Create a social media strategy for your research that delivers real impact

Do you ever worry that you might you be tweeting and blogging into empty space? Are you sure that the time you invest in social media is well spent or do you have a nagging suspicion that nobody is listening? Most academics use social media without any clear plan - they're just putting out material and hoping for the best. But if you really want to harness the power of social media to generate impact from your research, you need a plan. It doesn't take long to think strategically about your use of social media, but when you do, you'll discover that your time on social media has never been better spent.


By Prof Mark Reed @profmarkreed


I've blogged before about how to use Twitter to generate interest in and impact from your research. But with a clear plan of who you’re trying to reach and why, you can take your use of social media to a completely new level. If you can answer these seven questions, you'll have your very own social media strategy.

You don't have to write it down (although if you do fancy giving that a whirl, we've made it easy with this handout from our social media training session). Just keep the answers to these questions in mind before you tweet, blog or do anything else, and you'll make every minute you spend on social media count towards making an impact.




What do you want to achieve through social media? Come up with a few SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely) and think about how these objectives might support your organisation’s mission, and crucially therefore how your organisation can support you in achieving your goals on social media.



Who are you trying to reach through social media and what are they interested in? Start by asking yourself who is likely to be interested in your research and who might use it? What aspects of your research are they most likely to be interested in, and how might they use your findings? Think of as many different groups or types of people and organisations as you can, and consider if they will be interested in different aspects of your work. Use this to come up with a few different key messages from your work that these different audiences might be interested in.



How can you easily find relevant content? To make life easier and keep a steady flow of material on your key messages, have a look at what you and your colleagues are already doing with traditional and other forms of digital media. Identify content that can be repurposed, remixed, or recycled for your social media strategy. Did you just integrate your findings into a conference talk or lecture? Can you put the slides online (e.g. via SlideShare)? Can you turn your speech notes or the class handout into a blog? Can you repurpose material for use on multiple networks, for example posting longer versions of key tweets as Facebook and LinkedIn posts? Bear in mind that there are different styles, conventions and types of content suited to different networks. Something with a slightly more personal edge might work well on Facebook, but everything needs to be strictly professional on LinkedIn. Pinterest and Instagram will need a powerful image (and this is also a major bonus for the Google+ interface).



Who can you work with to make your use of social media more efficient and effective? Most academics are 'mavens' - ideas people. This is handy for generating new content, but the problem is that far fewer academics are effective 'salespeople'. You may have the ideas, but you may not have the words that will get your ideas to resonate with a wide audience. But there may be someone in your team or your social network who has that knack, and if they do, then you need to try and tap into that. Send them your findings and ask them to tweet it or blog about it for you, and then learn from and paraphrase the messages that gain most traction in your own messaging. There is one other type of person who can be very handy to have in your team or network if you want to get your message out far and wide - especially if you want to get your messages out to quite diverse audiences that wouldn't normally interact with each other much. 'Connectors' always know someone who can help, and if they don't know directly they'll know someone you can ask. They often 'bridge' disparate social networks with contacts and followers from many different walks of life. In the world of social media these people often have large followings and can be influential in getting your messages heard. Start by getting to know them a bit - follow their work and interact with them if you can. Then ask them directly if they can disseminate or re-post your material (e.g. retweet, like, blog about or give you a guest blog). If they don't respond via social media, find an email address for them, and if that doesn't work, pick up the phone. Although people are sometimes a bit surprised, I've never had anyone refuse when I've done this (as an aside, I just hired a communications manager who it turns out I called years ago to retweet something because her Twitter feed was so influential - its a small, connected world). So find the mavens, connectors and salespeople in your team and network (and those who are all three) and work out how you can work together more effectively.  



How can you make your content actionable, shareable and rewarding for those who interact with you? What do you want to get people who engage with your social media messages to do? What do you want them to share and what might make it attractive for them to share this? What will they gain personally from doing what you’re asking them to do and sharing your message?


How can you monitor and evaluate your social media plan? What metrics will you use to assess whether you are being successful or not? Do you want to measure this entirely in terms of interaction or can you also look at ways in which your engagement with social media is leading to measurable impacts on society (see my recent blog on how to write a winning research impact case study for some ideas about how you might do this)? How will you use this data to improve your practice? Is there a small element of your plan that you can pilot with a particular audience?  How will you collect and implement feedback?


How does your social media strategy contribute towards your wider impact strategy? Not all impacts will arise through social media - in fact most are probably going to arise from face-to-face interactions (which of course may come about via social media connections). Not all of the audiences that will be interested in your research will be on social media. To see how these strategies fit together, take a look at this example of an impact plan for a research project that includes social media as one of many pathways to impact:

How to write a winning research impact case study

If your research has had beneficial impacts in the real world, then there’s a good chance you’ll want (or have) to shout about it. This guide will distill the best advice that is currently available about how to write research impact case studies that have real, erm… impact.

This guide will help you, if you are:

  • A researcher writing about the impact of your own work for your funders or the media
  • Writing about research from the marketing department of a University or other research organization
  • Writing or helping academics write case studies for a Government assessment of research, such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF2020)



By Prof Mark Reed @profmarkreed


8 points for writing an effective impact case study

1. Create a coherent narrative that explains clearly the relationship between the underpinning research and the impact. It may be useful to briefly explain what was original or distinctive about the research that contributed to the impacts. Consider starting from the perspective of the beneficiaries – how did they benefit and why is that benefit so important to them? Be as specific as possible if you want the link between the research and the impact to be credible, including specific details about the names of researchers, their position and dates and locations of the research activity. Choose a strong headline for your case study and ensure your summary starts with a powerful opening sentence that summarises the case study and draws the reader in

2. Be as clear as possible about exactly what the impact was, adding some sort of precise quantification with numbers wherever possible. Quantitative data and indicators need to be meaningful and contextualised to clearly support the case being made, not used as a substitute for a clear narrative. Avoid generalised or exaggerated statements about your impact.

