Online science outreach is paradoxically both easy and difficult. While anyone can
start a blog and post updates to Twitter, it can be extremely challenging to establish
a long-term following and demonstrate solid measures of success. A daunting number
of online tools and platforms exist, and choosing where to start can be a difficult
task in itself (for an explanation and guide to online tools, see ). As practicing
scientists who have contributed to the highly visited marine science blog Deep-Sea
News (DSN) for up to nine years, we provide guidance on how scientists, who often
have minimal excess time and more pressing priorities, can maximally utilize new media
tools. Here, we describe ten rules for conducting effective online outreach, so that
other scientists can also enjoy the advantages of disseminating their knowledge and
expertise through social media.
Background and Overview of Deep-Sea News
Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com) was established in 2005 with the sole purpose
of tracking new literature for deep-sea scientists. Over the years, DSN content gradually
transformed into a blog, and then incorporated other social media tools to become
a multichannel online outreach platform. Currently, DSN is written by eight scientific
professionals (the authors of this manuscript, with expertise in genomics, computational
biology, ecology, oceanography, and conservation), with a collective expertise across
a wide range of marine and oceanographic sciences. Capitalizing on our diverse interests
and various social outlets, our readership has expanded to make DSN one of the most
popular marine science blogs on the Internet, with ~7,000 average hits/day, and more
than 8,000,000 cumulative hits. Because of our high visibility, DSN authors are routinely
cited by various science journalists and quoted in prominent general audience publications
such as Slate, Wired, National Geographic, and the annual print anthology The Open
Laboratory: The Best Science Writing Online. We believe that the success of Deep-Sea
News as an effective tool for online outreach is best illustrated by our mission statement:
our commitment to “demystify and humanize science in an open conversation that instills
passion, awe, and responsibility for the oceans” (http://deepseanews.com/about-2/mission/).
Rule 1: Stop Treating Outreach and Research As Separate Entities
Integrating outreach tightly with ongoing research projects is key for maximizing
success and minimizing time investment. Consider writing blog posts about either your
newly published paper, literature you have compiled for manuscripts or grant writing,
or literature you are reading for journal clubs. Blog posts focused on papers you
have co-authored can serve as an important long-term resource, both as a first-person
press release and a reference point for journalist enquiries. One example of research-outreach
integration at DSN is the “Sizing Ocean Giants” project (http://www.storyofsize.com/sizing-ocean-giants/),
an undergraduate research project focused on marine organism body size that included
a heavy social media component. Undergraduates were asked to use social media to engage
the public about their specific animals, leveraging online platforms as a pedagogical
tool to increase their understanding of their organisms and the scientific process.
Social media also served as a mechanism to engage other researchers. For example,
a marine mammalogist reached out to the group via Twitter and ended up contributing
large datasets to the project.
Since career advancement in the sciences depends on research productivity, it is important
to link traditional metrics with online work. Based on our own experience, new grant
proposals, research collaborations, and manuscripts (e.g., this article) can often
result from online interactions. It should also be acknowledged that the requirement
of translating research to a public audience increases both awareness and intimacy
with the published literature—one that can feed directly back into your research program.
Researchers can benefit from engaging with a broader set of disciplines than one would
normally interact with, and these combined factors can lead to origination of new
Online outreach projects can be designed and organized in a way that equates to publishable
units; for example, can the data ultimately be used as the basis of a research paper,
or can the outreach experience itself represent a useful case study that could be
conveyed as an editorial or commentary? Research and teaching activities should also
be considered in light of the outreach potential. In the Sizing Ocean Giants project
described above, students used new media tools as part of their class projects. Another
example is tweeting from conferences, which can quickly broaden your professional
network. Considering the above points will ensure that your outreach activities and
social media use work hand-in-hand with your research program. We also note here that
building a track record in online outreach is, in itself, important for justifying
your ability to successfully execute Broader Impacts sections of grant proposals.
Rule 2: Be Strategic. Be Deliberate
Before embarking on any actual online outreach, the first step should be to define
your overall short-term and long-term goals. We believe that it is important to incorporate
some type of formal planning mechanism for all online outreach projects; planning
is key for defining, measuring, and evaluating success over the course of the project.
