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How to crack social media for research

Social media is only worth it if you do it well, as Mark Reed, professor of socio-technical innovation at Newcastle University and co-founder of Fast Track Impact, tells Lindsay McKenzie.

“I’m not a social media evangelist. In fact, I might even suggest that some of you are wasting your time.”

This is how Mark Reed began his talk at the annual conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators in June.

The key to success in social media, Reed says, is to look before you leap. “Your first question is to ask yourself what do you want to achieve through social media?” Few people actually ask themselves the question. “I think a lot of it is actually about peer pressure: ‘Everyone else is on it, therefore I should be.’ That’s not a great reason to be doing this.”

If you’re using social media professionally, you need think about what you want to get from it before you begin. “Is this about growing your network, is it about understanding more about your field, or is it actually about increasing research impact?”

If you’re looking to boost research impact you need to think who you want to reach and what they’re interested in, Reed says. “Different publics will be interested in your work for different reasons; you need to think about how you might preferentially target particular people and what their preferences are.”

An often overlooked question is whether the people with whom you want to engage are actually on social media. “If they’re not, you can stop right there and just go home. There is no point trying to use social media to create impact with people who are just not on those platforms.”

Reed’s advice is to look at which platforms the people you’d like to be interacting with are using: are they on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn? “Find out which they use the most. Don’t spread yourself across lots of different platforms if you can legitimately focus on just one.” Spreading yourself too thin “can be time-consuming and perhaps inefficient”, he says.

Also consider the kind of content that you want to share on social media, and how you’re going to generate it. “A colleague of mine at the University of Dundee has a network of researchers and PhD students to whom she regularly sends requests for content, almost every week,” says Reed.

The content that she posts might be links to papers, announcements of successful grant applications or blog posts. “She then feeds back information on how that content performed when she shared it,” he says. Telling researchers how many times their posts were retweeted helps motivate them to keep sending material, says Reed.

Don’t be afraid of endorsing competition, he says. Successful tweeters often act as curators of other interesting content rather than just promoting their own. If people start to come to you to see what is going on, they might be more receptive to the content that you push from your own institution, he says.

He also advises thinking about your own reading habits and setting aside time each day to catch up on daily news, particularly if you are new to social media. Another tip is to consider following people who you find interesting, even if they’re not directly relevant to your work.

It’s important, too, to consider working with your institution’s media team. “If there’s a press release coming out about a new centre or finding, think about how you can take that press release and build on it. Perhaps you could create a blog post from a researcher’s perspective in your own words. You can take things much further than your press team might be able to themselves.”

If you want to manage a social media account with colleagues, consider the different roles you might play. Are you an ideas person, a connector or a sales person? “The sales person role is the role that academics are generally least good at,” says Reed. If you’re not good at selling yourself, look at what others do online: a process known as ‘lurking’. You may tweet something that gains little attention, but someone re-phrases it and suddenly it gets a lot. What did that person do differently?

Don’t be afraid of being proactive to reach bigger audiences, he says. “There will be people at your universities who will have followings in the tens of thousands. Think about how to start a relationship with them. Is their work relevant to yours? Maybe they can help promote some material.”

Reed says that he regularly approaches businesses, non-governmental organisations and even research councils to ask if they will promote work he has done. “Pick up the phone and ask to speak to the person who presses the button on Twitter. Explain what you’re doing, why it’s relevant to their following and why they should be interested in it.” The message may then be shared by someone with hundreds of thousands of followers.

“So far I’ve never had anyone say no,” he says.

This article first appeared in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. It also appeared in Research Fortnight