3. Clearly identify specifically who has benefited from the work or which groups/organisations have changed something as a result of the research. Bear in mind that this may include ‘intermediary’ organisations as well as your intended ‘end users’ or audiences.

4. Be concise. A concise case study that pulls out the key points easily for readers has far greater impact than one that is dense and rambling. The UK’s Research Excellence Framework gives people strict page limits, but if you don’t have this constraint, then you could consider imposing some sort of constraint on your case studies.

5. Keep your language simple and direct. If possible, get advice from a science writer or communications specialist, but try and avoid introducing inaccuracies. Remember your audience, and that your audience is probably not other academics. Readers should not have to have in-depth expert or prior knowledge to be able to understand your case study. It is essential that impact case studies avoid academic jargon, so that they are accessible to all your readers. 

6. If you are writing multiple case studies, identify key features of best practice and be consistent about all your case studies covering these aspects. You might for example want to consider a particular list of sub-headings for each case study to follow. However, avoid making all your case studies sound too similar, as though they are all written by the same person, if you want them to also feel authentic.

7. Related to this, make sure you provide detailed, specific and independent evidence to support every claim you make. All material required to make a judgement about the impact needs to be contained within the case study. Avoid anecdotal evidence or evidence that might perceived as such. If possible, link to published evidence that demonstrates the impact of your research. It is possible to commission work to demonstrate impacts yourself, but you will need to consider carefully how this will be published, to ensure that it is perceived to be sufficiently independent and credible. Rather than just listing sources of evidence, explain how each source of evidence supports a specific aspect of the impact that has been claimed.

8. Bring your case studies to life with quotes that illustrate the impact with greater resonance than could otherwise be done with formal language. If these quotes are from people with high profile and relevant job titles, then this adds significant credibility to your case study, as well as some lived experience. Finding quotes from people years after an impact has occurred can be tricky however, so it is recommended to collect these from people as the impact unfolds, and if nothing else, keep track of contact details so that people can be easily contacted later. Bear in mind that key people who could attest to the impact of your work may retire or pass away before you need to write your case study. Usually it is best to aim for a good balance of quantitative data and quotes to support impacts. However, in case studies where there is no quantitative data to corroborate an impact (e.g. a policy which has been developed but not yet implemented), quotes may be the primary source of corroboration to evidence your impact. 



What do we know about impact in REF2020?

We don’t yet know the rules and weighting that will be associated with the assessment of research impact in HEFCE’s Research Excellence Framework in 2020 (REF2020), but we do know four important things:

  • Impact was worth 20% of an institution’s score in 2014, and most commentators expect this to either remain the same or increase slightly to 25% for REF2020
  • Some impact case studies submitted to REF2014 that have continued to generate further impacts during the current REF period are likely to be eligible for re-submission to REF2020. HEFCE are currently consulting on this, to try and get the balance right between incentivising Higher Education Institutes to continue developing and building on existing impacts, whilst having sufficient incentives to develop new impacts
  • It is likely that the eligibility criteria and guidelines for submitting impact case studies in 2020 will be broadly similar to the 2014 assessment, although these are currently under consultation too
  • Assessment criteria may be expanded (e.g. including impacts on public discourse and attitudes) or become more fine-grained (e.g. considering different elements of reach such as number versus the types or geographical spread of people adopting a new technology or behavior) in response to feedback from REF2014 panels, but they are still likely to address aspects of significance and reach.

HEFCE commissioned an assessment of the potential for metrics to inform REF2020, which reported in early 2015. It concluded that metrics could not replace case study narratives for the assessment of impact in 2020. Research commissioned by HEFCE about the impact case studies submitted to REF2014 somewhat uncritically accepted the breadth and depth of impacts captured in the assessment, implying that a similar approach in 2020 could yield similarly authoritative “evidence” of impact. This approach to impact may be criticized as biased towards a narrow set of self-reinforcing perceptions of what constitutes valid and significant impacts, created primarily between different sectors of the research community, rather than in the eyes of beneficiaries. However, although research has been proposed to address these issues, if funded, it will not report until after procedures have been set in place for REF2020. It is therefore reasonable to assume that REF2020 impact case studies will be broadly similar to REF2014.

This is what Universities were required to submit in 2014, which is likely to be similar in 2020:

  • Each Unit of Assessment (UOA) had to submit an impact statement (REF3a, Figure 1)
  • Each UOA also had to submit between 2 and 7 impact case studies, depending on the number of academics submitted in the Research Outputs section of the assessment (REF3b, Figure 1)
  • Underpinning research had to be “excellent” (2* quality or above) and must have been conducted by University members of staff to be eligible.

