Cultivating followers on social media when you want to communicate science

How do you explain why social media can be a good thing for researchers to look into? What advantages and what challenges are important to highlight? Next week, I’ll be introducing social media for science communication to the Danish Public Health Sciences Alumni (in Danish). It always helps being quite convinced yourself of what you are talking about, but reading other people’s arguments can also help. Especially, if they are in line with your own experiences.

I was therefore delighted to read a blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience, by Matt Shipman, a public information officer at North Carolina State University. He writes about using social media (like Twitter and Facebook) and science blogs for taking science to the public.

Building networks takes time

Apart from the simple and convincing argumentation, what I like about the blog post is that Matt Shipman points out the fact that it takes time to build up the necessary network to get the full value of social media. This aspect is not that often acknowledged. My own experience is also that it takes time, and that you need to be patient in the beginning and that it requires some work. Just like you need to be patient when building up networks in real life. As Matt Shipman writes:

“Just because you set up a social media account doesn’t mean that anyone will know about it. You’ll need to take the time to cultivate a following.” 

And how do you do that? Matt Shipman has a few suggestions, which match very well my own experiences.

“You can start by figuring out your desired audience. Who do you want to be following you? Other scientists? Relevant science writers? Potential grad students? […] Once you’ve defined your target audience (or audiences), you can begin reaching out to friends and colleagues who are already online. They can help point people to your Twitter account, Facebook page, etc”

In my experience making searches on e.g. Twitter and looking at who pops up is also a good start for finding out who to follow. And just like looking at the references in a scientific article can give hints on where to find more knowledge, so does it help to look at who key people are following – making chain searchers so to speak.

Getting people to follow you

One thing is finding out who you should follow, getting the relevant people to follow you is also a challenge, and probably a bigger one. Without followers you are missing the whole point of social media. To get full advantage you need to have the relevant people to follow you – and not only that:

“.. if you really want people to pay attention, you need to have something to offer. Content is king, and you need to contribute something to the online conversation. In other words, why should people be listening to you?”

Social media like Facebook and Twitter are good for drawing attention to things, and communicate short messages but not always for more extensive communication:

“Social media platforms can be very limiting. For example, can you define genotype and phenotype in 140 characters or less?

“If you want to use social media to communicate effectively, you need to drive readers somewhere.”

‘Somewhere’ could be an already published article, a new report or an event, but it could also be a blog. Matt Shipman goes on to write about the blog and how it is useful for science communication. I won’t repeat that but encourage potential new science bloggers to read the blog post.

Lots of advice on how to get followers

Searching Google for tips on how to get followers on for example Twitter, lots and lots of websites pops up. For new comers to social media and science, Matt Shipman’s blog post on Nature’s community guest blog, Soapboxscience is a good starting point on why the combination of social media, blogs and science communication is not such a bad idea, but also that it requires some work.

First steps taken by online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs

My online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs have now taken their first steps – and I survived it and would even call it succesful. It is definitely not a discussion that will stand out in history, but it was useful for me and I believe a good introduction of the potential of using social media at seminars, to the people who were exposed to it.

As I blogged about last week, I was asked by the Danish Alumni for Candidates in Public Health (FKFSV) to facilitate an attempt to do some online discussion at their annual meeting [in Danish].

The meeting was live-streamed and people outside the meeting room could therefore participate in the discussion via Facebook and Twitter (using #fkfsv).

