Tweeting to the Choir? Tips on Using Twitter for Outreach

I had known about Twitter for years, but never thought it as useful and didn’t think I had much to tweet about (I already had Facebook for my opinions). I first thought of Twitter as a professional tool when I attended a social medial talk at the Ecological Sciences of America (ESA) conference last year, and this drastically changed my perspective. The talk centered on using social media, with a focus on Twitter, as a way to network with scientists and communicate your research to the general public. I was an NSF GK-12 fellow, which is a program that places graduate students in K-12 grade classrooms to expose students to real scientific research, and therefore highly interested in outreach. The kids were enthusiastic to learn about forest elephant research, and this feeling of translating knowledge was incredibly satisfying. I was finally ready to give Twitter a chance to share my research with the public.

As I was at ESA, I initially started twitter by following the conference hashtag (#ESA2013) and interacting with scientists at the conference. After ESA, I started to expand my network by looking at who follows whom (of both my users and followers), and Twitter’s suggestions for me. Within the next few months, I developed a base network of scientists and graduate students, and had been interacting with them, tweeting back and forth. However, when looking over my followers, it dawned on me that nearly all of my followers were in the sciences of some sort – graduate students, faculty, or non-profit researchers. I wasn’t really meeting my second goal of outreach. I was communicating science to other scientists, and while I do think it’s important to learn from your peers, I was concerned that I was “tweeting to the choir.” Other scientists already know about the implications of climate change and endangered species. I, on the other hand, wanted to have more of a GK-12 outreach experience, where the people following me had more limited experiences in science and with scientists.

I tried (and am still trying) to engage non-scientists on Twitter. I am by no means an expert, and welcome feedback, suggestions, and comments, but here are some of the strategies that I have found to be helpful connecting to diverse followers:

1. Slowly branch out of your field- Start tweeting about your research and the things most relevant to your field; then slowly expand from there. For my dissertation research, I studied sociality in African forest elephants. The past few years have been unprecedented in poaching of all elephant species, but have particularly hit forest elephants hard. Therefore, tweeting about ivory, but also other wildlife trafficking is a natural extension. Make sure to use hashtags in your tweets (but don’t over do it) and it is also useful to put a hashtag for something not directly associated with your field. For example, if I am posting an article about a poaching incident in Kenya, putting a hashtag in front of Kenya (#Kenya) may draw attention to your tweet from people outside the sciences or a conservation field. You can extend this even further and connect other non-scientific interests. I combine my love of nature with art and fashion, tweeting about eco-friendly designers or products with nature-inspired themes. Make it fun.

2. Connect every day topics to science– Tweet about popular things, or things that people can relate to every day, and relate them to science, or even better, your research. To help you figure out what is relevant or popular on Twitter, you can look at the trends listed in the bottom left of your Twitter page. They are set to locations and can be changed. At the time I wrote this “#42MillionBeliebers” is trending. How do you jump into a conversation about Justin Bieber? While every trend will not be appropriate (there will be many that aren’t), it is doable. So how does a scientist tweet about a teen heartthob? Try to connect it to science, and better, connect it to your research. National Geographic came out with this commentary on Justin’s ownership of a pet capuchin monkey. This relates to wildlife science in several ways. First there is the ethical issue of ownership; should highly social, wild animals be captive, especially in an environment that does not mimic the wild? Then there is the conservation aspect of the illegal pet trade. Although Justin may have purchased his monkey from a breeder, it is a great opportunity to discuss the effects that exotic animals can have on wild populations. For example, many species of loris, another primate throughout Asia, are taken at unsustainable rates for the pet trade. By connecting current issues and/or people, your science and message can hopefully be reached by a larger, broader audience.

3. Follow public figures, especially those with similar interests– This is much easier if you are interested or conduct research in applied science, for instance conservation research. Leonardo DiCaprio (@LeoDiCaprio) largely tweets about environmental issues like climate change and also wildlife trafficking, while Kristin Davis (@Kristin Davis) tweets about elephant poaching. Following and tweeting to (including their Twitter name in your tweet) could lead to a retweet, which would be great exposure for you given their large follower base (I have yet to have this pan out for me and Leo, but will keep you updated). Regardless, putting public figures or well-known organizations Twitter names in tweets will allow people to find your tweets when they are searching for that person or organization.

4. Don’t always tweet about science– You are a human being after all! In fact, one of the reasons why I enjoyed outreach through GK-12 is because you can break down some of the stereotypes about scientists. When I walked into Mr. Allen’s fifth grade classroom the first day, the students didn’t recognize me as a scientist even though they had been told for several days they would be getting a scientist in the classroom. To them, I was too normal looking and too young. Scientists are supposed to have glasses and lab coats. I had neither. I was able to show them that scientists are not the cartoon professor they see on TV, but are real people that they can relate to. The same principles can be accomplished with Twitter. Once in awhile, tweet about television shows you like, movies you see, and restaurants you eat at. The important part is to make sure that science tweets are the main priority.

For my comprehensive exam, I was told to think deeply and broadly. I had to know my dissertation research and subject in great detail, while also advancing my knowledge about general science, ecology, and wildlife. I would give the same advice for using Twitter for science outreach, and also networking. Focus your tweets on what you know most, your deepest knowledge about your research (which few other people should know!), and then expand with tweets on other relevant fields. This will establish you as an expert in your field, while still making you relatable and interesting to the Twitterverse.

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