Underpinning research could include published reports (e.g. final reports to funders) where it was clear that they were of 2* or above quality, but it is highly risky to submit a case study with underpinning research that has not undergone peer-review in an international journal, in case panel members do not deem it to be of sufficient quality for the impact to be eligible. If you are submitting grey literature as the underpinning research, provide copies or links to any assessments that may have been made by the funders as a form of peer-review, and if this isn’t possible then make sure you get it reviewed by a number of experts in the field to ensure the panel is likely to judge it as 2* or above in quality. Depending on how long there is before REF2020, you may be able to turn a report from the grey literature into a peer-reviewed journal article and submit both as underpinning evidence (the original report to show that the research preceded the impact and the peer-reviewed version to demonstrate 2* quality). The underpinning research has to be conducted (not just published) at the submitting institution, so members of staff appointed between now and the 2020 assessment will need to be able to conduct significant new research to further underpin and extend existing impacts if these are to be claimed by their new institution.

Research has to have made a distinct and material contribution to any impacts that are claimed, such that the impact would not have occurred or would have been significantly reduced without the research. If this link cannot be adequately established, then the case study may be graded as “unclassified”. Research from a number of different individuals, UOAs and institutions may have contributed towards a particular impact, and as a result, there are a number of REF2014 case studies that cover the same impact in different ways, based on the specific impacts related to the research conducted by each of the different submitting institutions. If you are in this position however, it is worth considering whether the impacts that you are able to claim linked to your work will be as far-reaching and significant as those claimed by a competing institution who is submitting to the same UOA. Panels assessing the same impact submitted by different institutions will inevitably compare case studies, and you want to make sure that if this happens, your grade doesn’t suffer as a result.

Figure 1:   Outline of information required for impact case study and impact template documents

Figure 1: Outline of information required for impact case study and impact template documents

Is your impact significant and far-reaching enough for REF2020?

In 2014, impact case studies were evaluated against two criteria:

  • Reach is the extent and diversity of the communities, environments, individuals, organisations or any other beneficiaries that may have been impacted by the research
  • Significance is the degree to which the impact has enriched, influence, informed or changed policies, practices, products, opportunities or perceptions of individuals, communities or organisations.

This led to a star rating for each case study from 1-4 stars (Table 1). Assessing the significance and reach of research impact is extremely challenging. Indeed, about a third of REF2014 panel members did not feel that either of these criteria helped them to fairly or reliably assess impact. One of the key problems is the overlap between concepts of significance and reach, as they are highly connected and correlated in most cases. As a result, most panels evaluated both of these criteria together rather than separately. So rather than worrying too much about the difference between these two concepts, the key thing is to make sure that your impact couldn’t be described as insignificant or lacking reach, and to identify evidence that can strengthen claims to either significance or reach (ideally both).

Impact was defined as including but not being limited to “an effect on, change or benefit to:

  • The activity, attitude, awareness, behaviour, capacity, opportunity, performance, policy, practice, process or understanding
  • of an audience, beneficiary, community, constituency, organisation or individuals
  • in any geographic location whether locally, regionally, nationally or internationally.

This could include “negative impacts” where something harmful, risky, costly or in some other way negative is stopped or prevented as a result of research. Impacts on research or the advancement of academic knowledge within the higher education sector were excluded in REF2014 and are expected to be excluded again in REF2020, to avoid duplication with the assessment of research outputs. Impacts on students, teaching and other activities in HEIs were excluded unless the reach of those impacts extended significantly beyond the submitting institution.

Geographically local impacts could in theory be considered both significant and far-reaching, according to HEFCE guidelines. However in reality, a number of panels reported that it was more difficult for local impacts to score highly.

These impacts have to have occurred within the census period (in this case from 2015-2020) to be eligible. This means that many impacts that occurred during the previous REF period and were submitted in 2014 will not be eligible in 2020, as the impacts have already occurred. There is a grey area for cumulative impacts, which HEFCE is expected to clarify when guidance for REF2020 is published. If additional impacts have occurred from an impact claimed in 2014, then the additional impacts may be claimed in 2020 e.g. additional lives saved by a drug or safety device as it is licenced in new countries.

Although you would normally have a good idea of the impact your work has had, if you are submitting a case study based on research by someone who has now left the University, it may be necessary to do quite a bit of your own research to capture all the relevant impacts. Normally this would start with a simple Internet search, but this will often extend to interviews with research users, taking a snowball sampling approach, where you ask each interviewee to recommend others you can interview who may have been impacted by the research.

Some tips for quantifying impact:

  • Google key statistics or phrases from your work to see where they have been used in documents that have been put on the web
  • Did people pay for advice or did consultancy work arise from the research, and can you track the flows of money?
  • What is the readership of a particular newspaper or online media source and how might this translate into money via advertising revenues linked to page views and circulation?
  • In public engagement case studies, can you show evidence of your research being widely disseminated and talked about or used? Did you blog your research and how many people read the blogs? Did you tweet it? Did you get any press or broadcast coverage? Did any trade journals or close-to-policy journals or websites cover the work?
  • Did you get letters of support from external bodies before you submitted the grant that funded your research? If so, can you go back to these organisations to see how they used your work? Who did they pass your work onto or talk to about your research, and at what decision-making level? Can these people point you to evidence in documents etc. that your work has been used? If not, can they provide testimonials about the impact of your work?
  • Did your engagement with stakeholder continue after the project? If so, what further collaborations arose from this engagement that wouldn’t have happened without the original research? Did collaborators use the methods from the research in their own professional practice after the research ended, and what was the effect of those changes in their practice?


Table 1:   Level definitions used for assessing impact in REF2014

Table 1: Level definitions used for assessing impact in REF2014

Box 1 provides a number of different definitions and types of impact. Although most impact case studies tend to focus only on instrumental impacts, for some topics, other types of impact may be important, and may lead you to more concrete impacts that you can write about in a case study.


