15 questions that will tell you if your professional online identity is an asset or
We’ve all got one, but what does your digital footprint say about you? Not everyone who asks themselves that question is happy with the answer. However, there are some simple things you can do to ensure your digital footprint represents you effectively and works for (not against) you.
The digital realm is full of risk. However, not having a digital footprint may be just as big a risk as having a poorly managed footprint. Many interview panelists will Google the people they short-list for jobs. The absence of a digital footprint may raise questions, if the applicant is claiming to be a researcher with an international profile. Are they not capable of creating an up-to-date, easily findable profile? Or are they trying to avoid having a digital footprint, and if so why?
For most researchers however, the greatest risk is their time and their reputation. Social media can suck up time and distract, and we’ve all heard of high profile people who have lost their jobs over an ill-judged social media post. However, there are ways of managing your digital footprint that do not risk either your time or reputation.
Step 1: what do you want your digital footprint to do for you?
The first step is to decide what you want to get out of your digital footprint. Your online presence shouldn’t just be a chore that you feel duty bound to continually update – it should give back to you in tangible ways.
If you’re putting in lots of time and getting nothing back, then you either need to shrink your footprint to make it more manageable or change what you’re doing to get better value out of the time you invest online. Ask yourself whether you want your digital footprint to:
provide you with research networks, collaboration and funding opportunities and information; and/or
enable you to achieve impacts from your research beyond academia.
If you primarily want your digital footprint to enhance your research, then you do not need to engage with social media, but if you do, you will probably want a fairly small, highly focused network of colleagues who you can learn from, influence and crowd-source information from.
If you also want your digital footprint to enable you to generate impacts from your research, then you will probably need to engage with some form of social media. There are more risks associated with achieving this goal (both in terms of time and reputation), but there are relatively low risk ways of starting out.
Step 2: How much risk are you willing to take?
The greater your visibility and influence, and the more you use your digital footprint to reach out beyond the academy, the more risk you will expose yourself to online. You could become a victim of your own success if you are unable to prioritise the responses and opportunities that arise, and you end up spending more time engaging online than you do on your research. An error of judgement might go unnoticed when you are starting out, but your every move will be seen when you have tens of thousands of followers. Depending on how controversial your research is (and sadly your gender), you may also find people taking your words out of context, misunderstanding and taking offence. We’ve all seen how emails can be misread and taken out of context, leading to conflicts that could have been avoided if we had simply picked up the phone. Social media takes this possibility to a whole new level. When this happens, online abuse can quickly follow.
It is important to be aware of these risks as a researcher online, and to make a conscious decision about the level of risk you are prepared to take before expanding your digital footprint in ways that will expose you to greater risk. If you only want your digital footprint to benefit your research, it is possible to take a fairly low-risk approach online. If you want to use your digital footprint to reach out more widely and start generating offline impacts from your research, then you will need to accept a higher level of risk, but there are still ways of keeping things safe.
Step 3: Take low-risk steps to make your digital footprint benefit your research
There are many quick and simple things you can do to make your digital footprint work more effectively for you.
Audit your digital footprint: do a Google search for your name and the institution you work for and see what comes up. If you’ve Googled yourself before, it is worth downloading a new browser or using a colleague’s device as Google will know that you are looking for you and not someone with a similar name, and automatically rank your institutional profile close to the top of the list. This is not what others searching for your name would see, unless they had searched for you a number of times in the past.
Interrogate your online identities: what profiles come up when you search for your name? Are they for you or someone else? Is your main institutional profile on the first page or do other profiles get listed first? Do these other profiles represent you the way you would like to be seen by the outside world?
Prune, cultivate or consolidate your online identities: first remove any non-professional identities or make them private. Next, ask yourself how each of these different profiles benefited you in the last year. If you aren’t getting any value then don’t waste your time keeping them up-to-date – remove your profile and focus your limited time on the profiles that are most likely to bring you the benefits you are seeking for your research. As part of this, you may consider consolidating many profiles into one or a few that you can more easily keep up to date. This may be as simple as ensuring that you have got links signposting the most relevant profiles (e.g. your Google Scholar publication list and Twitter account) from the profile that comes up first in a Google search (e.g. your institutional profile).
