If you want to increase the impact of your research using social media, it requires dedicated planning, execution and evaluation. In my previous article, I introduced the metaphor of the social media sandwich as a useful way to visualize how these steps fit together. The first step, planning, is like the sandwich bread -- it’s what the rest of the process is built on, and without it everything falls apart. In the planning phase, you should clarify why you want to share your research on social media, who you want to reach, and what you want your message to be. You should also decide where and when to post. If you missed the planning steps or want to review them, here’s Part One again.
Once these elements are honed, it’s time to start posting! Your posts are the main filling of your social media sandwich -- the juicy burger (or veggie burger) that entices your audience to take that second bite and engage with your post by liking, sharing, commenting or clicking a link. Over the years at Footnote, we’ve gained an increasingly nuanced understanding of what makes an effective post on different platforms, and I’ve distilled some of these lessons for you below.
In this article I’ll break down the posting process and share some basic tips for using each of the main social media platforms. We’ll mostly focus on how to use each platform effectively, rather the content of the posts. Crafting an effective social media post is an art form, and if you’re still struggling to get your message right, you can review the suggestions in my previous post or check out more of the great advice out there, like this article from Nature.
Twitter is one of most popular online spaces for sharing academic research, as well as for participating in ongoing conversations with colleagues, so I’ll go into a bit more detail on Twitter strategy than I will for the other platforms. Posting to Twitter is often considered the most difficult to master because you are limited to 280 characters per tweet (originally it was only 140!). Brevity rules on this platform, so work on distilling your message into a single sentence that makes your audience want to learn more by clicking your link, following your account or taking whatever next step you want them to engage in.
Including an image, video or GIF with your tweet helps it stand out on viewers’ feeds, so try to incorporate one when appropriate. But don’t feel pressured to use an image for every single post -- a lot of great tweets are purely text but receive high engagement because their content is relatable and thought-provoking. For certain links, Twitter automatically creates a clickable ‘preview image’ when you paste the URL into your tweet, making the link more visible and increasing the chances that someone will click on it. To find out whether a URL you want to use has an image preview, you can paste it into Twitter’s card validator. If it doesn’t autopopulate an image, you can add one manually. Here’s what a clickable preview image looks like:
Including a couple of hashtags relevant to your message can help people find your tweet and connect it to a larger conversation about an issue. As I mentioned in my previous article, you can search for potential hashtags using websites like hashtagify and Display Purposes or observing what tags the people you follow on Twitter use frequently. Some hashtags are fairly broad, such as #AcademicTwitter and #SciComm, while others are more specific to certain fields or topics, such as #neurobiology and #behavioraleconomics. Still others have been created to facilitate conversation about particular issues or campaigns, such as the recent #BlackAndSTEM and #BlackBirdersWeek, or around events like conferences or workshops. Which hashtags you use help determine who sees your tweet and how it gets categorized.
Along with hashtags, you can also tag other accounts in your tweet or in the accompanying image -- you simply include the user account name with the @ symbol at the beginning. I recommend doing this sparingly, but it’s useful in certain cases. When you are sharing about a collaborative project, you can tag the institutions or individuals who participated so they can retweet and follow the discussion. You can engage other accounts in conversation or directly ask them questions by tagging. Finally, you can tag accounts you think will be especially interested in your post -- but be judicious about this so you don’t come across as a spammer.
If you want to include more detail or links than a single tweet allows, consider creating a thread or series of tweets that are all connected. Here’s a simple explanation of how to create a thread. The common protocol is to state "thread" in the first tweet or use 1/x (x standing for total number of tweets) to indicate that this is one of several connected tweets. Threads, also called “Twitter essays,” are a great way to break down the key points of a research paper or article, offer a list of tips or thoughts on a topic, or create a mini story that builds to a strong closing statement. Here are some examples of Twitter threads to give you an idea of how different people use them.
Long threads can be difficult to keep track of, especially if many people are replying. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to view all the tweets from a thread together in one place: it’s called “unrolling a thread,” and all you have to do is reply “@threadreaderapp unroll” to any tweet by the original poster. Once the thread-reader bot is done compiling the tweets, it will tweet you back a link to a post that has pieced them all together in one place.
Finally, consider posting the same (or similar) tweets multiple times across several days or weeks to reach a bigger audience. Tweets are ephemeral, and while hashtags can help people find your post after it’s disappeared off their feeds, typically only a tiny proportion of your audience ever sees a given tweet. Don’t worry about someone seeing your post more than once -- it’s a pretty accepted practice on Twitter. They may even click on your link or like your post after seeing it that second time.