Top Twitter Tips for Research Impact


Our Top Twitter Tips are 4 years old today, and to celebrate, we've completely re-written and revised them for 2015. The previous tips were viewed over 30,000 times before we took them down. We hope that many more will find the new version just as useful!




Mark BCU image (cropped).jpeg

How can Twitter enhance the impact of your research?

Twitter is one of the most powerful social media platforms for academics, given the number of highly focussed and influential networks of people who use it. Effective use of Twitter doesn't just amplify your research, it enables conversations to take place about it. This can enrich your research and enable you to make a far greater impact:

  • You can use Twitter to get feedback on new research ideas, so that you can reframe them to be more relevant to the people who might use your findings
  • You can get insights into the way that likely users of your research are talking about the topics you're working on - the kind of language they're using and the sorts of things they're most interested in. These sorts of insights can be invaluable when you need to start communicating your findings
  • You can be the first to find out about news and events related to your research, and you can link your own work to what's happening, making it more likely that your work is picked up and debated
  • An increasing number of researchers are finding out about funding via Twitter. You can also identify collaborators for grant proposals, who already trust to be a good team member through your online interactions with them. You can find out about funding that you might not have come across through your institution, especially linked to industry, which can help generate impacts from research
  • As we've blogged recently, more and more researchers are using Twitter to crowd-fund parts of their research. The benefits of additional funding are often dwarfed by the power of an effective crowd-funding campaign to reach out to new audiences about your research.

Why aren't you seeing these benefits?

So how do you get all these great impacts social media? Perhaps you've been on Twitter for months or even years now, and you've still got a small and very slow-growing following, which doesn't give you any of these benefits? If that's the case, then you've probably not been using Twitter strategically for impact. That's why we created these top tips.

We've drawn these tips from our experience managing three Twitter accounts in particular:

  • @fasttrackimpact - our own Twitter account, which arose from the knowledge exchange research we conducted in a UK Research Council funded project that concluded in 2012 (formerly @SustainLearning)
  • @IUCNpeat - a Twitter account which arose from the science side of the same research project. The IUCN's UK Peatland Programme pursued the legacy of the project and rather than starting its own Twitter account, given the overlap in audience, we re-branded @reluuplands as @IUCNpeat in 2015 
  • @seed_ball - a Twitter account for a product that arose from another research project, and grew into a global business supporting four staff within 2 years, marketed solely via Twitter.


Our Top Twitter Tips for Research Impact

Tweet yourself, your projects and your institution

In addition to your personal Twitter profile, consider opening accounts for some of your research groups or projects. Each of your research projects is likely to have a different focus, and you’re probably a member of more than one group or institution in your University that doesn’t have a Twitter account. A project Twitter account is an easy addition to your next “Pathways to Impact” statement when you’re applying for funding, and some sort of engagement with social media is increasingly expected by reviewers.

Next time you’re revising your website, why not consider adding buttons to enable readers to share what they’re reading via Twitter and other social media platforms?

Opening an institutional account will usually need to be a group decision. If everyone agrees, others can either send you material to tweet or you can give everyone the Twitter username and password to tweet themselves (if so, you’ll need to agree on the nature of material you want posted, or it may be easier to decide on the things you want to avoid). 

Open accounts for major research projects that will be going for a few years, and that you hope will have some form of successor project in future (so you’ve got time to build a following and don’t have too many accounts to manage). Again, the burden doesn’t have to be entirely yours – it can be delegated to a post-doc and shared with other team members. Other ideas you might want to consider:

  • Link to your Twitter feed from your project/institution homepage, and include the link in newsletters, presentations and consider putting it in your email signature
  • Every time you do a conference/workshop/seminar presentation, put your slides online (e.g. using SlideShare) and tweet them
  • Every time you get a paper published, tweet the link to the article on the publisher’s website (if it’s not open access, consider adding that you can send copies if need be). If you can get permission, upload a copy on ResearchGate or similar and tweet the link
  • Tweet quotes from speakers at conferences you attend, using the conference hashtag (make one up if there isn’t one), to connect with other delegates and make them aware of your work
  • Set up Science Direct (or something similar) and Google News and Google Scholar alerts for key words and authors that are particularly relevant to your work, so you can be the first to let your followers know about new developments linked to your shared interests
  • When you’ve got a tweet that’s of much wider, general interest, you can re-tweet it from your other project/institutional accounts, to reach a much larger audience than you could ever command from your personal account or one project


Don’t just wait for people to find you: actively promote your Twitter stream

There are some easy things you can do to promote your twitter stream, like including links on your homepage, project websites and in your email signature. But more active promotion of your Twitter feed can attract many more followers:

  • Make sure you’ve got an effective biography (consider including some popular and relevant hastags in it if possible) and enough really informative/useful (typically with a link to more information) tweets in your stream before actively marketing what you’re doing
  • Contact relevant people with large followings to ask if they can re-tweet key messages you’ve sent – tweet or Direct Message them via Twitter, and if that doesn’t work, find their email address via an internet search and email (or phone) them
  •  Use hashtags (#) to make your tweets visible to more people (e.g. #PhDchat) – notice which hashtags people you’re following are using, and use them. If you’re planning a Twitter campaign on a particular topic (e.g. linked to a new paper or policy brief), you could make up your own hashtag, but for it to work, others will need to use it, so you may want to work on getting a key tweet including your hashtag re-tweeted by others with larger followings
The way most people find out about other people on Twitter is when they get followed.

