soft-spoken and not a self-promoter. I might never have learned of his cool work if it hadn’t seen that notice.”
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with formats to keep things interesting. Karen cites examples from Penn Medicine including Q&As with unexpected spokespeople such as chaplains or archivists, series of guest blog posts to cover an event over a period of several days, and multimedia-driven posts.

Developing a voice – what’s your tone, and are you ‘you’ or your institution?

This is an area where a lot of us institutional communicators can stumble, especially if we’ve carefully honed the practice of keeping our personal points of view out of our writing. It’s very possible to make the shift, even if it takes some intentional effort to reclaim a voice – whether that’s your own voice or a particular voice you’ve chosen to represent your institution on your blog. Doing so does require some thought to how you write your blog posts.

  • “If you’re willing/able to adopt a conversational tone in some of your posts, write in your own voice,” Matt says. “Posts can be easier to write, and will read more naturally, if they don’t seem forced.”
  • On the other hand, Carol deliberately isn’t using what she considers her own personal voice on eScienceCommons. “Instead, I’ve tried to cultivate a collective voice for really nerdy, geeky fundamental science.  Whenever possible, it leans toward quirky and fun,” she says.
  • “Choose subjects your audience will be interested in, and find ways to catch and hold a reader’s attention immediately,” Matt suggests.
  • Carol notes that some of the best ways to communicate tone and voice include great headlines, quotes, and photos. “A story about a discovery that fruit flies use ethanol to kill parasites, for example, has the headline: ‘Fruit flies use alcohol as a drug‘ and photos of beer. And the accompanying video includes the sights and sounds of beers being opened and poured.”
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Unconventional approaches to institutional storytelling can pay dividends,” Matt recommends.
  • Your voice and the attitude you bring to the blog can be the thing that breathes life into tough subjects. Carol suggests channeling the passion of the professor or, even better, combining that passion with cultural references, as she did in two posts that brought theoretical math to life: “He took the psychedelic pop path to math” and “Doing math with movie stars.”

Promoting your content – how do you fit your blog into the mix and get people to read it?

If you’re following most of the tips so far, you probably have a pretty amazing institutional blog. But is anyone reading it? Matt and Karen have the rundown on promoting your blog and fitting it into the institutional communications mix.

  • Both Matt and Karen recommend social media, which should be self-evident as a choice for promoting a blog. “Choose social media platforms that your target audiences use and cultivate a presence there,” Matt notes. He adds a very important caveat: “You have to interact on those platforms – you can’t just push out links.”
  • Both Matt and Karen also point to internal communications outlets your institution uses as a way to find readers who are likely to be interested in your stories. Can your posts be linked from institutional home pages, department or college sites (if you’re a university PIO), e-newsletters, alumni publications, or reprinted or excerpted in internal print publications?
  • Do you have partners that promote content? Matt suggests NSF’s Science360 team; if they know that your blog exists, they may want to highlight posts occasionally. Other funders of the work you’re writing about may also be interested in sharing your post with their constituents. Karen points out that in the medical realm, patient groups may be interested in some posts.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the blog as a pitching tool for reaching reporters, Matt points out. And Karen adds that, in some cases, blog posts about new research can be modified slightly and still be posted on conventional news release sites such as EurekAlert.

Metrics and analytics – how do you know if your target audience is reading, and what do you report to senior management?

“Web stats can say anything you want them to say,” Henry points out. So how do you track your blog’s performance so it tells you something useful and tells your bosses what they need to know?

