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Actively participating in social media is becoming a vital part of an academic’s routine. Scholars use social media to research, discuss ideas, collaborate and promote their work. Whether you are new to the idea or have a sophisticated online presence, you can improve your visibility and connection to colleagues with a strategic plan.

There are numerous reports on the ways people and organizations amp up their social media following. We advocate the common-sense approach of focusing your social and digital media goals not on the quantity of followers or posts but on the quality of followers and engagements. In this article, we lay out six simple steps toward authentic social media engagement.

Step No. 1: Define your social media profile. Reflect honestly on your social media profile today. You might be:

  • Curious: You’re not doing much online or in social media, but you’re interested.
  • Beginner: You have a presence in various places, some personal and some professional.
  • Advanced: You’re highly engaged online and in social media, with some structure and strategy around when and how you engage.
  • Sophisticated: You have defined target audiences and a publishing process, and you use specific channels as part of a process.
  • Highly sophisticated: You are pushing content out on a scheduled basis. For instance, you’ve created a blog that you update regularly and a website that you refresh often. You use Twitter to follow and engage with news media on a routine basis and ensure you are considered a source in relevant academic and/or professional areas.

We’ve found our academic colleagues self-identify anywhere between curious and sophisticated, with highly sophisticated seen as aspirational. For those of you who want to move beyond your current profile, we recommend reframing your online presence with a more strategic approach -- and that starts with the next step.

Step No. 2: Identify your target audience. Your goals evolve and change and, when they do, it’s time to re-evaluate whom you are most trying to reach. Doing so on a regular basis is the key to actively engaging with relevant people and organizations.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Whom do I need to engage with for my teaching? Are there organizations I want to invite in for service learning projects? Experts whom I’d like to invite to guest lecture? People doing brilliant work whom I’d like to share with my students on a regular basis? Successful alumni who could be examples for current students and may even want to come to class to lecture or network?
  2. Whom do I need to engage with for my research and publishing? Have I published in an academic journal that I haven’t yet started to follow? Or have I targeted a journal that I need to become more familiar with? Or a specific editor who is also active on social media?
  3. Whom do I need to engage with to raise my media profile as a contributor in my fields or a professor of note? Which media organizations or independent media personalities are actively reporting on and discussing topics that I cover or subjects of interest?

Make a list of the target audiences in each of the categories that you need to influence to achieve your goals. The next step covers what to do with those lists.

Step No. 3: Combine active with strategic listening. Actively listening to your target audience will provide insight into what their priorities and interests are. You should first research your target audience’s social and digital media presence. Do they have a website? Do they use Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter? What other platforms do they use? Note in priority order where your audience is most to least active.

Next, start to listen through those channels and platforms: Do the topics that interest them relate to yours? When and how do they engage? Do they favor visuals, links, humor?

You can also learn from those with whom your target audience engages actively. Via their likes, comments, shares and retweets, notice:

  • What types of social media profiles do those people or organizations have?
  • What insights can you glean from their postings? How often do they post or retweet the work of your audience?

Finally, think about how your content fits into your target audiences' lives. In Dao Nguyen’s TED talk “What makes something go viral?” a practice termed "cultural cartography" encourages you to not “just think about the subject matter; think also about, and in fact, primarily about, the job that your content is doing for the reader or the viewer.”

Step No. 4: Align your profile descriptions with your goals. A common oversight is not using your social media profile to make who you are and your interests crystal clear. Simply listing your title and the institution you represent doesn’t go far enough. Consider adding your research interests, the causes you represent and the topics you care about.

It’s good to update your profile as often as needed. Sometimes your role in the college will change. Perhaps you’ve just launched a book or published an article, taken a fellowship or joined the board of directors of a nonprofit organization. You profile should reflect your life changes and career circumstances.

Step No. 5. Find your MOEL. Think of publishing as a process versus a one-time event. We coach faculty members to apply a process called MOEL, which stands for Moment Open Engage Leverage. It ensures a virtual publishing cycle, one that doesn’t end with the submission of a paper but is instead a continuous process.

Moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a piece on LinkedIn, a thoroughly researched academic article or a blog post. What matters is that you find a moment to publish somewhere accessible online about a timely topic that you feel emotionally connected to and are excited to communicate about.