The way most people find out about other people on Twitter is when they get followed. Default settings send an email and mobile notification to a user when a new person starts following them (including their brief biography) – if they like what they read, chances are they will follow you. Twitter recommendations (on can be helpful, but it will only recommend a few people and recommendations are less so when you’re just starting out. If you log out of Twitter and search for your profile on the website, Twitter will list others who are similar to you on the basis of who they follow and who follows them, compared to you. But the best way to find others who may be interested in what you’re doing is to see who is following other users who are tweeting very similar things to you:

  • Who are the people you most frequently re-tweet? Who’s tweets are you most likely to follow links from? Go to these people’s profiles and see who’s following them, then systematically follow their followers
  • If you have time, try and be a bit selective – you can usually filter out the least relevant people from their username (e.g. don’t bother following companies that are clearly just following the person to try and get their custom)
  • Most people will decide whether or not to follow you based on the last three tweets you wrote, so before you start following lots of people strategically, make sure your last three tweets are representative of the sort of thing you tweet about, and among your best (e.g. look back through your historic tweets to see if there was something you wrote a few weeks or months ago that was popular, which you could tweet again)
  • If you’re following people who are following a specific Twitter account, make sure that one of your most recent three tweets is either a retweet from the account you’re targeting or a quoted re-tweet with your take on the story, so that followers instantly recognize that you’re tweeting about material they’re familiar with
  • Twitter monitors the ratio of people following you to the number of people you follow to stop spammers, so you will reach a limit beyond which you cannot follow anyone else. But don’t let that stop you getting the word out about what you’re doing. Unlike Facebook, it is common and acceptable to unfollow users (they won’t be notified that you unfollowed them) to free up room to follow others. If possible, unfollow the people who you’ve been following for longest who have not followed you back (they will be least worried if they do work out that you unfollowed them). Tools like ManageFlitter can make strategic unfollowing very quick and easy

One problem with this approach is that you’ll no longer be able to use this account to follow tweets the people you’re most interested in learning from (as they’ll be lost in the noise of all the other tweets from people you just wanted to know you existed). To ensure you can still use Twitter to gather information from those you’re most interested in, either make sure you only market your project or institutional Twitter accounts in this way, or set up a “personal” Twitter account where you follow those you’re most interested in and a “work” Twitter account that follows many more people, where you put out most (if not all) of your tweets. Lists can also be useful for this – set up a list of users who tweet in different areas so you can look at a more selective timeline of tweets that interest you


Work on your signal-noise ratio

Most people will follow you because they share your core interests (your “signal”), but they will rapidly lose interest if too many of your tweets are not relevant to these interests (effectively “noise” they have to filter out when scanning through their timeline)

As an academic, you need to build your reputation in your chosen field. Twitter can help you reach a network of highly relevant academics, as well as potential users of your research, and make them aware of your work. To do this effectively, you need to decide what it is that you want to be “known” for, and then work on building your reputation in that area. Most people will follow you because they share your core interests (your “signal”), but they will rapidly lose interest if too many of your tweets are not relevant to these interests (effectively “noise” they have to filter out when scanning through their timeline):

  • Consider how useful and relevant each tweet is before sending it, to increase the likelihood that your followers find your tweets useful and keep following you
  • Ensure the majority of your tweets have hyperlinks to further information
  • Provide an image (or video) to accompany your tweets where possible (research by Twitter shows that tweets with images are re-tweeted 35% more than text-only tweets and videos give a 28% uplift). Bear in mind that some web links automatically generate an accompanying image (e.g. many blogs, newspaper sites and video sites automatically generate an image, title and first line of the article below your tweet once it has been sent)
  • Avoid sending too many tweets and re-tweets at a time – if you’re at a conference and tweeting every couple of minutes, followers who aren’t interested in the conference are likely to get fed up of you dominating their timeline on a single narrow issue and unfollow you
  • Avoid using too many acronyms and abbreviations in your tweets – they may make sense to you but many people reading fast will simply skim over your tweet if they don’t understand you instantly. Better to say less in complete words than to try and cram too much in, if it means you resort to acronyms and abbreviations
  • If you’re increasingly tweeting about things that are very different to your core interests, consider setting up a new Twitter stream devoted to that issue/interest
  • If you’re tweeting from a project or institutional account, try not to mix work and personal tweets. Remember you’re tweeting on behalf of a group, so telling people about what you’re doing on holiday is going to sound a bit strange (either your institution appears to be on holiday or it becomes clear that the Twitter stream is really only about one person (who’s on holiday) and not the whole group). If you do want to mix personal and work tweets (some commentators suggest this can help build rapport with your followers), make sure your biography clearly states the name of the person tweeting on behalf of the project or organisation
  • Delete conversations once they’re finished. One of the great strengths of Twitter is the capacity to join in conversations about your research and other people’s work. However, people are less likely to follow you if they look through your timeline and can’t find information-rich, relevant material easily because it is cluttered up with lots of conversation. Particularly if you’re about to strategically follow a lot of people, make sure you delete all recent replies from your timeline (assuming the conversations are over), so that they can easily see your material and are more likely to follow you

It is also worth working on the signal:noise ratio in those you follow – if you find that you’ve started automatically skimming or skipping tweets by certain people, chances are they rarely have anything particularly relevant/useful to say – unfollow them and reduce the amount of noise you have to trawl through.