  • “We use ‘engaged visits’ – people staying longer than 30s – and >1 page view as our key metrics,” Henry says. “This weeds out all the random traffic you get, particularly when you’ve published more than 1000 posts..!”
  • Karen notes that the Penn Medicine team reports on the pageviews the blog receives, in part due to limitations of the technical platform – but those simple stats still provide useful information when they can show you what types of posts are working best. For example, they’ve learned that guest series posts (such as Match Day) are very popular, and posts that are picked up by mainstream media also do very well.
  • Stats on email subscribers also give a sense of how many engaged readers you have, if those data are available, Karen noted.
  • Surveys and qualitative metrics are even more valuable, in Henry’s view, although they are also time-consuming. “You pick up on sentiments that you just can’t get with Google Analytics,” he says. This “helps you develop your tone of voice and know who’s ACTUALLY reading.”
  • Last, metrics aren’t just about keeping the bosses happy. “Monthly reporting of analytics is a pain but really useful,” Henry says. It “forces you to look up from writing and work out if you’re doing it right.”

About our panel and our institutional blogs

  • Carol R. Clark is the editor of eScienceCommons, an Emory University blog focused on the natural and social sciences – basically science that’s not directly tied to medicine It includes nine different departments, from anthropology to sociology, and a lot of pretty esoteric subjects, like physics, math and molecular biology. The ultimate aim is to raise the profile of the natural and social sciences at Emory, both on campus and around the world, by producing content that appeals to individual social media users as well as science bloggers and major media. The blog has grown from 16,000 visits in its launch year of 2009, to around 100,000 visits annually. In addition, YouTube videos produced for the blog have collectively achieved more than 700,000 views.
  • Karen Kreeger from Penn Medicine writes for the Penn Medicine News Blog. Launched in early 2011, the blog offers a steady source of timely, interesting content that is a unique and powerful supplement to the communication department’s traditional press releases and publications from the academic medical center. Nine department staff members contribute to the blog for an average of three posts per week. The blog is primarily targeted to the news media and also provides information for the general public, current and prospective patients, health advocacy groups, and medical professional societies. The blog received almost 94,000 hits in FY14, up from about 23,000 hits in its first year, 2011.
  • Henry Scowcroft oversees the news feed and science blog for Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest independent cancer research organization, which funds the work of more than 4,000 researchers across the UK. The blog was launched in 2007 as a new way to engage online audiences – chiefly the general public – with the charity’s work, and also to provide analysis and insight into high-profile media stories about cancer. It is run by a small team within the charity’s communications department, but contributed to by a wide range of authors from across the charity and externally. It now receives around 200,000 visits per month, many of whom discover the blog through search engines – but also a substantial number who discover the blog via the monthly supporter newsletter.
  • Matt Shipman, in addition to blogging here at Communication Breakdown, was part of the team at North Carolina State University who launched The Abstract, a blog that covers all aspects of research at the university. Their primary goal is to tell interesting stories. Some will be of particular interest to very specific audiences, but all should be written in such a way as to be interesting and accessible to a lay audience. They are primarily focused on external audiences, such as potential students or faculty, so they try to avoid stories that are of interest solely to the NC State community. The blog has had more than 540,000 unique visitors over the past four years.
  • And a little about me, Rachel Ewing, the organizer of this session: I work at Drexel University, where I developed, contribute to and oversee the Drexel News Blog. Our blog, authored by five contributors from our media relations team, is focused on telling stories or highlighting experts who we think are externally newsworthy, but in formats more creative and interesting than the average press release – it’s our ground for experimentation and rapid prototyping in communications. We launched this blog in January 2013, and it received nearly 92,000 visits in its first year. I previously worked at Penn Medicine (with Karen), where I developed their news blog and managed it for its first few months of existence.

Still have questions? Ready for more? We’ve built in plenty of time for attendee Q&A and discussion during our ScienceWriters session, so please bring your questions or leave them here in the comments! I’ll try to follow up in the comments to this post later with additional ideas and points brought up during the session.

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3 thoughts on “Science Blogging for Institutions: Your Virtual Roundup of the ScienceWriters2014 #OrgBlog Session

  1. Rachel Ewing

    As promised, here’s a summary of the points we discussed during the session that didn’t make it into the above blog post in advance.

