Initially, I assumed this meant teachers communicating with students using the latest cool medical technology, either in lecture theatres and tutorial rooms, or the clever use of video and other interesting applications that could help students when not in class. I imagined it would be a discussion about new technology and the pros and cons of using this in teaching environments for this very sophisticated crowd.
Instead it turned into a talk on social media and all the social media apps out there - from the old, like Facebook and Twitter, through to some newer applications. In my opinion it was the worst kind of, what I call, gadget talk and had absolutely nothing useful to say about communication - especially for this tech savvy group. It's like going to see a mechanic to find out what is wrong with your car and instead he shows you his tools and how he uses them to tighten nuts and change your batteries. Yeah, thanks but what is wrong with my car and how much will it cost?
Sadly, this is not uncommon. Discussions about social media constantly get caught up in showing off the latest cool app before we even know if it will get uptake or how well it functions. What we really want to know is what works in what situation.
The obvious social media questions for communicators are:
- What social media tool best helps you achieve your goals?
- What is the best approach to target very specific audiences?
- How much effort do you need to put in to make that social media option work?
- How do you measure the success of a social media strategy?
It's all about serving the right purpose for what you hope to communicate and the audience you hope to engage. And there is plenty of good research in this area along with a growing number of solid case studies.
Probably the most recent case study has been the news from the UK Telegraph newspaper, which has found that purely for driving traffic to a website, Facebook is killing Twitter.
But does that make the other super predator in social media Twitter a waste of time? Not at all. Twitter is used in a very different way to cultivate and interact with very focused audiences for very different outcomes. Developed properly, Twitter is a fabulous tool for targeting specific peer groups and can have profound impacts on journal paper downloads, citations and general interest in research outcomes. It is also a great crowd sourcing tool. The key with Twitter is to plan your networks and how to use them. Twitter is also very effort/reward based.
LinkedIn as a professional network offers another and very different way to communicate with peers and professional groups.
And then there are blogs. They may be a relatively old form of online communication but they can also be powerful focus sites for large audiences if developed properly. Examples in the climate field include the broad based climate discussions in Real Climate for a generalist and specialist audience or meteorologist Isaac Held's blog. The latter is a very narrow, very much watched blog for those in the climate research community who follow this highly respected scientist. His opinions and thoughts about new research are closely followed but don't expect to see his blog become popular outside this field. It's content is often too hard.
The good thing with blogs is you can have multiple authors. The workload doesn't have to fall on one person.
You may notice that I haven't highlighted any of the newer apps and online outlets. That is because they have yet to be proven and also because the last thing we want here is a shopping list of gadgets. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn work within their confines and can be used in a targeted way.
With online communication, it is not about gadgets it's about outcomes. I don't care how cool an online tool is or whether you think it makes you so much cooler to be the first user. MySpace came out well before Facebook and it still looks cool but as a social media tool that gets the job done in communication, it's nowhere.
By contrast, something like the super ugly website Reddit, which has been around for quite a few years now, needs to be seriously examined as a weapon in your social media toolkit.
And there are outlets within outlets that have powerful reach, such as I Fucking Love Science (18 million+ followers), Veritaseum (almost 2 million subscribers) or Science Alerts (5 million+ followers) that can take your science and make it a worldwide phenomenon with just one neat post or video.
It's astonishing that something so bleeding obvious as "gadgets do not equal good communication" needs to be spelt out but more and more frequently I am seeing major speakers beguiled by technology and forgetting the communication goals they hope to achieve.
If you are, or want to become, a science communicator, forget gadgets for the sake of gadgets. They are just tools and nothing more than that. It is how you use them and how effective they are in delivering your goals that matters.