Social Media and Outreach

Traditional ideas of scientific outreach and communication usually refer to press releases, news articles, public talks, formal and informal education, and public demonstrations. These are all valid (and excellent!) choices for outreach. But what about less traditional means?

Social media and science communication

Many people think of social media management as a light, fluffy, fun job that requires little effort and consists of sitting around watching cat videos all day. To set the record straight: social media management is anything but “light” or “fluffy.”

cat typing
Cat videos are still an integral part of the process though.

Social media coordinator was one of the more difficult tasks I’ve taken on. Managing an institutional social media account is like walking a tight-rope: you need to post just the right amount of content at just the right time in just the right way on the right platform, otherwise no one will see your post and you will have failed in your mission. Thankfully, the stakes for the average scientist or science communicator aren’t nearly that high: most of us aren’t running pages or accounts with hundreds (or even thousands) of followers.

Leveraging personal connections

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned Craig McClain’s 2017 paper, “Practices and promises of Facebook for science outreach: Becoming a ‘Nerd of Trust’.” I’m mentioning it again because I think it makes some very excellent points for the “casual” science communicator (and if you haven’t read the article, you really should do so).  Social media science communication doesn’t have to be all about correcting moon-landing conspiracy theorists on NASA’s Facebook page or trying to debunk every anti-vaccination article you see; social media science communication really can be as simple as sharing an interesting blog post, article, or image. Sometimes just saying “Hey, this is cool!” is enough to get others interested in the topic. After all, your friends and family (hopefully) think you’re pretty swell and if you think this article about coral reef recovery in Belize is wonderful, then they probably will too.

Creating not-so-personal connections

Those wishing to create a more public, less personal network will need to do a little more work.

Platform choice

Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses: Twitter is great for firing off short, rapid posts, while blogs are better for longer, more thought-out content. Facebook falls somewhere in-between Twitter and blogs, with support for text, image, and video. Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube rely on visuals to get the message across. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks and it’s up to you as the communicator to decide which will best fit your needs:

  • Twitter is by far the most popular choice for science communication between scientists. However, Twitter use overall is much lower than that of other platforms (notably Facebook and YouTube) and so may not be the best choice for reaching a broad audience. Twitter is famous for its 280 (previously 140) character limit, which can sometimes make posting difficult.
  • Facebook: Popular among most demographics and able to reach a fairly wide audience, Facebook is generally the default for social media outreach. Facebook offers greater content flexibility than many other platforms, with support for video, photos, and text-based content. But unlike Twitter and Instagram, content you share on your personal page is not “public” by default – if you want your Facebook outreach to reach a wide audience, you’ll need to either create a public page or make your outreach posts “Public.”
  • Instagram is becoming increasingly popular as a science communication platform, as scientists use hashtags like #ScientistsWhoSelfie, #scicomm, and #ThisIsWhataScientistLooksLike to both promote science and help dispel stereotypes.  As with anything, there are both detractors and supporters, but I think Instagram will is earning its place at the scicomm table.
A screenshot of the
With over 58,000 posts, #scicomm on Instagram seems to be doing just fine.
  • Blogs and vlogs: For those who prefer more long-form communication, blogs and vlogs are a great choice. Blogs (like this one!) offer plenty of flexibility in content while vlogs/YouTube channels are a great opportunity for those who prefer talking over text. Many popular blogs  increase their reach with both Twitter and Facebook pages (check out Southern Fried Science for a great example). If you’re set on using Twitter but tend toward a more verbose communication style, a combo blog/Twitter page could be a good option for you.

Timing, tags, and other thoughts

Before you take the plunge into the world of social media science communication, spend some time observing accounts, channels, groups, and users who post content similar to what you want to post. When do they post? How often do they post? What kind of posts gain the most traction: images, text, GIFs, or video? What hashtags do they use? Publishing your content at times when readers are most likely to be on social media or using popular hashtags can help increase your visibility and thus your reach. It’s also helpful to know the formats your potential audience prefers – if your audience prefers snappy, MFW-style reaction GIFs, a long blog post will probably remain unread.

Screenshot of a tweet
Remember: sci-comm doesn’t always need to be serious.

What about post frequency? There’s a great deal of information on how often you should post, but the consensus trends toward 2-3 times a day for Twitter, 5 times a week (or once per workday) for Facebook and one or two posts a week for blogs. For those who like like to base their decisions on data, both Facebook and Twitter allow users to download and view their user engagement data (though Facebook only makes this information available for public Page owners, and not for personal accounts). Many popular blogging platforms also make this information available.

One last thing: there are a number of social media “dashboards” that can make managing your accounts much simpler. In the past I’ve used both Hootsuite and Tweetdeck for scheduling and planning content. Tweetdeck allows you to monitor specific hashtags, users, or accounts and is especially useful for live-tweeting events.

Moving forward

And that’s it! Social media outreach isn’t always easy, but I think it can be both fun and worthwhile. For those wishing to learn more (or those just looking for some new pages to follow), here’s a list of accounts, pages, and blogs worth checking out:


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