Actively manage your digital footprint: regularly review and update all your online profiles every six months or so
Step 4: Investigate low-risk online platforms designed for researchers
There are a number of low-risk online platforms for researchers to communicate their research that are worth investigating:
If you’ve got an academic email address, you can get a Google Scholar profile. Google will automatically populate your profile with your publications (you can correct it if there are mistakes) and rank them by citations. Now whenever one of your papers turns up in a Google Scholar search, your name will be hyperlinked from the author list to your profile so people can read more of your work, which could help boost citations
Unlike Google Scholar, ResearchGate and Academia.edu are actually social media platforms because they enable researchers to engage in debate around the publications they list. Although higher risk than Google Scholar, which does not allow this, the networks are only open to researchers, so risks of online abuse are lower than public social media platforms. These platforms also automatically populate your profile so they don’t take a lot of time. However, ensure that you go into settings in ResearchGate though, to prevent it spamming your co-authors on your behalf whenever it finds new papers you’ve written
Although relatively new, the UK-based social media platform for researchers, Piirus, has a large and rapidly growing user-base. This is a network with a difference though, as it provides researchers with small scale consultancy opportunities with Small to Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) which can help you drive impact from your research
Step 5: Decide if and when you want to use your digital footprint to generate impact from your research
It is important to emphasise that you get to decide for yourself if you want to engage in higher risk activities online that are more likely to generate impacts from your research. No-one should make you feel left out or like you are a dinosaur because you have decided that you do not want to engage with social media. Weigh up the potential benefits and the risks, and then make a decision you feel happy with and stick to it with the confidence that you have made an informed decision.
For many researchers, this is a fluid decision. The time may not be right for you now, but you would like to dip your toe in the water and slowly move towards a more influential and outward looking digital footprint. It is possible to take gentle steps in this direction, rather than diving in at the deep end to a platform you do not fully understand and getting yourself into trouble. Most researchers go through the following steps:
Watcher: start by signing up to a social media platform like Twitter or LinkedIn and just connecting with and reading from relevant people and accounts. If you choose who you follow carefully and manage your signal:noise ratio by unfollowing less relevant accounts, you can get immediate benefits for your research by efficiently staying on top of the latest developments and funding opportunities in your field. You can also get a lot of benefits already for impact. Start connecting with high-level politicians, journalists and industry leaders who might be able to help you disseminate your research and achieve impacts. Many journalists have their mobile phone number in their profile and many leaders will respond to private messages on social media directly despite the fact that you cannot reach them via letter or email. Start following people you think might benefit from your research and listen into their public conversations and comment, so that you know the language they use and the issues that are resonating with them. When you do meet these people (or people like them) face-to-face you are much more likely to be prepared for the difficult questions and be able to use language that will resonate.
Sign-poster: The next step most researchers take is to start sign-posting people to useful resources online. It may be your latest paper, an article you read via social media that morning or something you’re about to send to your PhD students or research group. Now rather than just sending the email, you are repurposing your email and posting the link to the story or paper on social media. Typically people will just copy or paraphrase the title of the piece they are sharing, so these are not your words that can be taken out of context or used against you.
Content-generator: The final step that researchers take, typically (and advisably) after spending significant time learning the ropes as a lurker and sign-poster, is to start actually posting their own content based on their research. This is the point at which most opportunities for generating impact occur, but if you’re going to invest the time and energy in generating new content, make sure you’ve got a clear social media strategy so you know that you are using your time wisely.
Listen to more tips about online engagement for researchers on the Fast Track Impact Podcast
Are you wasting time on social media or is it helping you achieve impact? The easiest way to make sure your time on social media really counts is to have a social media strategy. If you can answer these four questions, then you’ve got yourself a social media strategy. Simple. And to make it even easier, we've released a new updated version of the Fast Track Impact Social Media Strategy Template that will help you get some serious clarity seriously quickly.
You don’t have to write anything down – you just need to act on the answers to these questions to stop wasting time and start generating impacts on social media. Of course if you want to write stuff down, the template is for you.
What offline impacts do you want to achieve via social media?
Who are you trying to reach, what are they interested in & what platforms are they on?
How can you make your content actionable, shareable and rewarding for those who interact with you, so you can start building relationships and move the conversation from social media to real life?
Who can you work with to make your use of social media more efficient and effective?
This template is a quick and easy way to organise your thinking and keep track of your progress towards impact based on your use of social media.
By Mark Reed
"I don’t have time to read all my emails – how am I meant to keep up with streams of information from social media too?"
"I’d like to engage more with social media for work, but there’s no down-time and nothing obvious I could cut out to make time for it."
These are some of the most common (and entirely fair) objections I hear about social media when I train researchers. But does social media have to be a drain on your time? Would you believe me if I told you that I actually save time by engaging with social media – about 40 minutes extra time in my working day to be precise?
What would you do with 40 minutes of extra time per day? Most days I actually use the extra time to rest or indulge non-work interests and get a better work-life balance. However, on busy days, that 40 minutes can make the difference between having time to respond to my urgent emails or not, or it might give me time to accept an invitation to write a blog post and write something that gets my research to a wider audience.
The reason I can put a figure on my claim is that a researcher recently challenged me and I didn’t have the data to back up my claim. So I loaded Apptracker on my phone and measured my time on social media over two weeks. The amount of time I spent had gone up since I’d last estimated it (I’m now managing five Twitter accounts including my School’s account in addition to more limited engagement with LinkedIn and Facebook). But I was still making a net time saving on my working day.