LinkedIn is a professional network, so it’s great for sharing career milestones, new papers or articles you’ve published, or links that are relevant to colleagues in your field. Writing a post for LinkedIn, or any of the other major social platforms, is much less constricted than Twitter. LinkedIn allows you up to 1,300 characters in a post. I strongly suggest, however, that you still aim to keep your posts short and sweet. Time and again I’ve seen that posts with less text, no matter the social media platform, receive higher engagement (the exception to this is Instagram, which I’ll explain below). Typically, people don’t want to read a long post; they want the punch line so they can decide whether it’s worth their time to click on your link or share your post.
As with Twitter, when you paste a URL into your LinkedIn post, it will often create a clickable image preview. If there isn’t an image associated with your link, or you aren’t sharing a link at all, you can add an image or video manually. You can also add hashtags and account mentions to your post just as you would on Twitter. Here are some additional tips for upping your LinkedIn posting game.
Securing a wide reach for your posts is a bit trickier on Facebook because it’s designed to be a private social network where your posts are primarily shared with your direct connections. To attract broader attention, you’ll probably want to do more than post to your own personal page (though it’s always nice to share your work with friends and family). Ask your institution if they have a Facebook page they’d be willing to share your post on and consider which groups or organizational pages you are affiliated with that might be a fit for sharing your ideas.
As with the other platforms, on Facebook it pays to keep your post text short and to the point, include images or video as appropriate, or paste a URL that creates a clickable image preview. You can use hashtags, but they aren’t necessary or helpful the way they are on Twitter or LinkedIn, because people don’t tend to search by hashtags on Facebook. Instead, the best way to reach your audience is by posting to relevant pages and groups.
Instagram is somewhat unique among social media platforms in a number of ways. First, it’s a visually focused space where the image takes center stage over the caption. In order to post, you have to have some sort of graphic, and ideally it should be your own original content, not a stock photo or other externally sourced image. You can share multiple pictures or videos in a single post.
Second, you cannot share clickable URLs in an Instagram post. The only place you can share a clickable link is in your profile bio, which is why you’ll often see people write “see link in bio” in their captions when they want you to visit a website. This makes Instagram a less attractive platform for sharing research articles and other external links. However, if your research lends itself to captivating imagery -- beautiful electron microscope shots, interesting and informative graphs or stunning nature photography -- you can use this to your advantage. Many science labs and research institutes use Instagram to share behind-the-scenes images of research in action or highlight key visuals from research papers. Here’s some more great advice on how to communicate about your research on Instagram.
Third, Instagram is one of the few platforms where it’s acceptable to write a long narrative caption. You can use up to 2,200 characters per post, enough to write a few short paragraphs. Whereas Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook audiences tend to prefer short posts, Instagram is an exception. While some people will like a post without even reading the caption, because they were drawn in by the image, others have come to embrace the “Insta Essay” -- a long caption that tells a story or goes into depth about a topic related to the featured image. Consider an Instagram post as a way to convey meaningful stories about you and your research in a more personal way than Twitter or LinkedIn allow.
Fourth, hashtags are your friend on Instagram, perhaps even more than on Twitter. Many Instagram users peruse hashtags (and locational tags) to find new accounts to follow, so they are a critical part of increasing your audience and post engagement. While I suggest using no more than three hashtags on other platforms, you have a lot more leeway on Instagram: it’s definitely common and even recommended to use at least 10. The standard way to include hashtags on Instagram is by listing all of them at the end of a caption, not mixing them in with your text. You can decide which tags to use by using tools like hashtagify or searching hashtags on Instagram and seeing which ones most closely match your content or the audience you wish to reach.
Cooked to Perfection
As you become more comfortable with social media, you’ll learn what posting styles resonate with your audience and what works best for each platform. It takes practice, and a lot of taste testing, to hone the right recipe that makes people want to sink their teeth into your sandwich -- er, content. Don’t be afraid to try different ingredients and ask others for help or feedback.
The more effort you put into sharing your research and ideas on social media, the more engagement and dialogue you’ll spark. Just don’t forget that social media is a two-way street and people will be more likely to interact with you if you engage with their posts as well. Interacting with other users and their posts exposes you to potential collaborators, research that may be pertinent to your work and news or updates relevant to your field. You can also learn from others’ posts to help your own strategy evolve, just as you might try sandwiches from a number of restaurants as you perfect your own recipe.
In the next and final article in this series, we’ll talk about the importance of monitoring the performance of your social posts, following up with your audience and evaluating your success.
And if you’re hungry for more, sign up for Footnote’s free webinar on how to succeed on social media, coming up on Sept. 23, 2020.
Kristen Weiss is a scientist turned science communicator who is the social media manager at Footnote, an organization that collaborates with the academic community to increase the impact of their research and expertise through better communication.