The DSN mission statement and core values (http://deepseanews.com/about-2/mission/)
resulted from a facilitated, in-person blog retreat in October 2011. DSN needed a
clear vision as to where our social media outreach was headed, including our niche,
our goals, and our values. We could not measure success unless we defined what success
was. Furthermore, it was important to explicitly iterate these ideas on the website
itself, so that our audience knew what to expect from us.
Despite the informality of our group, we took this process very seriously and ran
the retreat as a mediated strategic planning session, complete with mission statements,
value propositions and action items. This clarifying of our mission and core values
allowed us to build more effective strategies for generating content, attracting new
members, and building an audience. As a result, our website growth in 2012 (as measured
by daily hit rate) changed from a linear to an exponential growth trajectory, which
continues until today.
Rule 3: Find Your Niche and Story
After drafting your outreach goals, the next step is to determine your target audience,
define your outreach angle (i.e., a writing voice or online persona), and determine
the online tools that are best suited to your needs. Don’t assume that online audiences
are only interested in dinosaurs, sex, or chocolate (reoccurring subjects on many
mainstream science blogs)—let your own scientific passions drive the content you generate
and curate (see also Rule 6). For example, Chris Mah, a researcher at the Smithsonian
Institution, is unapologetic about his enthusiasm for echinoderms (http://echinoblog.blogspot.com/).
Also keep in mind that any posts that go viral (or touch on controversial topics)
can swing a reader’s view of what a blog is all about. Because it is difficult to
predict popularity, it is worthwhile to ask if a post’s content is representative
of how you want people to know your blog.
Here we note that outreach projects should consciously choose between “inreach” versus
“outreach.” Inreach refers to discussion and sharing amongst a known, closed group
(most likely a community to which you already belong). Using Twitter to discuss a
research technique with colleagues in your subdiscipline is one example of inreach.
Other examples may include submitting code patches on GitHub, or commenting on peer-reviewed
publications via PubMed commons. Although it may increase the visibility of the conversation
due to the public nature of the platform, the discussion is not likely to extend beyond
scientists, and certainly not to the general public. Outreach, on the other hand,
refers to a dedicated and sustained effort to disseminate science beyond the ivory
tower, for example, working with journalists to discuss new research in the mainstream
media, or conducting an “ask me anything” live blogging session on a site such as
Reddit. Your specific goals will determine whether your project is best suited to
inreach, outreach, or some combination of the two. There is a place for both avenues
online, but remember that these two concepts are not the same at all.
Rule 4: Branding…Branding…Branding…
Branding may seem “corporate”, but style and consistency are both critical for online
outreach. Branding is a powerful tool. In the corporate arena, a well-established
brand can be the key to a successful business enterprise. The same ideology holds
true in the online ecosystem. Fundamentally, a brand represents a promise to your
audience that you will abide by a certain set of principles or a mission statement.
The best brands are ones that instill and inspire others to extend a personal interest
and trust in the message the brand exemplifies. This brand should permeate all aspects
of your platform and instill a sense of quality, credibility, and experience. However,
it is important to note that such a trust does not happen quickly, and effective branding
can require a significant investment of time and energy.
Before officially branding any online outreach platform, you must first solidify the
message you are trying to convey and the audience for whom it is intended. At DSN,
our mission statement and set of core values has set forth a clear and consistent
style—a style which our readership has come to expect. This standard allows a diversity
of voices to be present through multiple outlets, while keeping those voices true
to our common objective. We believe our emphases on “saying things that others do
not” and “awareness through scrutiny, not negativity” (http://deepseanews.com/about-2/mission/)
have greatly added to our brand and successes in online outreach. Moreover, we have
found that having a clean, easily accessible, and visually appealing interface is
also beneficial for branding and building readership. Most importantly, we have chosen
a distinctive symbol, the giant squid, that is consistent, recognizable, and personifies
what DSN stands for (http://deepseanews.com/2011/06/from-the-editors-desk-the-giant-squid-can-be-a-panda-for-the-ocean/).
