Social media for researchers and scientists is confusing. It’s not the same as it is for “everyday people.” That’s because you’re a specialist in your research area and you need to post consistently with that.
Often the problem with researchers, scientists, etc. on social media is they either fail to establish their authority or they get all scientific about it and overthink it. For the former, it’s critical to not over-share your personal life and dilute your message. For the latter, it critical to remain human and not sound like a manuscript.
Social media is a free and powerful instrument to advanced your science and increase your reputation. Even when done a bit inconsistently it can earn you attention beyond the limitations of your research area. This requires knowing why you’re doing it, finding the right forums, identifying your verticals/key topics, and taking a long-term vision with no expectations. That’s how to use social media as a researcher.
If it’s easy for a 12-year-old, a PhD should be just fine with it, you’d think. But just kids and adults may shop in the same stores and eat at the same restaurants, they’re buying and ordering very different things.
Social Media for Researchers: You’re Not Failing
When I’ve done seminars on manuscript writing and on PR, I’m often asked about social media because
- I’ve managed SNS accounts for a number of tech and academic companies and
- Almost every researcher under age 60 has tried it, and most have failed, or at least they thought they did
When I dug deeper, I found some had tried Facebook, some did a blog, some were aggressively taking part in online forums. Most of them were also being something other than a researcher, or overdoing the scientist in them. They thought they’d failed, and wasted their time.
The truth is: none of them failed. They just didn’t find the right venue and voice, and their method was misguided.
Find the SNS for You, Find a Couple
It’s up to the researcher to find a combination of outlets that they can maintain and that will keep their interest over the longer term.
This is because the most common usage pattern, and the road to failure, is:
- Sign up for a social media platform (typically Facebook and Twitter)
- Post on a wide range of topics ranging from research-related to politics to pics of today’s lunch
- Give up posting because there’s no immediate tangible reward and it takes too much time
That’s not how a researcher should use social media. It’s really not how any professional should use it, either.
Instead, as a researcher on social media, take this approach:
- Choose 1 or 2 key social networks from among the popular general platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Weibo (for Chinese audiences), LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. I recommend LinkedIn as a minimum since it’s already an SNS for grown-ups and it’s easy to figure out.
- Choose 1 general research-oriented social network, such as ResearchGate or Mendeley.
- If you’re game, choose a scientifically focused site; such LabRoots for medicine and life sciences, Element 14 for engineering, or GitHub for IT development and software.
The specialized ones will naturally be easier for you to find your place in because you’re among immediate peers. Learn the ropes on posting and manners. Then start in by commenting on others’ posts and refining your profile before you do your own. That way you’ll get used to how people interact.
On LinkedIn, for instance, there’s very little negative talk, and it’s in your best interest to make a rich profile of your work and research history. Even simply critiquing an idea can seem a bit rude. On ResearchGate, you’re among researchers, so it’s fine to be constructively critical.
Find some other researchers (in any field) to follow, and see how they do it. Identify 2-3 key research themes and focus all your posts on them.
Consider yourself a broadcaster in those 2-3 areas. Establish yourself as a thought leader, but also help others in the same and adjacent areas, and even others who have no clue about what you’re doing.
Use the SNS the Right Way: One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Consider the strengths of the media and how people communicate.
If you use Facebook, keep your posts short and conversational, and attach images and video as much as you can. If you’re on Twitter, use hashtags wisely and be sure to follow and retweet generously.
On LinkedIn, join key communities, share helpful links and thoughts, and if and when you share your own accomplishments, avoid bragging and tired cliches. The typical “I’m humbled and delighted to receive this certificate of achievement on abc…” is really played out on this platform. Instead, write a short narrative of how and why you earned it. Tag people and organizations who helped you with it. Add a couple of hashtags. And add a photo.
On Instagram, you’re visual, so show pictures of your work, tables and figures, short videos of you and your actions and thoughts. Hashtags are more important here than perhaps any other platform. So load up on them – up to 15 is safe. Some espouse putting them in a comment rather than the description. I’ve had mixed results with that, but I don’t think it makes much difference.
On YouTube, well, video, obviously, and longer. On this platform, it’s fine to “teach” about something; especially if you’re answering questions that someone may have. Don’t talk down to people or talk like a lecturer, and generally keep videos within 30 minutes, if not 15. Or break them into two parts. YouTube is host to dissertation defenses, lectures, live studies, you name it. And since far fewer people will go through the effort of making videos, yet there is very high demand for content, this may be the best mainstream platform on which to establish yourself.
On All Platforms: Give First, Expect Nothing
Be human and accessible in all cases.
Yes, you want to promote your research. You can do that. But you have to give as well. Give at a much higher rate than you publicize yourself.
Publicizing yourself is a lot like sales and marketing. If no one wants what you’re selling, they’ll ignore you, choose to hide your posts, or even unfriend/disconnect you.
But if you support those who may have an interest in your work, contribute thoughtful replies to their posts, show you care about the community and you’re not there to then, then you might expect a bit more support for your work. But even then, don’t expect anything.
Be mindful that you’re looking to help people even more than you’re looking to promote yourself.
- Be generous with your thoughts.
- Don’t be critical unless criticism is invited.
- Make your language accessible to non-specialists.
- Like and share any posts you find interesting.
- Reread everything you’re planning to post, proofread the spelling and grammar, and make sure it’s as concise as possible.
Suffice it to say, be careful about sharing any intellectual property, ideas under development, copyrighted works, and anything that you’re not both comfortable about sharing or for which ownership may be questionable.
As a final note, if you’re not a native English speaker, write in English as well as your mother tongue. Just be sure you use the right terms. You’ll usually be forgiven for little language mistakes, but if it’s a clear habit, that may not reflect well on you.