Get your timing right

Linking to an ongoing news story or debate can really get your research attention

Because of the way Twitter works, most people only read a fraction of the tweets in their timeline, so if you're tweeting on a day and time that none of your audience are reading their timelines, you could be tweeting into the void. Timing is also about linking to the issues of the day - reframing to link into an ongoing news story or debate can really get your research some attention:

  • Link your tweets to ongoing events in academia and the news, using linked hashtags where relevant
  •  If you’ve got a lot to say, don’t tweet in bursts; rather spread your tweets through the day, using something like HootSuite ( to automatically schedule your tweets (so you don’t have to keep interrupting your day). Someone who only logs into Twitter at the end of the day may not get to the three tweets you put out at 8 am, but will probably get at least one of the ones that were scheduled for the afternoon. Warning: your friends might think you have super-human powers when they discover you're tweeting while lecturing or speaking at a conference (many people actually schedule conference tweets in advance, based on the programme timings)
  • Get to know when your followers are most likely to read your tweets. The time of day you’re most likely to get retweets and other engagement from academics is 7-9 am and 5-7 pm on week days, before/after and during the commute to/from work. Tweeting between 8-9 am is particularly effective. There is often a quite different audience of academics reading tweets at the weekend to these week-day times, so it is worth repeating key messages from the week at the weekend. Similarly, if you come across some great work-related material over the weekend, remember to re-use it later in the week when different people are more likely to pick it up
  • Repeat key tweets at different times the following days – if you have a newsletter, set HootSuite to tweet a headline per day with the link to your newsletter PDF
  • Have a relatively constant presence if you can – if you only have time to log on once a day or once a week, schedule your tweets to spread them through the day or week

Use Twitter as part of a wider social media and communications strategy

Set goals for your use of Twitter, come up with a strategy to meet them and monitor your progress

Twitter is just one of many social media platforms, so consider putting your material out via other platforms too, and remember that people who might use your research aren't always using social media, so you're going to want to think about other ways of reaching out to your audiences:

  • Come up with a properly thought-through social media strategy as part of a wider communications strategy for your research, whether as an individual, a project or an institution – what are you trying to achieve through communication? Why are you using social media? Set your goals, come up with a strategy to meet them and monitor your progress
  • Everyone has different learning preferences (some like to read, others to listen, watch or do) and everyone has different preferences for the media through which they want to learn. Therefore, try and adapt your research for as many different learning preferences as possible, via as many different media as you have time to engage with. Also tweet links to different types of media – press releases, videos, journal articles, photos etc
  • Adapt your approach to each platform, rather than just linking Twitter to your Facebook account. Effective use of Twitter involves re-sending key tweets a few times, which is likely to annoy friends on Facebook or colleagues on LinkedIn. Instead, consider setting up a Facebook group for your project or institution, and just putting material there. Alternatively, use the Selective Tweets app on Facebook and choose which tweets you want to appear on Facebook by putting #fb at the end of your tweet. 
  • Remember that social media is just one form of communication, and that there will be many who are interested in your work who are not using these technologies. Keep up your project newsletter – printing and posting where relevant (but still tweeting the link to the PDF, hosted somewhere you can count hits like ScribdResearchGate or ISSUU). Keep presenting at conferences and running workshops for the end users of your research (of course tweeting videos of what you do on You Tube and putting your presentations on SlideShare)


Constantly refine your practice

Watch how other academics, projects or institutions with large followings tweet:

  • Learn good practice from others, and experiment yourself
  • Take note when something annoys you about the way other people use Twitter and avoid doing that yourself

Monitor and learn from your successes and flops:

  • Which of your tweets are most likely to get re-tweeted? Which tweets don’t get re-tweeted? What do they have in common, and what can you learn from this? How were you using Twitter on the day you got 10 new followers?
  • Put (open access) documents that you cite on Twitter in places where you can count hits – which tweets make people click on the link (and presumably read your document), and which ones fall flat? What can you learn from this?
  • Experiment with different headlines in Twitter to see which ones work best – try and reframe your point and tweet it again later that day, and see if you have more success
  • Read through the material you’re tweeting and find quotes you can use to promote the link in a slightly different way – sometimes one of these quotes really takes off, far more effectively than the headline. If you’re tweeting a blog you wrote, then you might want to consider re-titling the blog at this point!


Remember it’s all about relationships

Don’t forget twitter is about communicating and building a relationship with people and not just marketing your own or institutions work at them. So, remember to check other similar institutions/academics tweets and respond to those that are interesting. As an academic, Twitter allows your work to reach a much wider audience and also enables more discussion of your work with others who may put it into practice.

Also, as with any other social setting there is “Twitter Etiquette”, for example: thank anyone who answers you directly or tweets about your work; and always give credit where it’s due. If someone gave you the information credit him or her with it, either by using via @person1 (if they are a twitter user) or as a quote in text.


Top ways researchers achieve policy impacts

By Mark Reed and Sarah Buckmaster

Earlier this year, HEFCE published a searchable database of impact case studies, collected as part of its evaluation of UK research under their Research Excellence Framework (REF). We took a 5% sample of impacts on social (including health), economic and environmental policy, and classified the different pathways to impact that the researchers identified (you can read the full results in the table below). The most commonly cited impact pathways make interesting reading:

1.    Publications: as you might expect, the number one pathway described by researchers in their case studies was academic publications, typically in peer-reviewed journals. Given that most case studies contained multiple pathways, the role that academic publications played in achieving impact is debatable. Also in the top ten pathways however were industry publications and policy briefs, underlining the importance of translating academic findings into formats that are more likely to be read by non-academics

2.   Advisory roles: being asked to contribute to Government inquiries, reports, panels and committees was one of the most important ways that researchers influenced policy, with over 50% of the case studies we reviewed using this pathway

