Getting started with social media to promote your research

Imagine a newspaper where you get to choose the sections to include (front page, finance, politics, entertainment, sport etc), and also who writes the articles in each section…  Welcome to twitter…

Is twitter a social media fad for tween girls to share their love of Justin Bieber, or is it a social media tool that can no longer be ignored?  Twitter is now used by health officials to track disease outbreaks, and monitored for security threats in the US.  Worldwide, 21% of internet users actively use twitter each month, and over 55’s are the fastest growing demographic on twitter. So how can academics use it to promote themselves and their research?

First of all, what is twitter?  You create a profile of who you are, and then you ‘follow’ people to see what they say.  By following people who tweet about topics you’re interested in you get a twitter feed filled with information, links, news and updates tailored for you. 

For 50% of twitter users, this is all they do.  But to get the most out of twitter, you need to interact.  You can retweet things you find interesting, as well as creating your own tweets.  Tweets can be about things you hear at conferences, get by email or simply your own thoughts (see hints below on writing good tweets). You now have a global network of people who are interested in the same things you are.

For example, my profile says I’m a health economics PhD student examining costs of cancer care.  I follow organisations like ISPORorg, CHEyork, simplystats, Healtheconall and NCImedia, and people who tweet about health economics, writing and being a PhD student, like Inger Mewburn (thesiswhisperer), James Hayton (3monththesis) and Arthur Phillips (MPH_adapt). 

So why are many academics nervous about getting involved in twitter?  It seems to me to be a combination of misconceptions about the benefits available, and a fear of losing control.

Much of the public perception of twitter is that it is photos of what people ate for breakfast and the inane thoughts of music superstars.  But I conceptualise twitter as my personal newspaper.  I choose if I want to include a food section or an entertainment section in my health economics newspaper.  And if I do want some of these sections, I chose how big they are and who writes the stories that get published.  In addition, twitter also allows me to publish news that forms the content of other people’s newspapers.  And it is this aspect that can get my name, and my research, known internationally. 

The perception that academics will lose control of their content is an interesting one.  Some are worried that unpublished work, such as that presented at conferences, should not be tweeted.  But a conference is a public event, so a presenter wouldn’t present their work if they didn’t want it heard.  My perspective is that while you do potentially lose some control of who hears your message and when and where and how, the benefits of having your work seen by a potentially much larger, more diverse audience than would be in a conference session far outweighs these potential downsides.

Tips for using twitter to promote your research

  • Use your real name
  • Tweet a 70:30 mixture of professional and general interest/personal information
  • Use hashtags when you tweet , and to find people to follow
  • Be active and engaged, but  remember that you don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time
  • Everything you tweet is public and forever
  • Don’t use all 140 characters (to allow others to retweet)
  • Follow the conventions for acknowledging sources of your information
  • If something is said in public, it can be tweeted. But it might sometimes be nice to ask permission first (or let people know you’re ok with it if it is you presenting).
  • For an excellent guide to getting started with Twitter, check out the Mashable guidebook

The most re-tweeted image of all time (817,000 retweets & 300,000  favourites)