Public engagement and social media, part one: getting started
I’ve had lots of meetings with academic colleagues recently, discussing social media for public engagement and profile-raising. There’s been a focus on thought leadership – using social media to offer expert comment on current events, and a unique insight into complex and interesting issues that have a wider impact.
This series of blog posts explores the kind of things we’ve been talking about in those sessions, and the sort of issues that come up during them.
Start with the objectives
As always, any communications project needs to start with some basic questions.
Why do you want to use Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram? What do you want people to think or do? What does success look like?
It can take some digging before you get to the true proposition of the project, but being able to clearly articulate your purpose will help you deliver real results.
Your objectives on social need to be business objectives that stem from your organisation’s strategy. It’s important that the time you spend using social media adds genuine value to the mission of your organisation, otherwise it’s time wasted.
With those business objectives in mind, you can start thinking about your goals on social media.
Pro tip: ‘get loads of followers in a month’ isn’t a good goal to set. Why do you want people to follow you? What do you want them to think and feel? What’s the outcome of engaging and interacting with them?
Keep asking yourself ‘why’ until you get to the real objective.
When it comes to public engagement and thought leadership, we often want people to read our blog posts, watch our videos and download our papers. That’s consumption, and we can measure it.
But we also want to engage people in debate, spark discussions, and create conversations that resonate with people. So engagement on social platforms is another goal.
Once you have the objectives and goals, you can identify the metrics you’ll measure success with. Consumption is measured by click-throughs, time on page, video views and PDF downloads. Engagement is measured either in terms of number of likes and shares, or in the sentiment and relevance of the replies.
I’ll illustrate the use of social media metrics with an example later in the post.
Your online identity
By thinking about your objectives, and putting them down on paper, you start to shape your use of a social media platform. Maybe one of your objectives is ‘get some conference gigs’. By writing that down, you can start to develop a plan that will help you achieve that goal.
Along with objectives, think about your values. Do you value freedom of academic expression, evidence-based public debate, or the principle of lifelong learning? Write these things down as well. They will form the basis of your online identity. You can reflect these values in your Twitter bio, your tone of voice online, and the kind of things you talk about on Twitter.
Most people are concerned about the divide between the professional and personal identity. How much of yourself are you allowed to put into your Twitter account? Should you have separate accounts? Is a disclaimer necessary?
My take on this is that you should be yourself. By writing down your objectives and values early on, you’ve established a clear purpose for using social media. People will want you to deliver on those promises, but they’ll also switch off if your account has no personality.
So be professional, and be yourself. It’s okay to be human (and that means that yes, you can tweet about politics, food or football) as long as you’re delivering on the strategic stuff.
Put the audience first
We’ve covered the concept of peak content before on this blog, and it’s always going to be a consideration.
Think about how many messages, adverts, broadcasts and images you’ve been exposed to today – on the way to work, in the cafe, on the street. And on the numerous devices you use.
There are more videos, photos and articles online than there have ever been, and we’re struggling to make sense of the sheer amount of content we have access to.
As a result, engagement is declining. People are scrolling and swiping past posts without stopping to like, comment or share.
It’s the ‘so what?’ factor. But if you can focus on making quality, relevant and engaging content that resonates with your audience, you can cut through the noise.
Remember that too much self-promotion will earn you an unfollow, so always aim to give your audience something that’s either for them or about them.
Work with your marketing and communications teams
University marketing and communications teams are always looking for good research stories, and researchers that can help them tell those stories in engaging ways.
Here’s an example. The objective for this post back in April was to raise the University’s reputation in healthcare technology to a national audience. Our goal on Twitter was to reach a broad range of people in the UK, and for the story to resonate with those people, leading to shares, likes and replies.
Our researchers are using 3D printing to help babies with respiratory conditions to breathe properly. pic.twitter.com/GigPC68JIp
— Sheffield Hallam Uni (@sheffhallamuni) April 4, 2017
The tweet generated around 22,000 impressions (deliveries to user timelines). Our tweets average around 3,000-4,000 impressions, so this was a good result. There were also a lot of likes and retweets, along with some very positive replies and quoted tweets from Twitter users.
For an organic post (with no paid-for promotion behind it) these are good results. For the big ticket research stories, it’s important that academics collaborate with marketing-communications teams, so they can work on content that audiences find relevant and engaging.
Those sorts of reputational campaigns can be very impactful, and will probably have a budget behind them. Paid-for promotion is a very effective way to reach social media users based on interests and behaviours. This kind of advertising should be a part of any major campaign, and it’s the best way to drive traffic to the organisation’s website.
So, when it comes to the big ticket, high impact research stories, work with your marketing and communications teams. Get in touch with them early to flag potential stories, and collaborate with them in the storytelling process.
Some of their ideas might be different to yours, but give them a shot at helping you tell your stories. You’ll learn a lot from the experience, at least.
In the next part, I’ll look at academic Twitter accounts, what thought leadership looks like on Twitter, and how you can use LinkedIn to engage people in your research.