To explain how, let me invite you to do an experiment with me…
Work out how long you spend engaging with the news on an average day. When I first did this, I listened to BBC Radio 4 Today for 10—30 minutes a day, the Six O’Clock News for 20—30 minutes a day, read news from the Yahoo or BBC News apps for 5—15 minutes a day, got news from Twitter for 5—15 minutes a day and spent between 30-50 minutes a week listening to the BBC World Service, reading The National newspaper, The Guardian and other newspapers. On average this added up to around 90 minutes per day.
Replace your usual news with your own tailored news stream via Twitter. Follow the radio and TV news programmes, apps and newspapers you currently use on Twitter. Given that most of these will offer their content free on the platform, you may want to consider donating to news organisations who allow this. Now find a few more specific news feeds that are relevant to your research, for example your professional body or society, your research funders and key researchers in your field. For one day this week, disengage from all other forms of news and only get your news from Twitter.
See how much time you save. I built my Twitter following (over 40,000 followers across my accounts) on about 20 minutes per day, but I now spend about 50 minutes per day, actively managing five accounts in different ways to achieve specific impact goals. My 50 minutes per day includes getting all my news, generating content and reaching out proactively to target groups. I now get more relevant news, tailored to my interests and am building my online influence and offline impacts, while giving myself 40 minutes a day of extra time.
If you want to use social media to generate research impacts, you need to have influence, and online, influence is all about numbers. Most researchers don’t have time to generate new content every day and focus on building a social media empire. The good news is that you don’t have to have time; you just need a growth strategy.
It can take as little as 20 minutes per day to become highly influential. Fast Track Impact (@fasttrackimpact) went from just over 2000 followers to over 30,000 followers in less than a year by adopting a simple growth strategy that was implemented between the cracks of a busy role as a professor. During the same period, a PhD student Rosmarie Katrin Neumann (@RosmarieKatrin) went from 50 followers to over 7000 followers using the same strategy and a similar investment of time. Over four years, the University of Dundee’s Centre for Environmental Change & Human Resilience (@CECHR_UoD)
went from zero to over 100,000 followers and currently grows at over 100 follower per day.
The growth strategy these researchers used is used by almost every organisation on Twitter that has an impact goal, whether that goal is profit or social good. Despite the technique making it into the peer-reviewed literature in 2016 (see the citation at the end of this article), most researchers have never heard of it. This isn’t for everyone; most researchers do not need to become influential online to achieve their goals and have a digital footprint that works for them. However, if you have good reason to become influential online, then it is well worth considering. Most researchers who need to become influential online do so because they have identified that social media is a potentially powerful pathway to impact with particular publics or stakeholders they need to influence.
So how do you do it?
Have a social media strategy: know what impacts you want to achieve through Twitter with which groups and come up with some indicators that will tell you if Twitter is actually helping you generate these offline impacts
Set up a professional (project or thematic) account from which you can promote research to specific audiences (and which you will feel comfortable promoting explicitly)
Be credible and visual: link to content and use images
Curate your top 3 tweets: whenever you are leave the platform for a while, make sure that your last three tweets (including a pinned tweet if you have one) effectively represent the best of what you put out from that account
Only tweet when you’ve got something worth saying (even if that isn’t often): as a researcher, you are more likely to build a following and reputation if your content is of consistently high quality
Get the attention of influencers: in your tweet, tag relevant accounts that have significant followings, send the tweet via a Direct Message to them, email them or pick up the telephone. Even if you only have 10 followers, one of these influencers may be able to put it in front of hundreds of thousands
Put your high-quality material in front of people who are looking for content like yours: find others on Twitter who are generating similar content to you, and follow their followers regularly. You can assume that people who have recently followed
a very similar account to yours are looking for high-quality material on the subjects you write about. Assuming your content is good, a high proportion of these people will follow you back once you have drawn your account to their attention. Many of them will retweet the content that made them follow you and many of their followers will like what they see and follow you too. Twitter may prompt you to confirm your password the first time you start using this strategy, but as long as you are generating good content and people are following you, Twitter will allow you to continue using this strategy because you are demonstrably adding value to the network and not a spammer. Depending on how well this works, you may hit a “follow limit”, but there are many websites and apps that can help you quickly unfollow accounts that did not follow you back, so you can continue using the strategy. As you follow increasingly more people, you will need to start reading your timeline from another account or from Twitter lists.
Analyse your performance: Twitter has built in analytics that will tell you which tweets are most successful – learn from what works and improve your practice
Schnitzler, K., Davies, N., Ross, F. and Harris, R., 2016. Using Twitter™ to drive research impact: A discussion of strategies, opportunities and challenges. International Journal of Nursing Studies 59: 15-26.