Social media is a growing venue for science communication - and for good reason. The Internet has become a leading source of science information for the American public, with 60% of Americans indicating it as their top source of information about scientific issues (Science and Engineering Indicators, 2012). Social media have become an increasingly important component of that Internet-sourced science information. A majority of U.S. adults (over 60%) get news on social media.
But many science organizations as well as individual science communicators use social media haphazardly, when time permits, by trial and error. Using social media to communicate science can seem like a burden with nebulous benefits when you don't have a plan for your content on a day-to-day basis. At the very least, you should have a set of broad objectives that guide your content creation.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I've been hired and contracted to develop social media plans for various science communication projects. So if you want to create a science social media plan, how can you get started?
1. Review your current social media strategies.
Take a good look at how you are currently communicating science via your social media channels, either as an organization or an individual. What channels (social media sites) are you using? Look through your recent tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. What messages are you communicating? What hashtags are you using (and how are others using them?) Are there any unifying themes to the content you are currently posting?
Who is interacting with your content? Are you monitoring and responding to people who comment on your posts or mention you on social media, regardless of channel? How often are you interacting with other users vs. posting content in a broadcast, one-way communication fashion?
For Twitter, visit https://analytics.twitter.com/accounts to get summary statistics about your tweets, who mentions you, and who follows you.
What type of content do you post most regularly? Is the tone of your social media educational, humorous, serious, or promotional? Do you invite feedback or ask questions? Are you authentic and transparent about who you are and what you value? How often do you engage with other users?
2. Write down your science communication goals.
I can't emphasize this step enough. Physically write down or type up your science communication goals. Focus one 1-3 broad goals. What are you really trying to achieve? You might have the goal of growing a collaborative community of researchers you can interact with. You might have the goal of translating research findings for use by practitioners. You might be trying to increase awareness about the importance of measuring and preserving biodiversity. You might be trying to get students interested in your field of study. You might be trying to communicate the significance of your research to potential funders, to ultimately enhance the funds available for research in your field of science.
3. Identify your key audience(s), in the context of your goals.
Thinking about your goals, write down your key audience(s). And be specific. Don't just write down "lay reader" or "broader public." These terms are far too broad to help you develop a useful social media plan for reaching your key audience(s).
I can think of several different key audience(s) for my own blogging and social media efforts. And for each of these audiences, I might be able to think of different social media channels, hashtags, language and content strategies that would be best used to reach them.
One of my key audiences is other science communication scholars. My goal with regard to this audience might be primarily interaction and collaboration - networking with these scholars in order to stay abreast of the most recent research in the field, ask them questions about how their findings might be applied and potentially collaborate with them.
Another of my key audiences is science writers, science bloggers and other professional science communicators. I'd like to help this audience apply science communication research findings and evidence-based strategies in their work.
A third key audience might be students of science. I'd like to encourage this audience to get involved in science communication early in their science careers, and I'd like to provide support for them, answering their questions and providing advice when they ask for it about how to get into #scicomm, potential career opportunities, etc.
You might already be able to see that my goal(s) with these audiences are very different. But this should tell me something about how I try to communicate with these three key audiences, from what social media channels I use to interact with them, to the type of language I use, to the tone and nature of the content I produce with them in mind.
Not all social media outlets are created equal. The demographics of their users can be fundamentally different. I should keep my audience(s) and my goal(s) in mind when choosing a social media outlet and planning content for that outlet. For example, based upon my goal of networking with other science communication scholars and having conversations with them, Twitter (and maybe ResearchGate?) are probably my best options for this goal and this audience. My blog, on the other hand, is a place where I might focus on highlighting applications of science communication research for my other key audience, science communicators.
4. Do the SWOT - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats
Now go back to step 1, where you reviewed your current social media use and strategies. Now that you have your main goal(s) and key audience(s) written out, answer the following questions for yourself.
What are your strengths? What are you doing well? How are you currently using your social media channels in ways that cater to one or more of your key audience(s)? How are those unifying themes you identified in reviewing your social media content reflective (or not reflective) of your broad science communication goal(s)?
What are your weaknesses? What are you struggling with, within the context of your goal(s)?
What are your key opportunities? What opportunities do you have right now to achieve your science communication goals? Maybe I already have a large following of science communication scholars on Twitter, but I'm not interacting with them on a regular basis or using the same hashtags that they are using. By tweaking how I use my social media channels, I might have a great opportunity to foster a community with these scholars.
What are your threats? I might have the opportunity to foster a community with science communication scholars on Twitter by making an effort to start conversations with them on a daily basis. But the time involvement in this could be a threat for me as an individual (that is, if I ever slept, which I don't LOL). But seriously, if I didn't have the time to spend engaging in daily or weekly conversations on Twitter, then trying to achieve my goal with this audience in this way might not work. If this were the case, I might need to reassess my goal(s) with this audience.
5. Develop an action plan for each of your social media channels
Now it's time for the fun stuff! It's time for your action plan, or how you will move forward and use your social media channels to achieve your primary goal(s) with your key audience(s).
Based upon your SWOT analysis, come up with 3-5 objectives for each of your social media channels. With these objectives, get more specific than you did with your goal(s) above. Objectives should be specific, realistic and measurable.
For Twitter, in the context of my goal of interacting with science communication researchers, I might set the following objectives for myself: A) Find and follow other science communication scholars on Twitter. B) Share a science communication research paper every day and tag paper authors in these tweets. C) Use the #scicomm and #sciosciomm hashtags to engage in discussions with other science communication researchers on a weekly basis. D) Create a Twitter list of #scicomm researchers and retweet valuable content they share on a weekly basis. E) Find and engage in real time with hashtags from science communication research conferences and events. F) Share my own science communication research, both published papers and work in progress, using hashtags used by other scholars.
Your objectives could be informational, attitudinal or behavioral. Information objectives are those that address the information or key messages you want to share. Attitudinal objectives are those associated with how you want to impact others' attitudes toward a particular topic or issue, for example. For these objectives, you really need to know your audience(s) and the attitudes they currently hold. Behavioral objectives are those that address how you want to change others' behavior or call others to action. What do you want other social media users to DO with the content that you share?
Once you develop key objectives for each of your social media channels, you can start to create a plan or schedule for your science social media use. Start to brainstorm ideas for content that caters to your key audience(s) (where they are online, what they are interested in, what they already know, what they value, what hashtags they use, etc.) and supports your science communication goals and objectives.
Create, Interact, Evaluate, Repeat.
No social media plan is permanent. It should be a living and dynamic document that changes as you go. Creating content that fits your objectives is not the finish-line. Before, during and after creating content, you should interact with your key audience(s). Ask them questions, get their feedback, and listen. Based upon engagement with your content and feedback from other social media users, you should evaluate whether you are using your social media channels effectively to achieve your goals. Find ways to evaluate your performance that go beyond just counting followers and mentions.
In science communication, as in any other form of communication, the content you create on social media should always be reflective of who you are trying to reach and why. If your goal is to foster a community around a scientific research topic or public issue, you can't just broadcast blog content that you write without initiating discussion with and getting feedback from the community. And blog comments are increasingly an archaic and ineffective ways of doing this. If your goal is to introduce young and diverse audiences to science, then Instagram, Youtube and Snapchat might be where you need to be, whereas LinkedIn or Twitter might be less ideal.