Our logo also incorporates a homage to marine field work (red/white diagonal akin
to a SCUBA flag), and a sense of playfulness (a pirate’s eyepatch). Taken together,
our branding encapsulates the underlying core values and mission of DSN.
Rule 5: Recruit a Top-Notch Team
Because social media is so much work, distributing effort and delegating tasks amongst
different participants can greatly increase long-term sustainability. Online outreach
requires producing regular content, appealing to diverse users, and building a long-term
community of readers and commenters. A frequent supply of unique content is critical
for building and sustaining an online following , and also represents one of the
most challenging aspects of maintaining a single author blog. Group blogs are thus
one of the best ways to minimize time investment and help maximize outreach efficiency:
a group blog has the potential for more diversity (DSN includes female and LBGT voices)
and reduces the burden on each individual. Group blogs can also invite posts from
guest contributors, giving exposure to new scientists and helping to further broaden
blog content. If you are interested in blogging, don’t be afraid to ask an established
blog about submitting a guest post—many sites welcome such contributions. A mixture
of regular and guest contributors will naturally help to disseminate content more
widely, since group blogs inherently leverage each person’s own personal and professional
networks. Regardless of the makeup of your blogging team, it is still vital to focus
on publishing credible science using good communication skills.
Rule 6: Focus on the Story
Producing something popular on the Internet is as much about passion and storytelling
as it is about good content. The best content in the world, if delivered in a drab
or ineffective manner, will not reach its desired audience or will fail to engage
their attention. With passion, the right writing style, and deft use of digital media
tools, you can make any type of science cool, and the importance of making things
cool cannot be overstated.
Dickson  coined the term Information Deficit Model (also known as Science Deficit
Model or just Deficit Model) for the notion that public mistrust of science results
from a lack of understanding of scientific topics. The logical corollary of the IDM
is that if we can simply overcome the knowledge deficit, public trust in science will
improve. In our experience, there is no evidence that this actually happens. If we
simply put the knowledge out there, most people will still lack the conceptual context
to understand and acknowledge the significance of what they are being shown. We must
not simply communicate the content of science, but also a passion for science. It
is passion that is contagious and passion that drives scientists to push the frontiers
of knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It will be passion that elevates
the public to a greater appreciation of the transformative power of science; the knowledge
deficit will take care of itself. Consider the success of the television series Cosmos,
The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and the BBC documentary works of Sir David
Attenborough. In all three cases, there is incredible scientific content, to be sure,
but the true success of these programs lies in their presenters—charismatic and authentic
scientist/explorers who share their passion first and foremost, and the scientific
content rides along with it.
One way that scientists can help convey passion is through storytelling. The notion
of narrative structure is familiar to everyone, often unconsciously so, which provides
great potential for scientific material that can be delivered in this fashion. Use
of storytelling mechanisms employed by writers and journalists can help tremendously,
as can explicit collaboration with artists, filmmakers, and other narrative experts.
For writers, books such as “A Field Guide for Science Writers”  are invaluable
resources for conducting effective outreach. In terms of visual media, there are many
excellent outreach initiatives emerging on YouTube, such as “Minute Physics” (https://www.youtube.com/user/minutephysics),
and “The Brain Scoop” produced by the Chicago Field Museum (https://www.youtube.com/user/thebrainscoop).
RadioLab (http://www.radiolab.org/) is yet another enthralling example of scientific
ideas conveyed in audio form, via podcast and public radio.
Another approach is to bridge the cultural gap between scientists and the public by
explicitly creating commonalities with the reader. Scientists are not separate from
the rest of society; we are also members of the public. We shop for groceries, visit
the dry cleaners, take our kids to school, and vote in elections. We are influenced
by society and engage in popular culture, and thus our communications and narratives
can be deeply rooted in this idea. At DSN we aim to integrate pop culture with scientific
content. This leverages virality and the vast exposure of pop culture phenomena, but
also serves to show that the authors themselves are not aloof ivory tower-dwellers.
For example, recent DSN posts have referenced Miley Cyrus (http://deepseanews.com/2014/02/mooring-family-photos/)
and incorporated Internet memes (http://deepseanews.com/2013/09/lol-ocean-giants/).
