Social Media is a Global Tool for Engagement
Half the world’s population uses social media, according to Hootsuite’s 2020 digital report. On average, people spend two and a half hours a day on various platforms, but it’s not just mindless entertainment and online shopping. At least 43% of people use social media for work, and it’s not just PR offices and marketing gurus. Faculty and staff can take advantage of social media to promote their work for the benefit of the university as well as the public.
Dr. Kevin Solomon, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue, believes social media offers many benefits, including allowing people to target multiple audiences.
“Social media is a free and accessible platform for faculty to interact with the general public, stakeholders, students, and their peers,” says Dr. Solomon.
Beyond engaging with students for recruitment, classes, or research, faculty and staff can also reach out to non-academics, perhaps with significant results.
“Faculty can make science more transparent to taxpayers by posting about the elements of research beyond the paywall gardens of traditional academic publishing. Using social media in this way can broaden the reach of our research and accelerate the rate at which technical advances reach the public. We can also directly engage the public in conversation to further their understanding.”
Giving the public a glimpse into the research process, data analysis, or final product humanizes researchers and offers tangible demonstrations of universities’ time, effort, and funding. People outside of academia are unlikely to be exposed to faculty’s journal articles, but they can still learn about what opportunities their taxes and tuition are making possible. As a result, increased accessibility to research may lead to more educated policymakers and voters, allowing people to make more informed decisions.
How to Choose the Right Platform?
Social media has many platforms to choose from, all with different audience demographics. Facebook sits at the top with 2.5 billion monthly users, Instagram coming in second at more than one billion monthly users, LinkedIn third at 675 million monthly users, and Twitter fourth at 152 million daily users. However, number of users isn’t the only factor to consider. Faculty and staff need to think about how those platforms reach those users, and what media type best serves their work.
“The right platform is typically one with the broadest reach that is open to the public,” says Dr. Solomon. “This removes networks based around social groups such as Facebook or LinkedIn, which by default share posts with ‘friends’ only. Personally, I prefer Twitter as it is public and allows mixed media (text, images, gifs, videos, links) to most effectively convey your message, unlike Instagram, which is image heavy.”
Faculty and staff should consider what format best suits their content. Are you posting commentary on articles or links to your blog? Twitter will offer a stronger textual presentation. Are you sharing photos or videos of your lab or research? Instagram allows for easy visual engagement. Is your content a combination of different formats? As Dr. Solomon noted, Twitter can accommodate both text and visuals well, but you can also consider having multiple social media accounts to allow for specific tailoring of content. And if faculty find it difficult to keep things short and sweet, you can always include a link to the full content.
The people you connect with on Facebook or LinkedIn will be different than those on Twitter or Instagram, so think about what would interest them. Peers or students will have a different perspective than stakeholders or the general public. When communicating with non-academic audiences, be careful of jargon, acronyms, or unnecessary complexity.
“Faculty can promote their work to a non-academic audience by using accessible language,” says Dr. Solomon. This includes things like, “sharing ‘fun’ glimpses of your research, including the people behind the story, and engaging (following/liking/replying to) others outside of academic circles to make your message more visible.”
Inside looks at research or friendly conversations with followers will give profiles a unique personality. Following or replying to people who overlap with your research or might be interested in the findings can spark opportunities down the road. Look outside university peers and consider how your knowledge may be relevant to industry partners or community stakeholders.
Dangers of Social Media
Despite the broad reach and wide range of benefits, social media does carry some risks and all users should be thoughtful about what they post and who they engage with to avoid unfortunate incidents later on.
One pitfall Dr. Solomon has seen is when people involve themselves in too many conversations, not all of which are appropriate or advisable.
“Many non-technical conversations can be particularly loaded with politics and social commentary that will detract from the message of your work,” says Dr. Solomon. “Avoid conversations that will color the tone of the profile you are trying to cultivate and remember that ‘the internet never forgets’. Even if you delete a post, it will be archived somewhere so be sure to only post what you’re comfortable seeing in print.”
A good practice is to run a basic background check on a conversation before jumping in. What sort of conversations are tied to this hashtag? Has this individual already been involved in controversial situations?
“If you participate in conversations you haven’t initiated (e.g. by using a hashtag) do research to identify the context,” says Dr. Solomon. “Seemingly innocuous statements may be wrapped in heavy context unappreciated at first glance.”
Social media brings diverse audiences together to share experiences, often helping them find common ground or surprising connections. Once faculty and staff know what their preferred content looks like, they can choose the platform(s) for them, develop their own style, and craft an online presence that will serve their professional life. Twitter and Instagram are the world’s sixth and seventh-most visited websites, respectively. Along with Facebook, LinkedIn, and other smaller or niche platforms, they offer a fantastic opportunity to engage with peers, potential corporate partners, or the curious public. Most social media platforms are free, easy to use, and accessible to various ages, backgrounds, or languages.
“Social media allows faculty to promote their work, highlight their achievements to their peers and policy makers, and better recruit student researchers,” says Dr. Solomon. “I have received many relevant and welcomed opportunities based on the visibility of my program through social media.”
Moving forward, how will you take advantage of social media to promote your professional goals?