Using social media to engage the public in your research

In this guest blog, Imperial‘s Cathy Thomas offers advice on how to use social media to engage (and involve!) the public in your research. What have your experiences with using social media for engagement been? Share your experiences in the comments.

Why bother with social media?

There are over one billion active users on Facebook and over 100 million monthly Instagram users – which means that if you’re looking to connect with members of the public, it’s worth considering how social media and other digital tools could support or enhance your engagement activity.

The useful thing about social media is that it’s a discursive medium that encourages sharing and participation, so rather than simply using it as a tool to promote what you’re doing, there will be ways in which it can support two-way engagement. What’s more, it’s measurable too.

What will work for you
Before rushing out and setting up a Twitter account, it’s worth taking some time to consider what you need for your project and what supporting networks already exist. Using social media to generate public engagement and involvement may take a different form to the ways in which you promote your personal or professional profile. You might find that you don’t need to set up a Twitter account at all, or that Pinterest or Reddit is better suited to your audience and your aims – not all forms of social media will be suitable for all engagement activities.

 Measuring digital engagement
There are lots of free tools you can use to measure the online reach of your activity – from in-platform tools (such as Twitter Analytics and Facebook Insights) to custom tools and tracking links. You don’t need to become an analytics expert overnight, but some things to bear in mind include:

  • Consider capturing qualitative data as well as quantitative – It’s useful to know what audiences were saying to you and using what kind of language and sentiment, as well as how many people saw your post or interacted with it.
  • Social media can be a passive medium – just because someone saw your tweet doesn’t mean they read it, or clicked on the link, or even really looked at it. Look at click-throughs, comments and shares as much as impressions and reach; they will offer a more useful insight into online engagement.
  • Use statistics to inform your project as it develops, or for your next project – these figures will help you see what works (and what doesn’t work, which is just as important) for your audience.

 And finally…
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from someone who’s already using social media and digital tools, whether for engagement with research or even marketing. Your department or faculty will likely have a communications or digital professional who could give you some advice on getting started, and importantly will be able to tell you what resources already exist.

Cathy Thomas is an Engagement Coordinator at Imperial, with a professional background in digital communications and social media for brands including Shakespeare’s Globe and Penguin Random House.

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