Rule 7: Leverage Multiple Tools to Disseminate Content and Build Up Your Network
We strongly encourage the use of multiple online tools, in order to reach different
audiences and drive traffic to the main blog or website. Most readers tend to use
one or two new media tools, with platform use depending on users’ personal preferences
and established online social networks. Thus, it is important to cross-promote new
content to Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other relevant platforms. At
DSN, we use a division of labor for these types of cross-promotion, relying on authors
that specialize in each different tool. We also try to automate as much of this process
as possible, which is imperative for time management and efficiency in outreach activities.
A suite of Wordpress plugins and standalone websites can be leveraged for automatically
pushing content to different social media accounts (some examples include http://dlvr.it
and http://twitterfeed.com), although such automation is best supplemented and balanced
with human-led interaction with online audiences.
Actively engaging with audiences, not just broadcasting information, is also an important
part of using these different tools. Kietzmann et al.  cite examples from the corporate
world, where ineffective social media engagement (ignorance or misguided policies),
can result in both missed opportunities and failure to mitigate potential bad press.
For scientific outreach projects, monitoring accounts and participating in subsequent
discussions (e.g., responding to Facebook/Blog comments, answering questions on Twitter)
is a key component for sustaining participation from followers and encouraging growth
of your online community. Social media engagement therefore helps audiences pursue
their own interests, helps scientists address controversial topics like climate change,
and simultaneously helps break down perceived barriers between scientists and society
(see Rule 6).
Finally, we note that open licensing of online content can play a pivotal role in
its dissemination. All content at Deep-Sea News is available under a Creative Commons
(CC) license (http://creativecommons.org/), allowing users to freely share and redistribute
the material with attribution to the original source. CC-licensed materials can be
a long-term boon to outreach efforts, especially if content is widely shared and linked
on sites such as Wikipedia. For example, the photo-sharing website Flickr, http://www.flickr.com,
allows users to post and search for CC-licensed images. Data and figures can also
be posted to repositories such as Figshare (http://figshare.com) where they are assigned
a unique digital object identifier (DOI), making them both shareable and citable.
Open content thus allows your outreach project to be built on and complemented by
other people, by providing unique materials for audiences to engage with and share.
Rule 8: Collect and Assess Data
Currently, there is much anecdotal and observational evidence regarding what scientists
gain through the use of new media tools (in terms of professional benefits and outreach
impacts), but not much in the way of systematic data and results. At Deep-Sea News,
we attempt to collect as much data as feasible in order to gauge traffic spikes, content-related
trends, and long-term growth in readership. Website metrics such as Google Analytics
(http://www.google.com/analytics/) and Stat Counter (http://statcounter.com) are used
to track site traffic, including the point of entry (page and/or search engine term),
country of origin of visitors, and unique versus repeat visitors. Blog posts are specifically
tailored with Search Engine Optimization plugins installed via Wordpress—each post
has a category, keyword tags, and a descriptive blog title post that helps to drive
search engine traffic. In addition, we keep track of social media metrics: number
of tweets/retweets, Facebook “likes,” and other shares of a given post.
Other strategies and metrics we use at DSN include blog comments and reader surveys.
Reader comments are also an important measure of impact. Some blog posts inspire further
conversation in the comments section that can extend to other social media platforms
such as Twitter or Facebook. However, oftentimes the quantity of blog comments correlates
to controversy more than popularity, and can be counterproductive to our science education
mission. Therefore, to keep the comment section restricted to productive discussion,
DSN has implemented clear moderation policies (http://deepseanews.com/about-2/commenting-policy/).
Despite this suite of metrics, as blog administrators we are often uncertain about
how to best interpret and maximize the use of analytic data. For example, posts published
at DSN for 2013 (n = 299), garnered a total of 1,666,119 page views. Of these views,
82.6% were received on the top 20 posts; the lowest ranking 200 posts accounted for
just 5% of total 2013 views. If anything, these trends illustrate the asymmetry of
online reach and impact. Many posts receive a moderate amount of interest and reader
comments, but occasional posts go viral and attract mainstream media attention, which
has a dramatic positive effect on blog traffic. It is difficult to predetermine what
posts will soar in popularity, but the longer you participate in effective online
outreach, the more it is likely to happen. In this sense, reaching a truly large audience
is a long game.