3.   Media coverage: researchers perceived that getting their research covered in the mass media was an important route to policy impact. This might be because of the visibility that media coverage can afford research, putting it directly in front of decision-makers who engage with the media (themselves or because they are made aware of media coverage by their civil servants), or more indirectly be contributing to a body of public opinion that decision-makers then respond to

4.   Partnerships and collaborations with industry and NGOs: by finding organisations that shared their research interests, researchers may have been able to harness the lobbying power of these organisations to promote their work more actively and at higher levels than they would have had the time, resources and ability to do as researchers on their own. These partnerships also enabled researchers to test their research in real-life situations, which gave it more credibility when approaching policy makers

5.   Presentations with industry, the public and Government: face-to-face meetings, whether one-to-one or in workshops and conferences, can be a powerful way to get research findings noticed and understood, partly because the audience has the opportunity to question the research team. Although researchers cited presentations directly to Government, they were just as likely to cite presentations to industry and the public as their pathway to policy impacts. This may suggest, like the previous point, that many impacts were achieved via the knowledge brokerage role of industry partners, or by raising the public profile and contributing towards a weight of public opinion that policy-makers could not ignore

6.   Developing easily accessible online materials based on the research was also a commonly cited pathway to policy impact. Although this is rapidly changing with open access, a significant proportion of research findings (particularly older material) is behind journal paywalls. Making this material both available and easily accessible via online materials that translate the findings for specific audiences can be an important way of getting research into policy.

It is clear that by far the most important pathway was advisory roles. Although these roles are sometimes one-off interactions, for example giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, many are medium to long-term roles over a period of years, in which the researchers are able to build trust with other panel/committee members and provide advice on an ad hoc basis between formal meetings. Apart from this however, the majority of the main pathways were in dissemination mode. Although partnerships and collaborations with industry and NGOs feature strongly in the pathways reported by researchers in these case studies, these appear to primarily have operated as knowledge brokers, helping to translate and amplify messages arising from the research, and enabling them to reach policy-makers.

It is clear from the case studies we reviewed that well-targeted dissemination of research findings can pay dividends, but if the experience of these researchers is anything to go by, certain types of dissemination may be more likely to achieve impact, for example publications, online resources, press releases and presentations. But it is just as important to invest in longer-term relationships with the policy community and key players who have the time, resources and expertise to help you form those relationships and amplify your message. In the long-term, this may open opportunities to contribute to advisory committees and other processes that directly feed into the policy process. 

Should research(ers) get emotional?

Posted by sustainable on July 22, 2013

Many researchers prize their objectivity and detached independence, and recoil in horror from the idea of displaying emotion in their work. In a world of politics, where emotion is often used to bias decisions away from the evidence, do we need to be ever more rigorous in our detachment from emotion? Or do we need to start harnessing the power of emotion, to deliver the evidence we generate as powerfully as possible to the people who are making the decisions?

The simple (but perhaps simplistic) answer is to separate the generation of evidence from the communication of evidence. In our quest for new knowledge about how the world works, many argue that we should always strive for independence and objectivity. But how we communicate what we find is another story – communicated with passion and unwavering conviction, we can make evidence compelling.

Positive, effectively channeled emotion gets people’s attention – it makes people sit up and take notice. Through emotion, we can connect with our audience and engender empathy. We have little control over whether decision-makers will act on the evidence we present to them or not. But by engaging with both hearts and minds, we increase the likelihood that our audience is really listening, and actively considering how our evidence fits with the other evidence they have access to, their goals and their worldview.


Positive and channeled

There are of course caveats, which I have already alluded to. Decision-makers are more likely to respond to positive emotion than they are to anger, or doom and gloom predictions. For example, there is evidence that decision-makers are less receptive to messages about the value of nature if these messages are perceived as threatening their psychological needs of autonomy (e.g. because they feel manipulated or coerced), happiness (e.g. environmental campaigns based on fear), reputation (e.g. because they feel implicitly criticised or patronised) and self-esteem (e.g. because they start to feel responsible for or guilty about environmental degradation). On the other hand, enthusiasm is infectious. Presenting our evidence with passion and crafting our arguments to meet the innate psychological needs of our audience is more likely to get people to listen, even if they don’t act on what they hear.

As experts, we hold a privileged position of authority, which is likely to be a key factor in getting us an audience with decision-makers in the first place. Retaining that credibility is essential, and so it is important to carefully channel our emotions. No matter how positive our emotional input may be, if we go over the top with our enthusiasm, we may loose credibility. For me this is about never forgetting to choose our words with the utmost care. This may mean lengthy preparation or just slowing ourselves down to pick our words carefully. But if everything we say is measured and supported by the evidence we have collected, then imbuing those words with genuine passion can have a powerful effect.


Is all research emotional?

Implicit in everything I’ve said so far, is the idea that the evidence itself is unquestionable; the question is only whether we as researchers should use emotion to communicate that evidence. But there are many researchers who would challenge the idea that research is (or can ever be) entirely independent, emotionally detached and objective. This sort of researcher often values subjectivity and seeks to explicitly recognisise the sub-conscious biases and norms that often frame supposedly objective and independent research.

This tension between objectivity and subjectivity is particularly acute in conservation research, where ecologists and environmental researchers often frame their research within a set of implicit normative assumptions about the value of species and habitats, which are often at variance to the norms and assumptions of other groups within society, who may for example value human and economic development over the environment. If these biases and assumptions are made explicit, then environmental researchers may be seen as advocates for the environment, who frame and use research to support their normative goals of environmental protection and enhancement.