    Getting started:
    • Anticipating questions about how you’ll approach institutional blogging is an important part of the process. Do you research (such as thinking through the subjects of this session and blog post) to be prepared. – Matt
    • Stockpile story ideas and get a bunch of evergreen stories to build up momentum when getting started – Matt
    • Setting post frequency: They end up with 2-3 posts per week based on the flow of content for Henry’s blog; sporadic posting (4/week or none for two weeks) for Matt’s blog. But Matt says posting on a regular schedule is a choice you might make based on your goals, e.g. if you are trying to build a steady audience who will come back to read habitually. That’s not the case for all institutional blogs, where pitching to reporters and getting links out via social media can bring readers to irregular posts.
    • Don’t be a slave to the calendar if it means putting up mediocre content. – Matt
    • Should you start a blog? If your organization keeps saying the same thing over and over and no one cares, don’t start a blog to say that same thing again in a different format. If you have people asking you questions [or stories you find interesting] that you aren’t adequately answering in other formats, that’s a good reason to start a blog. – Henry
    • If you’re concerned about your institution’s restrictions or reluctance about blogging, don’t go out and do it on your own unless you’ve done some minimal homework to be sure you won’t get fired.
    • People wonder about the time commitment involved in running an institutional blog and how you manage it. The answers to these questions vary, from the Penn Medicine blog (multiple layers of review for posts, and a regular posting calendar) to the less-structured Abstract (no schedule, two peers review each post before publication.) Across the board, the panelists do agree that blogging is a time commitment, but as you demonstrate success, it can grow in value to the organization so that time spent is valued. Carol notes that the blog is so integral to what she does that she can’t separate it from other ways she approaches media relations and sharing science stories.
    • To make the case for a blog, use concrete examples, whether actual blog posts or sample headlines of blog posts you might write, to show leadership what you intend to do and break them out of a fear of blogging as an abstract concept.
    • At the end of the session, longtime Ohio State research PIO Earle Holland commented that he didn’t ask permission before beginning a blog there. His advice: “Don’t be so comfortable. Just go ahead and try to do something.”

    Content:
    • Do you approach blogging as if you are a reporter covering the work, or as a collaboration like other institutional writing, where the scientists have to be happy? For Carol it’s still a collaboration, but it’s also part of her job to push researchers out of their comfort zone as part of their media training. When scientists see the blog post before it’s published, it helps them understand that it’s a good story and helps them get over the initial discomfort. Matt recommends approaching storytelling as a reporter, in the sense of checking facts, fleshing it out with other sources, and having a good hook and a good lede – but you’re still an institutional writer, so you still have to run it by the subject of the post.
    • How you find some stories: Ask “what was the bit when you looked at the result and said wow, or when you knew things were different?” That gives you the point of the blog post. – Henry
    • How do you balance seriousness of research with fun styles on blog? Henry says it’s your job to know what’s going to work and pull the academics out of their comfort zone if that’s what’s warranted. You’re an expert in how to communicate well and need to build the relationship with the researcher so they believe you. Karen says that once you get over that hurdle, they’ll work with you and you have an ally. Some others jump right on board.
    • What about the perception that blog is island of unwanted toys, place where things go if they can’t make it as a press release? Matt says it’s not that these stories can’t hack it as a press release, but they’re good, interesting stories that don’t fit into the format of a press release, e.g. face mites post. Or interesting papers you don’t hear about until long after they’re new – but some reporters might still be interested. You still need a place to put that content. The blog also gives you a place for researchers to talk about their work themselves, which can really convey their passion for the subject. Henry notes that as you prove your ability to make less-interesting content interesting on the blog, you earn the authority to say no to the truly hopelessly dull things that others want you to post there.