If your previously published material is still relevant, or relates to new trends in media, you may want to consider releasing a follow-up. You can:

  • Add new information. If new research has been released or something related has shown up in the media, it could be a great opportunity to reintroduce your content. Has your theory held up over time? Is there new research to confirm it? Has a movie been released that discusses the same topic? Post new thoughts you have, and link to your older content.
  • Reframe. Is there a twist you can provide on something you posted previously? Do you have new ideas or has something now changed your mind?
  • Attract new audiences. You can highlight previous posts in new channels. For example, if you just joined a channel for posting images, you can post one that resonates with an earlier article that you feel is still relevant.

Open. You will want to open up the conversation on as many social and online channels as possible. Posting an image on Twitter or a link on Facebook is a good start, but you can take a number of other creative approaches. You can post a short video of a colleague who communicates through American Sign Language sharing a testimonial about an article you published. Or you can create a meme poking fun at the article’s topic, particularly if it is dry. Other ways to engage your audience include highlighting a pull quote as a visual or setting up a panel on the topic and recording it on Facebook Live.

Think creatively and use cross promotion. You can connect your social media accounts so that when you post something in one channel, an update or status post is pushed out to your other channels. Using many channels to get your message across is especially helpful when your audience has a preference; they may use Twitter regularly, but not Snapchat or Facebook. Allowing your posts to populate multiple media streams can also help introduce you to new audiences.

Engage. High engagement levels may mean you need to be strategic in your responses. When analytics demonstrate that people are engaging with you through likes or comments, always respond in real time, if possible. Engage most actively with those you have identified as target audiences. A simple like for comments from friends and other contacts is fine.

Leverage. Which of the engagements were most promising? Where did you get the most positive response? Did the comments spark ideas for your next article? If so, that’s ideal. Ideas or trends that are captivating to your target audience can help you build momentum. Use that momentum for your next meaningful publishing moment and build toward a continuing publishing process.

Step No. 6. Manage your social presence. As we’ve stressed, your online presence cycle needs managing -- from initially publishing content to measuring the success of your efforts.

First, you should determine the optimal time to publish. Using your strategic listening research, you probably already know when your audience is most active online. You can also use studies, surveys, tools and other methods to determine the best posting time frame for your audience on specific platforms.

If the thought of posting content at various times on different platforms sounds daunting, don’t worry -- there are tools to help. Using a scheduling service (such as Pagemodo) lets you choose when your posts will go live; your media can be released even when you aren’t online to push the publish button. You can even fully automate your social media campaign.

Used thoughtfully, automation tools can help you be more efficient, but they aren’t required. Managing your social media presence manually takes more time, but it also allows you to more actively engage in conversations and perhaps show a more authentic side.

Create a Conversational Space

How do you create an environment for discourse rather than a passive audience? Three key tips:

  • Be social. Writer Jeff Bullas emphasizes that “social is a two-way street,” and that “You have to be listening and responding to your audience’s spontaneous conversations as often as you are trying to generate your own.”
  • Encourage sharing and remix. Kevin Allocca, trends manager at YouTube, talks about the importance of creative participating communities in his TED talk “Why videos go viral.” “Unlike the one-way entertainment of the 20th century, this community participation is how we become a part of the phenomenon -- either by spreading it or by doing something new with it.”
  • Be authentic and human. In a Forbes article, Kelly Samuel writes that “Authentic social media is the modern day testimonial: It allows users to interact with businesses in real time, but also creates an open space for conversation and feedback. By showing others that you’re human, people can relax and better connect with you. Don’t be afraid to share a story or two about how you failed at something and what you learned in the process.”

Analytics and Measuring

How are your efforts measuring up in terms of metrics such as reach, engagement, volume and influence? The metrics you should apply will depend on your goals. For example, you might want to focus on learning what content resonates most deeply with your audience or what gets shared and promoted the most.

Analytic tools can help you track the metrics you care about most. Google Analytics is one free option. It’s easy to use, and the visualizations are clean and easy to understand. There are also tools such as SumAll, Klout, Hootsuite, Kred and OnlineIDCalculator that track your digital impact and influence.

To sum up, don’t be afraid to let your strategic plan evolve with your needs. Regularly review your social media profile and goals. Connect with and know your target audience. And use MOEL (Moment Open Engage Leverage) to keep moving forward.

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