How to utilize social media for science communication

2020-11-23

Social media were originally created to help people stay in touch when they are separated spatially or temporarily. They were so successful in connecting people that they became an omnipresent part of people’s lives. Anything that gets posted to social media has the potential to reach a lot of people. Just like in real life, people will talk about interesting and engaging content and share it – but at a much higher rate than word of mouth does. As a majority of social groups are present on social media they offer great potential for targeted science communication.

But how to get started? Similar to preparing a talk you should define your target audience and goals first. Which country and age group do you want to target? What is their knowledge background? With which media can you gain interest of that audience? Based on how you answered these questions, you can then proceed to choosing a suitable platform (or several) for your scicomm project.

Facebook
Facebook remains the biggest social media platform to this day. Diverse functions such as interest groups, pages, marketplace, games, videos and more are making sure that people of all ages can spend their time on this platform. Particularly the function pages can be used almost in a blog fashion. They have the option to share different media such as long texts of up to 63206 characters, images, videos of up to 240 minutes, stories that disappear after 24h, and of course links to external platforms.

Twitter
Twitter is great for sharing small ‘bites’ of science. It is mainly text-based, but does not exclude the use of images, GIFs, or videos and one can easily share links to publications or external websites. With a character limit of 280, a tweet needs to be short and concise, but this limit can be bypassed by continuing a post with more tweets, a so-called thread. A great example for utilizing twitter for scicomm is the account Real Scientists , which is hosting different scientists and communicators every week and gives them the opportunity to share their science to a following of almost 100.000 people. Due to twitters algorithm and especially the retweeting function, the reach of posts is not limited to the number of followers an account has.

Instagram
Instagram was started and still is mainly image-based. However, it has introduced a lot of new formats such as IG-tv videos of up to 15 minutes, 30 second reels (equivalent to TikToks), and stories. One post to the feed can include several images and a text of 2200 characters that leave enough space for sharing an engaging story including infographics. Additionally, sharing posts to stories can help to advertise them to your community. One of the drawbacks of Instagram is that links cannot be easily shared.

TikTok
TikTok is probably one of the platforms with the highest throughput and consumption of content. With a maximum length of 60 seconds, videos need to be short and grab someone’s interest within a few seconds – or else the video will be swiped away. But if you manage to keep people watching, TikTok is incredibly good at recommending your videos to others that might like them. Though it is not predictable which videos will ‘go viral’, you can easily reach big audiences independent of the size of your following. Owing to its comparably young community, this is also probably the best platform to make science more fun with short experiments and stepping out of your comfort zone by using fun filters and audios.

After creating your account
Whether you are an organization, company, or an individual starting your scicomm project – here are some general tips for content creation and establishing your following:

Think about branding. It will help other people to recognize and remember your content more easily. You should think about a colour scheme, fonts, or a logo, that all of your posts include. You do not need to be a pro at photoshop for this – there is phone and browser applications that can help you out. Branding goes beyond visual features of your posts, you might want to consider including a specific opening or closing of your posts, as well as specific hashtags. As it is often the basis for new followers, do not forget to write a strong bio for your profile and link your other social media and website(s).

Think about content. What kind of pictures, texts, and videos do you want to share? Pictures from the lab? Infographics? Summaries of papers? Experiments? Decide how personal your posts will be. You do not need to be personal at all, but being personal and relatable tends to have a positive impact on the perception and reach of posts. Do not be scared of using emojis or GIFs either, they are a great addition to help you tell your story. If you want to be seen as a reliable source of information, include your references.

Think about accessibility. Science is already hidden behind inaccessible language and pay walls. We should not make the same mistakes in science communication. Make sure your use of language is accessible. Tell a story, be short, and concise – but do not dumb it down. Make sure that colours of images and videos are accessible. Try to include alt texts in images for screen readers and include closed captions (at least self-written summaries of what you are saying) in stories, reels, TikToks and videos.

Last but not least – be social, active, and yourself. Engage in conversations with your community; comment, like, and follow other accounts. Use hashtags that fit your content so people can find you easier. If you are not a funny person by nature, do not try to be. Your people will find you.