There is of course nothing wrong with this. But if we recognize that this is just one strand of evidence feeding into what are usually political decision-making processes, then we can begin to explore the subjectivity inherent in many of the processes we use to generate “evidence”, and can become less detached and more emotionally engaged in the normative goals that pervade our work.


Becoming more emotionally engaged in our research: a role for the creative arts?

There must be many ways that we can become more emotionally engaged in the research process and in the communication of our research. But one mechanism I’ve been considering, is working with the creative arts. Working with artists who share our goals may enable us as researchers to engage audiences in our work at both an academic and an emotional level. This is not to say that we should overstate or stray from the evidence we have collected. But it is a plea to make our normative assumptions and goals explicit, and state them with passion and conviction. Working with artists in collaborative projects, it may be possible to engage emotionally with our audiences and interpret evidence in ways that are not just understandable, but in ways that can convict audiences and spur them to action.

Although not common, serious collaborations between researchers and artists are happening more and more. Many researchers and artists share a desire to discover new insights about the world we live in and to change the way that others look at the world. On the surface, our methods are often very different, but both researchers and artists share a love for experimentation and the critical interpretation of what emerges from that process. By bringing researchers and artists together as equals in interdisciplinary teams, it may be possible to draw upon and combine very different sources of knowledge, and to derive new insights that could not have occurred as a result of either group working in isolation.

In many collaborations between researchers and artists, the artist is relegated to the role of interpreter, translator or communicator, taking research findings and communicating them to a wider public. Although this is a valuable role, it is only part of the role that the arts can play in collaborations with researchers. In the right environment, artists and researchers can coproduce new insights that have the potential to change the way we look at the world.


Influential or manipulative?

I’m sure much of what I have said will sit uneasily with many people. Do two wrongs make a right? Just because smoking lobbyists and campaigners use emotion to manipulate decision-making processes, does that mean we should join them and use the same tactics ourselves as researchers? We would of course say that our motives are pure – we are just trying to communicate the evidence, rather than any ulterior motive. But if we use emotion, then aren’t we being just as manipulative?

For me, the difference between someone who is manipulative and someone who is influential, depends on their motives and the level of coercion they are prepared to employ. If we have the best interests of the decision-maker in mind and are seeking to help them make a voluntary decision that they perceive is right for them and for those in their sphere of influence, then we are seeking to influence. If on the other hand, we are seeking a decision that would be in our interests and against the interests of the decision-maker and those in their sphere of influence, and we are prepared to coerce them into that decision, no matter how subtly, then the chances are that we’re seeking to manipulate.

Emotions may be used to influence and to manipulate, and the distinction between these two modes of operation may at times be fuzzy. The simplest solution is to avoid all emotion – play safe and retain our position of credibility aloof from the real world. Engaging with emotion in our research is the riskier option. But if done effectively, I believe it has the potential to make our research truly influential.

Thanks to Alister Scott @bcualisterscott, Professor of Environmental Spatial Planning at Birmingham City University, Andrew Dawes @Wessex_Reiver, producer for Radio 4 wildlife programmes and Anand BS @ABSabyss Senior Manager at Genome Life Sciences for discussion via Twitter that helped shaped this blog post – I doubt you’ll agree with everything I’ve written but I’ll look forward to the debate @SustainLearning.

Mark is a Professor of Interdisciplinary Environmental Research at the Centre for Environment & Society ResearchBirmingham School of the Built Environment, Birmingham City University. Find out more about Mark’s work here: You can read more blogs by Mark and you can follow him on Twitter.

A simple tip for communicators of science – what’s the story?

Posted by sustainable on July 23, 2012 

When a scientist is asked to talk to the media, let’s say, do a radio interview, their usual first reaction is to go off and check their facts. Too often, we scientists, for I was trained as a scientist too, feel that communicating is about telling someone the facts.

And this is despite the fact (you see – many things are despite the facts) that I have never, ever, heard a scientist caught out in a radio interview through not knowing enough. More often they (we) are caught out by knowing too much, and wanting to tell it all. Keep it simple – that doesn’t mean lying, it means telling the true essence of your exciting finding without going into all the details that fascinate you but will just confuse everyone else. Please keep it simple.

An encounter with the media is an opportunity to tell a story, so think about the story. The story is often the answer to these three questions: what happened? why should we care? and what should be done about it?

So, for example, most murders are: this person was shot/stabbed/strangled in this place at this time, police are looking for the killers who are still on the loose, please lock your doors and give us any information to help catch them. That’s the simple story and the facts can fill in the details.

And a study of carbon stored in peatbogs might have a story like this: there is twenty times more carbon stored in peatbogs than in the forests that you might plant on top of them, and so we need to protect peat bogs to keep that carbon underground because otherwise the carbon released will add to global warming, so government should think of incentives for landowners to protect that peat (or penalties if they don’t – depending on how carroty or sticky you are feeling).

Facts on their own can be interesting – but facts put in context are important. And if you can be interesting and ensure your work is seen as important then you are maximising the chance that your findings will get through the defences of busy people who aren’t really paying attention. This will mean that you might make a difference and you might get another grant to do more work. Interesting? Good story? At least it’s a simple one.

Dr Mark Avery is a freelance writer on environmental matters. He writes a daily blog Standing up for His book, Blogging for Nature is available from and contains tips on how to blog successfully as well as 143 blogs written on wildlife and environmental matters between 2009 and 2011.