‘Social media’ refers to electronic tools that enable people to publish, collaborate, exchange and access information in online networks and communities.  Social Media depends on mobile and web-based technologies.

Why social media?

Social media exists in a variety of forms including: blogs; business networks; forums; photo sharing; social bookmarking; social networks; video sharing; and many more.

In recent years social media has become increasingly important as a tool for sharing research and evaluation.  Reporting and communicating evaluation findings through social media is now commonplace, but it also allows services and organisations to promote service information, attract new volunteers and donations, etc.

As such, a social media voice and profile is critical, and most organisations now have some form of social media presence (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Google+, Instagram, Flickr).

Social media platforms and tools

There is a wide range of social media platforms but it is not necessary to be on all platforms.  A more sensible approach is to concentrate on a sound understanding of and strong presence on two or three platforms rather than try to use all of them.  Most important is to realise who your audience is; who are they and what are you trying to tell them?  This should be clearly linked to your Communications Plan.  That way, you can spend your time and resources wisely.

An example of generating interest in your work would be to blog (or have a guest blogger) on your website to keep people updated on your work and to highlight new evaluation findings, changes in services, etc.  You could also tweet or post on Facebook a link to the blog, meaning the content might be shared further.  It may attract individuals or groups with similar interests or in the same field as you to find the blog and in turn look at your website in more depth and find out more about your work.  Blogs should be relatively short (no more than 800 words or so) to make them a quick source to access information.

Many social media sites also offer a way for you to track your progress, i.e. how often a post was liked, commented on, or shared.  This would give a better idea of what does and does not work, which over time would help to improve your future approach.

Some benefits and challenges

Benefits

  • Highly interactive (through connection and conversation)
  • User-generated content
  • Inexpensive (usually free)
  • Very democratic
  • Can reach either a tailored or large audience

Challenges

  • Learning new technology and gaining confidence in its use
  • Tailoring content to the limits of the medium (e.g. Twitter's 180 characters)
  • Developing a ‘house style’ and ensuring all those involve follow this
  • Getting the amount of communication right (e.g. not bombarding users with too much at once)

Where to start

Many organisations have a fully formed online communication strategy and have a staff member and /or a volunteer, or even a team of people, to deal with their social media.  Others will lack the skills, time, and equipment to make this a distinct role.  Whatever the case, make the most of the capabilities you have at your disposal.

You should never be reticent to use social media platforms to highlight your work.  Social media is simply a newer way to enhance awareness, create and maintain conversations, and inform your audience.

The Life Changes Trust has an excellent online presence and social media reach, as will other organisations funded by the Trust.  Talk to others about how you can work together to get your message out there and amplify it.  The Trust is happy to provide some individual guidance on getting started in social media use.

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Resources

  • IRISS has usefully set out a range of social media tools.
  • Professor Andy Miah from the University of Salford, Manchester, has produced a useful A-Z of social media platforms.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council online Impact Toolkit provides guidance on social media as well as other influencing activity.
  • The Social Research Association has a helpful guide to Promoting Research Online.