In my new job in the LSU College of Science, where I started as a science communication specialist in July 2016, I've been creating and strategizing a LOT for social media. Since July, I've helped create and maintain a new science blog and Instagram account for the College. I've also helped create more engagement on the College Twitter account, as well as several other social media accounts across LSU.
There have been several different goals for this ramped-up social media activity. Perhaps first and foremost is reaching potential science students for recruitment, engaging current students to promote retention, and highlighting alums and what they've achieved with their science degrees. We also want to not just promote the research of College of Science faculty, but to support them in expanding their science communication skills and teaching of those skills to students.
Strategic use of social media for a university, a science department or a science organization can seem like a moving target. Social media evolves at a breakneck pace - just look at how Instagram has changed the game of how users post content and interact over the past few months with Instagram stories, live videos and visual direct messages. Audiences are also always moving from one social media network to the next. Even if some of these networks, such as Facebook, seem like "constants" in our social media landscape today, the only sure bet is that this landscape will change. How can anyone create a plan for their social media strategy that isn't outdated within a month?
One idea is to keep it simple. It occurred to me, as I was walking my dog yesterday, that there are three basic "rules" to social media "success" that I've been following in my new position regardless of the network. These rules are simple, in that they are relatively straightforward to apply and implement, but they are by no mean quick or easy. By following these rules, I've seen LSU College of Science social media follower numbers grow, but more importantly I've also seen engagement increase.
If you are creating a new social media account for yourself or an organization you work for, or are trying to increase reach and engagement of an existing social media account, embed these "rules" into your consciousness for the next few months and let me know how it goes!
1. Follow the people you are trying to reach.
A surprising number of social media managers and creators forget this rule. With the information overload that exists in the social media landscape today, how are your target audiences supposed to find you if you don't find them first?
Social media channels are primarily about social connections. Social connections exist between people - it can be difficult to grow a social community if you don't participate in that community by following and interacting with the individuals in it. One of the first things I recommend people do when they join Twitter or Instagram is to start following other accounts that share their interests, whether that's biology, space, fashion or science art. As an organization, you also want to follow accounts that represent your various target audiences. Ideally these accounts will also be influencers among your target audiences, or people who are influential in spreading information to the rest of your target audience.
For example, one of the LSU College of Science's key audiences on Twitter is LSU students who are interested in or majoring in a science degree. One key way to attract the attention of this target audience with our relatively new Instagram account is to to follow these students, especially ones who might also be sharing their science experiences with many other students. Unfortunately, Instagram doesn't make it easy to search for users based on bio keywords or other profile settings. Twitter makes it a bit easier. So finding and following social media accounts that belong to individuals who represent your key audiences can be a painstaking although rewarding process.
A few tips to finding the people you are trying to reach:
- Have a clear idea of who your target audiences are in the first place. Any effective communication strategy requires knowing who your target audiences are. I say audiences (plural) because you will rarely just have a single target audience. If you do (e.g. "the general public") then you probably haven't thought through, specifically enough, who you are trying to reach.
- Search for hashtags your target audiences might be using. Especially for niche online communities like the online science communication community, specific hashtags (like #scicomm on Twitter) may exist that are widely used by members of your target audience(s). Following social media users who use hashtags relevant to your field of science, to your organization, etc. is a great way to build up a community of users who are actually the type of people you are trying to reach with your communication efforts.
- Identify and follow particular social media users based on keywords and content. For example, one of your target audiences might be Twitter and Instagram users who include keywords such as "student" and "biology" in their bios. Some social networks and some analytics platforms allow you to search for social media users based on bio keywords (supposedly this feature is "coming soon" to Iconosquare for Instagram). But you may also have to find users manually. If you've identified at least some accounts that represent your target audience(s), try searching through the accounts that these users are following, in a snowball fashion, to find additional users you'd like to follow/reach.
- Create Twitter lists for your target audience(s). Twitter lists are a great way to organize and keep up with key individuals within your target audience communities. One of the first things I did in my duties as a social media content creator/manager for the LSU College of Science was create a Twitter list of all LSU researchers I could find. I now daily browse through tweets from the folks in that list to identify interesting content the College could repost and to interact in ways that make sense for the College Twitter account.