I thought I’d share my experiences and reflections on the whole online event and my facilitation thoughts in bullets. So here we go:

Introducing social media to the Danish Public Health community

  • The meeting confirmed what I already expected: that the Danish Public Health Community is not well acquainted with using social media for professional purposes and therefore the number of actively participating online participants was very limited (in addition to me as facilitator 6 people took part).
  • Facebook is the main social media platform for the Danes. Twitter is still unexplored and thus very few have an account, and those who do hardly uses it. The discussion on Twitter was therefore very limited – which was a shame. Facebook was more active, despite the fact that it is not optimal for live discussion. Both because the discussion easily becomes fragmented (taking place as comments to different statuses etc.) and because it allows people to just type away resulting in very long questions. The 140 characters from Twitter is definitely not something people are used to.
  • Posing questions to the experts and politicians through Twitter and Facebook was very effectual. Making a point out the fact that the question came from someone following the discussion from outside the meeting room (at some point even questions from Berlin) was good. Both in terms of making people aware of what social media can be used for but also in interacting with the online participants and making them feel as part of the seminar.
  • Although the actual online discussion was very limited and perhaps could not even be characterised as a discussion but rather a channel for posing questions to the speakers and the political panel, I believe we made a good splash for social media. People participating in the meeting itself expressed that they found it ‘cool’ and useful. There were even people signing up for a Twitter account during the conference!

Facilitation requires participation

  • Having the discussion take place on two platforms is, as I expected, not optimal. However, in a situation where not that many people are present online and the objective primarily is to interact with the live seminar, it was essential to have both Facebook and Twitter going. The linkage between the two when using # on Facebook updates was helpful (although it doesn’t apply to comments on Facebook statuses). We could probably easily have had only Facebook going, but I found it important to introduce Twitter as a useful and appropriate alternative.
  • I had prior to the seminar decided that my role was to facilitate and not do live-tweeting of the discussion. This choice was based on two factors. 1) I thought it  was better not to both report of what was happening and be a facilitator; and 2) the meeting was being live-streamed so most people would be able to get the “full” content of the meeting, making live-tweeting a bit redundant. After the meeting I still think this was the right choice, especially if the discussion had been more lively. Live-tweeting is great, but should be assigned to someone other than the facilitator or just happen impulsively from the participants.
  • I didn’t participate much myself (mostly because there was not really a discussion going on), but it was clear to me, that it was important to have a clear distinction between Nina-the-facilitator and the public-health-Nina. This meant that using different accounts for the two identities was important.
  • The seminar took place on a Friday afternoon/evening . Starting at 4pm and ending around 8pm is perhaps not the best conditions for an active online discussion. It was clear that the most participation was between 4 and 5.30 after which it almost died out. Understandably I would say, so no critic there. Just a lessons learned that timing of the event if you want an active online environment too is important. It could be fun trying to establish some online event during working hours and see how that goes.
  • Introducing the possibility of sharing links via Twitter and Facebook was good. In this particular case it didn’t contribute much to the discussion, but as facilitator it was nice to be able guide and qualify the discussion by introducing that element of using social media for online discussions.


All in all I think it went well. The most important thing was for me to introduce social media as an element in seminars such as the annual meeting and hopefully also beyond the meeting room. It was my sense that some of the people who had never considered social media as something relevant for their work (and there are many of these if you ask me) were shown in a good way that social media may have a role to play. It is a small beginning and tiny first step, but perhaps people will be just a little bit more alert to it next time they come across cases of social media used as a tool in relation to practicing, discussing or researching public health. For me personally, it was fun trying to foster some communication, and especially keeping attention to how you make what happens in the meeting room and online come together. I look forward to trying it again sometime – hopefully with a few more active people online. My online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs can definitely take more steps before they are stable.

A facilitator of an online public health seminar discussion – me?

So, on Friday I will for the first time be trying out my online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs. I have never tried this before and must admit that I am still a little bit in the dark on how to go about it. I have a few times in real life and in informal manors facilitated discussions, but I am certain this will be somewhat different.

It is the Danish Alumni for Candidates in Public Health (FKFSV) that in connection with their annual meeting (in Danish) are hosting a discussion on new public health initiatives after the recent change of government. The meeting will proceed with three presentations by experts in public health and related disciplines and then a panel of four politicians. So far 75 people have confirmed their attendance. As the meeting will be live-streamed, it is the hope that more people will follow it from home. And this is where I come into the picture. In an attempt to give the people joining from home a chance to take part in the discussions, the wish is to let them share their opinions, reactions and questions via Facebook (which is the dominating kind of social media in Denmark) and Twitter (using hashtag #fkfsv).

