More and more researchers are turning to social media as a way of getting their research to a wider audience. But can social media really drive non-academic research impact? In this post, I will revisit the "Twitter tips" I first wrote six years ago, and show you how I now generate impact from both Twitter and LinkedIn. At the end of the post, I'll give you a sneak preview of the new 45 page version of my chapter on social media for research impact, now called "Driving impact online", which will appear later this year in the second edition of The Research Impact Handbook.
I want to explain how you can use two social media platforms to generate impact from your research. I have chosen Twitter and LinkedIn because these tend to be used most widely to best effect by researchers from across disciplines. However, there are many other platforms available, and some are particularly useful for certain purposes, for example Facebook for public engagement events, finding research subjects or engaging with otherwise hard-to-reach groups. If you are trying to reach younger people, you may want to target Snapchat or some of the other newer social networks. If your work is highly visual, then Pinterest or Instagram might work well for you. Ask yourself the first two questions from my social media strategy blog and template and make sure you know what you’re trying to achieve with whom, and select your platform accordingly.
How can Twitter enhance the impact of your research?
Twitter is one of the most powerful social media platforms for academics, given the number of highly focused and influential networks of people who use it. Effective use of Twitter doesn't just amplify your research, it enables conversations to take place about it. This can enrich your research and enable you to make a far greater impact.
1. Tweet yourself, your projects and your institution
In addition to your personal Twitter profile, consider opening accounts for some of your research groups or projects. Each of your research projects is likely to have a different focus, and you’re probably a member of more than one group or institution in your university that doesn’t have a Twitter account. A project Twitter account is an easy addition to your next Pathways to Impact statement when you’re applying for funding, and some sort of engagement with social media is increasingly expected by reviewers. However, don’t just add it for the sake of it – make sure that you have identified publics or stakeholders who are likely to preferentially engage with you on social media, and have clear impact goals you will pursue via a social media strategy.
Opening an institutional account will usually need to be a group decision. If everyone agrees, others can either send you material to tweet or you can give everyone the Twitter username and password to tweet themselves (if so, you’ll need to agree on the nature of material you want posted, or it may be easier to decide on the things you want to avoid).
Open accounts for major research projects that will be going for a few years, and that you hope will have some form of successor project in the future (so you’ve got time to build a following and don’t have too many accounts to manage). Again, the burden doesn’t have to be entirely yours — it can be delegated to a post-doc and shared with other team members. Other ideas you might want to consider:
Link to your Twitter feed from your project/institution homepage, and include the link in newsletters, presentations and consider putting it in your email signature
Every time you do a conference/workshop/seminar presentation, put your slides online (e.g. using SlideShare) and tweet them
Every time you get a paper published, tweet the link to the article on the publisher’s website (if it’s not open access, consider adding that you can send copies if need be). If you can get permission, upload a copy on ResearchGate or similar and tweet the link
Tweet quotes from speakers at conferences you attend, using the conference hashtag (make one up if there isn’t one), to connect with other delegates and make them aware of your work
Set up alerts (e.g. from Google News and Google Scholar) for key words and authors that are particularly relevant to your work, so you can be the first to let your followers know about new developments linked to your shared interests
When you’ve got a tweet that’s of much wider, general interest, you can retweet it from your other project/institutional accounts, to reach a much larger audience than you could ever command from your personal account or one project
Next time you’re revising your website, why not consider adding buttons to enable readers to share what they’re reading via Twitter and other social media platforms?
2. Don’t just wait for people to find you: actively promote your Twitter stream
There are some easy things you can do to promote your Twitter stream, like including links on your homepage, project websites and in your email signature. But more active promotion of your Twitter feed can attract many more followers:
Make sure you’ve got an effective biography and enough really informative/useful tweets in your stream (typically with a link to more information) before actively marketing what you’re doing
Contact relevant people with large followings to ask if they would retweet key messages you’ve sent — tweet or direct message them via Twitter, and if that doesn’t work, find their email address via an internet search and email (or phone) them
Use popular hashtags (#) to make your tweets visible to more people (e.g. #PhDchat and #ECRchat). Notice which hashtags people you’re following are using, and use them. If you’re planning a Twitter campaign on a particular topic (e.g. linked to a new paper or policy brief), you could make up your own hashtag, but for it to work, others will need to use it, so you may want to work on getting a key tweet including your hashtag retweeted by others with larger followings
Have a growth strategy…
There is one growth strategy that is used is used by almost every organization 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, 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. However, if you have identified that social media is a potentially powerful pathway to impact with particular publics or stakeholders, you need to become influential. In social media land, influence = numbers.
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(s) 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. To do this, look to see which of your recent tweets got most engagement and retweet these to the top of your timeline
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
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
3. Work on your signal-to-noise ratio
As an researchers, you need to build your reputation in your chosen field. Twitter can help you reach a network of highly relevant researchers, as well as potential users of your research, and make them aware of your work. To do this effectively, you need to decide what it is that you want to be ‘known’ for, and then work on building your reputation in that area. Most people will follow you because they share your core interests (your ‘signal’), but they will rapidly lose interest if too many of your tweets are not relevant to these interests (effectively ‘noise’ they have to filter out when scanning through their timeline):
Consider how useful and relevant each tweet is before sending it, to increase the likelihood that your followers find your tweets useful and keep following you
Ensure the majority of your tweets have hyperlinks to further information
Provide an image (or video) to accompany your tweets where possible (research by Twitter shows that tweets with images are retweeted 35% more than text-only tweets and videos give a 28% uplift). Bear in mind that some web links automatically generate an accompanying image (e.g. many blogs, newspaper sites and video sites automatically generate an image, title and first line of the article below your tweet once it has been sent)
Avoid sending too many tweets and retweets at a time — if you’re at a conference and tweeting every couple of minutes, followers who aren’t interested in the conference are likely to get fed up with you dominating their timeline on a single narrow issue and unfollow you
Avoid using too many acronyms and abbreviations in your tweets — they may make sense to you but many people reading fast will simply skim over your tweet if they don’t understand you instantly. It is better to say less in complete words than to try and cram too much in, if it means you resort to acronyms and abbreviations
If you’re increasingly tweeting about things that are very different from your core interests, consider setting up a new Twitter stream devoted to that issue/interest
If you’re tweeting from a project or institutional account, try not to mix work and personal tweets. Remember you’re tweeting on behalf of a group, so telling people about what you’re doing on holiday is going to sound a bit strange (either your institution appears to be on holiday or it becomes clear that the Twitter stream is really only about one person (who’s on holiday) and not the whole group). If you do want to mix personal and work tweets (some commentators suggest this can help build rapport with your followers), make sure your biography clearly states the name of the person tweeting on behalf of the project or organisation
If you find that you’ve started automatically skimming or skipping tweets by certain people, the chances are they rarely have anything particularly relevant/useful to say — mute or unfollow them and reduce the amount of noise you have to put up with.