    Voice:
    • How do you separate personal voice from organizational voice, e.g. on social media accounts? Matt only posts what he thinks as a person on his personal social media accounts. Institutional accounts exist to share institutional content.
    • Henry uses “we” to make posts conversational but not quite as personal to one individual, representing the voice of the blogging team or the organization.
    • Matt does use first person rarely at The Abstract when that is really relevant to the content, such as an explainer piece triggered by something his daughter asked him. “How do bees make honey?” has been a continuously popular post for years, because a lot of kids are asking that and parents are searching for that question. It ties in nicely with institutional goals as a land grant institution.
    • Does the blog change the way you think about images and visual style? Matt says that visuals are always important, and if you have resources to invest, do. You can still do a lot with $0 budget, but make sure you’re sourcing images ethically. – Matt

    Promoting content:

    • Do you use institutional science blogs to pitch science other bloggers? Matt says he does pitch bloggers who are good, and it’s not that different from pitching to any other reporter.
    • LiveScience has section called Expert Voices, essentially an online op-ed site for science and technology. You can pitch your scientist-written posts to them. Similarly, Conversation UK posts articles and perspectives written by academics, but they go through their own editorial process working with the researcher to shape the content – Matt
    • Do you allow comments? Matt: Comments have to be approved, more work but less visible spam. We allow them even if they’re negative, even if it’s not offensive, abusive, or ad-hominem attack. Either no comments or a lot of comments, rarely just a few comments.
    • All of our participants use the existing institutional social media accounts to share blog posts and do not have dedicated social media accounts for their blogs. Henry notes that it’s useful to share his science blog content in the charity’s main feed; it injects science to show supporters where the money goes.
    • Does promoting content get less time-consuming as you build a following? How much effort per story finding the right targeted groups to reach out to?
    o Henry says that once you have a lot of good content, search engine rankings help you get some traffic with less effort.
    o Matt says having content on wildly disparate topics (digital humanities to robotic engineering) makes it difficult to have a single consistent following, so you have to do homework to find the right reporters or other audiences to reach out to for each story.
    o Karen says it does get streamlined with experience, but tailored outreach is always going to take time.
    o Carol says the most time-efficient way to ensure content gets promoted is to have a powerful benefactor within the institution who will promote the blog. When top management bought in, links from news site, social media channels helped get links out.

    Metrics and reporting:
    • You can also get analytics from social media shares, and get insights into questions people are asking that could lead to another blog post, or learn whether important influencers are sharing the post. Tools:
    o Who shared my link – a tool from MuckRack. Free, with more bells and whistles if you pay for membership. Tells you who’s sharing and what they’re saying about it. – Matt
    o Topsy – Matt
    o Reverse-engineer why a post is suddenly popular by pasting its URL into the Twitter search box. – Henry
    • Is it meaningful to assess a blog solely based on pageviews? Henry says that when reporting is more nuanced, monthly reports are informative and help you learn what’s working and what isn’t. At the same time, sometimes you just have to set arbitrary numerical goals to get on with your working life. Matt says that reporting can include specific outcomes that show the value of the blog, such as media placements based on pitching the blog post, even if the post itself doesn’t get a lot of views.
    • What about reporting other outcomes? If your institution’s goals include driving patient volume in certain services or humanitarian goals such as raising awareness of a particular issue, can you get at the overarching questions? Not easily without a dedicated research department. Sometimes you can show correlations, e.g. when Henry’s organization publicized a new bowel screening method and an increase was found in bowel screening in underserved communities, or when Matt tracks participation rates in citizen science projects he writes about.

    We’re happy go continue the discussion. If you have more questions or good examples of things that worked on your own institutional blogs, please leave them here.

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  2. Also: folks interested in this subject may also want to check out “The Complete Guide to Science Blogging,” which comes out in 2015 from Yale University Press. It was edited by three experienced writers/bloggers/science communicators: Bethany Brookshire (@scicurious), Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie) and Jason Goldman (@jgold85). If you’re interested, check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SciBloggingGuide?ref=br_tf

    (Full disclosure: I contributed a chapter to the book.)

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