Creating effective social media networks; why it isn't all about numbers.

In my current job I help researchers engage with the public about their research work. I talk with them about how they might engage with particular groups of people or how they might think about structuring a public talk. I especially like talking with people about different ways they can engage and how they might think about using online tools and social media to engage with others about what they are doing. This post is about maximising the potential of social media networks for engagement and measuring success online. It isn't all about the numbers....

The first thing I ask is, 'why do you want to do this?' Followed closely by, 'who is it you want to engage with or reach?' This second question is so important. It's no use chatting to fellow researchers and tweeting links to scientific research papers if you want to speak to people outside of the research field about their views on nature. Tailoring content and building the right network of contacts is so important to minimise wasted time and to use social media platforms to their full potential.

Now, social networks aren't all about a purpose or end goal. They can be a release and just an enjoyable place to spend a few hours. I didn't join social networks for the main purpose of personal gain. When I started to use twitter I didn't think about what I wanted to get out of it. I  joined because I was bored one afternoon and I had heard (via Ben Goldare's badscience book) that there were lots of people on twitter that were interested in setting right misreported science and stopping the UK government from cutting science funding. Turns out there were, they did an excellent job and they are a lovely bunch of folk too. I can't say that I contributed to that campaign. I supported and watched but I quickly realised that twitter could help me as a PhD student and that I had things to say, views about my own work and science, and that people were interested and engaged with me.

This was over 5 years ago and since then many others have realised the value social networks can serve as a tool for many end goals, including crowdfunding research. More people want to get involved and often 'social media' is thrown in as a buzz word on grant applications as a dissemination tool, but setting up an account and sporadically posting content isn't the best method of getting the most out of social media.

If you are just starting out then you might quickly realise - regardless of your social media medium of choice - that in order for it to be useful to you then you need some connections whether they are followers/likes/friends/commenters. A network isn't a network without people in it. But it is a mistake to judge solely on the numbers.  Quite often people quote simple numbers as measures of how successful they are online. There are a lot of spam accounts and you might build a huge network by discussing the in-and-outs of football but that follower number doesn't mean you have a large influence on what an audience thinks about science - although you might - but how can you measure that? As you see numbers can be a measure but looking for big numbers might mean you miss out on real benefits.

I'm not the only, or the first, person to think about this. I like this quote from Andrew Maynard, in his article about social media and science communication , "..every hour spent writing pieces like this is an hour lost to something else I should be doing. Which is why I’m constantly grappling with how I determine the worth of the videos I make and the articles I write."

There have been multiple attempts to try and track and rate online influence too , through tools like Klout. I haven't seen a tool that is truly insightful though and useful enough to use as a metric for tracking success.

So what do you measure?

The problem the belief that people should use a one size-fits-all model. This will not work. Firstly, all social media networks are different so a 'like' on facebook doesn't equal a follower on twitter. Interactions are subtle and hard to measure. You need to be familiar with the platform and how it works to get the most out of it and to understand what is worth measuring.

Really, you can only judge success based on your aims. Let's say your aim is to engage with the local community about their history.  If you get 25 people actively involved on a Facebook group sharing historical content that could equal success. The active sharing is key  here. If you had 300 likes on a page about local history with no active posting or sharing then that isn't really a success even though the stat of 300 likes is higher than 25.

As a PhD student your marker of success could be securing a post-doctoral position. Like all good research you need to determine what you want to do before you launch into it. Of course, unexpected excellent things can happen too. The biggest mistake is getting bogged down in the numbers.

If you have thought about and set your measures. Where do you go from there? 
How do you build a relevant network or audience?

In order for a social network to be useful a certain number of connections are needed. A certain level of activity is also needed. The network needs to be present and useful/of interest to those in it.  The point of being on twitter or other networks isn't necessarily about growing a network of hundreds and thousands of followers. If you are looking to grow your network what are the best, most meaningful ways of achieving it?
  • Search for your audience. See what your audience is posting about, where they are posting it and when they are online. 
  • Pick the right social network to use. A Facebook page usually isn't the answer. 
  • Match your content to your audience. Always have that in mind when you post. 
  • If appropriate, use hashtags that your target audience are using and respond to. Use the hashtags to engage in conversation with others. If regular chats happen about a topic of interest then join in (for a guide on twitter see here)
  • Make yourself available for comments (if you are looking for engagement)
  • Join in conversations.
  • Be present. 
  • If you are looking to start something with a community that you cannot find online then don't make social media your first point of call. Reach out to them in person and find if an online source might be useful. 
Grow purposefully not for the sake of growing your follower number.

I want to hear more about useful measures and ways of presenting them. If more people map what they are trying to do and how they get there (perhaps by blogging?) then others can follow, adjust and use for their own aims.

Useful information might emerge from this too - like an ideal number of people in a Facebook group for it to be active and informative. Too few people and there isn't enough momentum to keep the group interesting, too many and conversations aren't conversations they are just singular posts. Where is the tipping point?

High numbers of followers on twitter can be useful as it ensures that when you post at least a number of them will see it before it drops off the timeline - but the same thing can happen - over a certain number of followers means you get too many responses to read. Is that still useful or just time consuming?

If you are interested in conversations like this and interested in community structure and how they work then I would highly recommend reading Lou Woodley's Social in Silico blog.


  1. "Really, you can only judge success based on your aims."

    Hear hear! Each researcher's aims, goals, etc may be different, which is why it's important to avoid single number indicators (Klout scores, h-indices, etc) that tend to only measure a single type of impact.

    I work for Impactstory, which is a non-profit aimed at helping researchers find and measure their success online. Our goal is to provide many types of data on how research outputs (including articles, software, etc) are used both by other researchers and the public, with no assumptions about what is the most important type of impact. Because as you point out, each researcher's individual aims may be different.

    And qualitative data is very important, too. Using all relevant data that's available, rather than cherry-picked vanity metrics that might not tell a useful story, is essential to creating a nuanced understanding of the important outreach work you might be doing as a researcher.

    1. Thanks for your comment Stacy. Impactstory are making some good headway into metrics and research impact online.

      I saw that you are based in Bloomington btw, I spent a summer there during my PhD and loved it. It's a lovely campus. I hope the place that sells the giant breakfast pancakes is still there!! :)


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