Soapbox Science

Planet of the Apps: Social Media, Outreach, and your Research

Gwen Pearson is Network Manager for the Organization of Biological Field Stations, and an online strategy consultant for nature centers and researchers.  She formerly was Asst. Director for Education and Outreach at Kellogg Biological Station.

When I talk to Field Station Managers or Researchers about promoting their work with social media, the first thing they say is, “Oh great, MORE stuff I have to do.”

Certainly, social media can be overwhelming; there are thousands of choices about ways to create content, engage the community, and advertise your research and outreach programs.  Unfortunately, print isn’t dead yet, nor is email.  There are a lot of rumors about email’s demise, but about 92% of online adults use email; 61% use it daily. Just because you are online and being social, that doesn’t mean you can stop doing all the other things you are doing.

The world of social media is just like the print and email worlds: billions of messages are competing for attention.   How do you break through all that competition, and get the attention of the public? How can you mobilize and engage people to create a community of supporters (and possibly donors)?

Before you start picking out your Facebook cover photo, stop and assess what you are doing already in terms of your communication efforts.

1. What is your goal?

What do you need to accomplish? What is your goal? If you just jump into communication (on- or off-line) without a goal, it’s going to be hard to determine whether what you are doing has a good return on investment. Like everything you do, you should be asking, “does the yield justify my effort?”

You don’t have to hold yourself to the usual rules for goal setting (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely), although that certainly won’t hurt.  But if you are going spend time setting up a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, do it for some reason other than “everyone else has one” or “the Dean thinks we should do it.”

In the case of my research station, we needed to accomplish several things:

  • Increase summer course enrollment
  • Increase the “buzz” about our research programs
  • Increase applicant pools for undergraduate research experiences and internships
  • Diversify applicant pools for undergraduate research experiences and internships

That gave us a starting point to set more specific goals. How much of an increase did we want? If you don’t establish what success looks like, it’s tough to assess whether or not you have achieved it.

2. Be data driven

You wouldn’t start an experiment by randomly measuring variables, or by measuring all possible variables. You’d look at the system and make some informed choices. It works the same online.

Who makes up the audience you are trying to reach, now that you know what your goals are?  What data can you collect—or have you have already collected—that will tell you how your audience finds you? You can’t really assess if going social will work for your goals until you’ve collected some information.

For my station, we did an inventory of what information we already had. We added questions on our applications for research experiences, internships, and classes asking students specifically how they found us.  While the popular perception is that students are all on Facebook, the data told us faculty were key to engaging undergraduates. (Figure 1). We used web analytic tools on our website to find the top keywords in searchers, top referring websites, and most visited pages from outside visitors.  All this data, in aggregate, helped me to evaluate our existing efforts, and to determine what I needed to keep doing, and what I should stop doing because it wasn’t effective.

It turned out that a website called was the second main source of our student referrals. Treehugging…was not exactly an image that we were comfortable with. Even if some of us did wear Birkenstocks.   But it was clearly a major way in which students found us, so we decided we could live with the name. It was working. And that’s what counts.

3. Recognize you have a brand, even if you don’t want to acknowledge it.

People have perceptions of you as an individual, as a scientist, and as a research center. Just because the concept of “marketing” makes you itchy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a real factor in your outreach.   What does the data you collected tell you people are saying about you? How do you want them to describe you?

If there is a major gap between how you are perceived externally and what you think your core message or mission should be, that’s something that you need to factor into your online goals.

4. Now, Go Social!  (Figure 2 and 3; Push vs. Pull)

The online revolution has been primarily a change from a push strategy to a pull strategy. In a push strategy, you have information that you want to push out onto the public or a constituent group.  It might be an educational program, a science factoid, or a research opportunity.  It might be emailing people to push your information outward (and can be viewed as “spammy”).  It’s basically telling people you are having a party, and hoping they show up.

Pull strategies go to where the party already exists.  Instead of trying to gather people around a resource you created, you go where people already are gathered online (or physically in real life), and offer something that adds value. It becomes an opt-in, rather than an intrusion.

Scientists online aren’t competing with other educational or research programs–we are competing with football, Hooters advertising, and sitcoms.  It’s not enough to just put scientific information online.  We have to ENGAGE with the public to get them to see the relevance of our science, and convince them we are worthy of interest.  It is not a lecture, it’s a conversation.

Communities are built on trust. The more information we share, and the more we talk to members of non-science communities, the more likely we are to have our science messages heard.  Friends and peers are consistently the highest source of information for voting and decisions. Get online. Start making friends. Enter the conversation.


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