Written by Mychal A. Voorhees, MA, health literacy & community outreach coordinator at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of the School of Medicine
Each day, millions of users log on to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the continuously growing list of social media platforms. In 2015, 65% of adults in the United States had a social media presence.(1) As the number of adults using social media has grown, so has the number of researchers using various platforms. A study by Nature found that 41% of researchers were on Twitter and 63% were using Google Scholar in 2014.(2)
I know; social media can seem like a waste of time or an activity you engage in when you’re off work. But consider your goal as a public health expert or scientist. You’re likely trying to disseminate your research. You may be looking for new collaborators. As a professional, social media can be used to share your work with a broader audience.
Perhaps you want to help the public better understand research. False information is tossed around social media daily. Sometimes the media misinterpret findings. Other times, people intentionally share incorrect information to provoke readers. Recently, a story suggesting genetically modified mosquitoes are the cause of Zika buzzed around my Facebook and Twitter feeds.(3) This led to an online flurry of questions. Is it proven? What do experts say? Should we be worried about this? In cases like this, experts have a unique opportunity to disperse validated, credible resources to the public.
So, where do you start?
Define your ideal audience.
As with any communication strategy, you want to define your audience from the get-go. Ask yourself: who are you trying to reach; what platform will they most likely use; what do you want them to do with the information?
Choose your platform wisely.
Think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you just want to connect with other investigators, LinkedIn or Research Gate may be the option for you. If you want to disseminate your work to a broader audience, give Twitter a try. This paper from PLOS gives a good run down of some of the platforms available. It’s also wise to think about your time commitment when choosing where to start. For instance, a blog can be quite demanding. Maybe you decide to guest write for another blog instead of starting your own.
Join the conversation.
The key in using social media is that it’s not a passive process. You can’t just research, write, and wait. Social media is just that—social. It requires a conversation. You have to respond to other users. You may want to search and see what people are already talking about. Then, join their conversation. While it is often time-consuming, it poses the opportunity to reach outside of your normal circles. If face-to-face networking makes you nervous, this is an opportunity to network without leaving your desk!
Drop the jargon.
Social media writing is casual and conversational. This is a chance to put your research into terms that people outside of your field of science can understand. Your journal submission might not allow for this type of communication, but social media is one place where you can make it simple. For example, Twitter posts only allow for 140 characters, so it’s excellent practice for simplifying what you want others to know about your research.
Provide a call-to-action.
With almost any communication strategy, it’s important to let your audience know what you want from them. Do you want them to change a behavior? Do you want them to share the message with their network? Are you asking them to click a link to read an article? Or, do you want them to discuss and engage in conversation? Be clear and specific.
If you’re not convinced social media is useful for academics, check out this list of 10 reasons why you should be using it.
*The Becker Medical Library is available to provide free trainings on the use of social media as well as general communication strategies. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the wide range of trainings available through the library.
*If you plan on setting up a social media account, be sure to check the University’s social media guidelines.
1. Pew Research Center. (2015). Social media usage: 2005-2015. Washington, DC: Andrew Perrin.
2. Van Noorden, R. (2014). Online collaboration: scientists and the social network. Nature, 512.
3. Harvey, C. (2016). A shocking one-third of Americans believe this Zika conspiracy theory. Washington Post