Me? an expert?

One (or at least I myself) could wonder why I have been asked facilitate this discussion. This is unfortunately not because I am a powerhouse of knowledge and experience, but more an indication of how small a role social media still plays in the public health field in Denmark. Thus, it seem that I am the person in the Danish Public Health Community who has the most experience with using Twitter and other kinds of social media in relation to public health… This also means that what I expect will be the biggest challenge for this particular online discussion is that so few people are used to discuss professionally through social media. It does however also imply that part of the whole exercise and success criteria is not just a fruitful discussion but perhaps just as important, to introduce the use of social media in Danish public health related events.

Connecting the seminar discussion with the online discussion

In trying to prepare for my facilitator role I searched both online and asked through Twitter for some inputs. Colleen Young (@colleen_young) and Andrew Sponge (@andrewsponge), both from the world of #hcsms and facilitators of the weekly discussions on social media and health care, were so kind to share some tips via Twitter. Their main advice was to focus on, in as many ways as possible, to connect the online conversation with what happens in the actual seminar. This could include requesting questions in advance, polling opinions during sessions via Twitter and perhaps projecting a Tweetwall, so that it is visual in the room. They also suggested inviting speakers/panels to reflect on the Twitter discussions perhaps even with a separate session. Colleen Young also drew my attention to a #hcsmca discussion earlier this November on using online support during conferences & workshops. Reading the transcript was very useful. It confirmed some of the benefits of social media in seminars/conferences which I myself have found useful, eg.

  • the possibility of sharing links with each other
  • the possibility of broadening the scoop of audience
  • the dynamics of incorporating Twitter feeds in questions to panelists,
  • the possibility  to engage in conversations beyond the podium, in and outside the room.
  • the engagement of those who are not comfortable to stand at the microphone
  • the transcripts which can help shape future conferences if organizers listen

The role of an online facilitator – a guide, not an expert

Some inputs on what is specifically required from an online facilitator I also found online (however I’m surprised of how little I could find). Al though quite basic and, one could argue, obvious, som of the points from the Facilitating Online Discussions Tool from the Australian website are useful.

They describe online facilitation as “the act of managing a discussion through an online medium, such as a chat room or online forums that can be hosted on your own site or one that is external to yours” and point out that as in any other kind of discussion facilitation, an online facilitator is a guide and not an expert. The role of the facilitator is to engage the participants, know when to let discussion flow and when to step in and moderate, create a positive atmosphere and keep people motivated to participate. Some of the tips include:

  • Be clear about your expectations to the discussion and don’t be afraid to put rules in place to keep the online discussion a safe and positive space for all involved. Moderation makes people feel safe, so be willing to do so if things get out of hand.
  • Have specific questions ready to ask your participants throughout the session, however don’t dominate the discussion. You want people to keep the conversation flowing, and for them to ask questions amongst themselves, so be open to this.
  • Give people notice that the discussion will be occurring, so that you can get the maximum number of attendees possible at the time.
  • Be aware of talking in the language that your participants are using. Language is something that can help build trust and rapport amongst your participants, so be flexible in the language you use when facilitating a discussion online. 
  • Give your participants a chance to give feedback about how the online discussion went after it has been completed. This allows for you to find out where things can be improved for the next time, so make sure you allow some time for this to occur.

Expectation to the discussion

As said, my expectation to and hope for the discussions on Friday can be divided into two parts. Naturally, I hope that there will actually be people present online and that it will be possible to engage them in the discussions. However, more importantly, I hope that this first attempt from FKFSV to introduce online discussion, will not scare of people from using social media at future public health seminars/conferences/meetings, but rather open up people’s eyes to the media and its possibilities. I look forward to trying out my online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs and welcome all your advice on how to best go about the facilitating role!