2. Create original, valuable, engaging content for the people you are trying to reach.
This rule of social media "success" is deceivingly simple in theory and extremely difficult in practice. High-quality original content is a must for most science organizations on social media. Curation of other users' high-quality content is also a successful strategy (e.g. reposting to your feed(s) interesting content posted by social media users who represent one of your target audiences). But curation typically should also be paired with original content on your end.
Whether it's your science blog, your Twitter feed or your Instagram account, you should be creating content that both interests and excites YOU and caters to the needs and interests of your target audiences. In a recent research paper I authored with Lance Porter at the Manship School of Mass Communication, we identified some of the top motivations that drive people to read science blogs. These motivations include most importantly curiosity, a motivation related to entertainment seeking, followed by a motivation to find unique information of interest not found elsewhere and to get the author's perspective.
Most of your social media content should satisfy some curiosity, ideally in a way that provides content/information your target audiences would be hard-pressed to find somewhere else. Things that make you think "wow," things that puzzle you, things that surprise you, things that you can't help but "nerd out" over, things that are so beautiful they take your breath away, things that make you laugh or smile, things you have personal insight on - these things are the best social media content fodder. And don't forget to include the human element. Users often follow particular social media accounts for science information and news because they want the perspective and personal insights of the author(s) of those accounts.
Jonah Berger's book Contagious is a revealing read about the types of things that are social media worthy and why certain things "catch on" and spread through likes and shares and reposts. But at its core, anything you post on social media should be interesting to you and engaging to your target audience(s). Does it make them think? Prompt them to ask a question? Include a call to action? Visually inspire them? The content should be valuable, inspiring or useful in some way to at least one of your target audiences, and ideally the content will include visuals (photos, videos, gifs) that capture people's eyes and attention.
There is SO much more that goes into creating engaging social media content that I could never fit into this blog post or that I'm not even experienced enough to put into writing. But I'm certain about one thing: You'll probably remain unsuccessful with your social media strategy if you don't focus a great deal of your efforts on producing high-quality, original, engaging text and visuals with your target audience(s) in mind. Also, create content designed specifically for the different social media platforms you are using - don't expect blog text and graphics to do well on Instagram, or post the same photo and caption on Twitter as you do on Facebook. Each social media platform has its strengths and weaknesses, and your content should reflect the constraints and design features of each network separately.
Experiment and have fun with your content! If you have fun and find the content you create interesting (like, you'd spend hours browsing through your own Instagram feed or reading your old blog posts because the content is THAT interesting, visually appealing, useful, etc.), other people probably will too.
3. Engage with the people you are trying to reach.
This third "rule," when adopted, can turn a good social media account into an outstanding one. If social media is inherently about social connections, it's also about social interactions. Interacting with the people you are trying to reach, through truly two-way conversations, and providing opportunities for them to interact with you are key to social media "success." Two-way communication on social media typically requires being authentic and somewhat personal with your social media accounts, even organizational ones, so that your audiences feel they are interacting and having conversations with a person they know, not a impersonal, ambiguous "other."
Two-way communication strategies for social media are especially important for modern science communication efforts, where research shows us that public engagement with science is much more meaningful than communication strategies that simply try to build knowledge or public understanding of science.
Do you respond to comments and mentions on your social media feeds? Do you engage in relevant tweet-ups or hashtag conversations? Do you comment on interesting content posted by members of your target audience? Are you an active member of the online communities you are trying to reach with your social media content?
Brainstorm ways that you could boost meaningful interaction (ideally sustained conversations) with the people you are trying to reach on social media. Ask your target audiences to engage with you and your content, and follow up swiftly and encouragingly when they do. The LSU College of Science recently asked LSU researchers to participate in the popular #MySci hashtag conversation by describing their research in a single tweet and tagging @LSUscience. After tagging particular researchers on Twitter and "challenging" them to create a #MySci tweet, and then messaging others outside of Twitter to let them know about the "challenge," we re-tweeted their #MySci tweets and created a Twitter moment to highlight their contributions more broadly. We also plan to blog about our favorite LSU #MySci tweets, so that researchers who contributed will see their contributions take on a new life.
If we had asked researchers to create #MySci tweets and then not followed up positively and encouragingly by reposting and featuring their contributions on several different platforms, we likely wouldn't have had the wide engagement across the LSU College of Science that we did.
That's it. Those are my three secret rules to #scicomm social media success. Let me know what you think! Are these tips useful? Do you have others you'd like to share? Comment here or tweet me @fromthelabbench!