Rule 9: Iteratively Assess What Works and What Doesn’t
The above-mentioned analytics can be used to assess your online reach and track progress
towards your goals. However, the online environment is still an evolving and untested
sphere, and you will undoubtedly have to adopt a trial-and-error approach to find
what works best. Reflecting on the 3,688 posts currently hosted at Deep-Sea News,
we can provide some insight into the kinds of posts that work versus those that do
not. Post length is an important aspect to consider, since different lengths can target
different audiences and outreach goals. In general, posts that are well received on
our site are usually 400–800 words, with liberal use of images and videos. Lists are
particularly low-hanging fruit and often go viral (e.g., “Top Ten. . .” or “Best of..”
posts). Occasional long posts (>800 words) can cater towards a more engaged, but smaller
audience. Since these posts require more of the reader’s time, they tend to be popular
amongst people with an existing interest in science, or students and teachers seeking
educational resources. Longer posts can also be quite effective in addressing public
misconceptions, which often take considerable time to untangle.
Tone is a critical part of outreach identity. Successful writers often have a distinctive
voice, which creates an interesting and engaging narrative. However, many writers
must find their voice, rather than knowing it from the onset. The web is a fantastic
place to try new writing styles, especially with near instant feedback in the form
of Facebook likes and shares, tweets, or recognition from fellow bloggers. At DSN,
we have found that humor is key. Humor, when used effectively, generates a relaxing
and welcoming environment for the reader. Linking to pop culture or Internet memes
also connects posts to a larger social context and can help people relate their lives
to the science being discussed.
In the course of DSN’s history, we have also realized that there are real barriers
to good science outreach. First, crafting a good post is time-consuming, and can take
many hours. By spreading the work around, group blogs help to alleviate some of the
time pressure (Rule 5). Certain topics are also inherently more difficult to tackle,
such as Fieldwork or Expedition blogging. In order to do this type of writing well,
a strong “hook” and/or human interest is needed to draw the reader in—otherwise these
types of posts are akin to sitting through a slideshow of someone else’s travel photos.
Controversial topics can also be difficult to address, as they often draw unwanted
attention, criticism, and negativity to the blog—examples at DSN include fisheries,
climate change, and the Sea Shepherds organization.
Rule 10: Create Prestige for Public Scholarship
What do we truly gain from online outreach activities? As scientific professionals
working in the research, academia, and nonprofit sectors, we are not evaluated on
our outreach. However, we argue that there are a number of personal and professional
benefits to be gained, as discussed in previous publications [1,6]. The most important
overarching benefit is visibility—to one’s colleagues, to the media, and to the public.
By being accessible, researchers participating in online conversations have the opportunity
to have a much more influential voice for their science. In these days of dwindling
governmental investment and increased public distrust of science, scientists need
to speak out on the value of their profession and training.
At DSN, we have derived professional benefits and personal satisfaction from our work,
including published papers , new collaborations (e.g., http://deepseanews.com/2012/08/sharks-and-lasers-not-just-for-entertainment/),
and substantial media coverage of our work (e.g., http://articles.latimes.com/2014/jan/12/local/la-me-west-coast-radiation-20140113).
However, the most rewarding aspect is to have become an authoritative source on ocean
science for the media and the public. Some of our writing, such as that on the Fukushima
nuclear disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, has been widely quoted in the
press, and our posts aimed at students interested in marine science are used by teachers
and advisors around the world. Because we have witnessed such direct and beneficial
gains as a result of our online outreach activities, we feel strongly that such activities
should be given more weight when determining scientific productivity, e.g., during
hiring/promotion decisions. The impact of online activities is increasingly recognized
[7–8], and they should be formally encouraged.
In the end, it’s important to have reasonable expectations for your online activities.
Don’t be afraid to start small. Remember that not every single one of your posts will
go viral—in fact, it will be very rare that they do. Online outreach is generally
a long game. Content production and consistency are key factors that will impact how
audiences view and access your blog. Finally, quality and engagement are both important
for becoming a trusted go-to source in the online world, and for extending your impact
beyond the Internet.