My first social media gig

This article was originally published at macscicomm.wordpress.com . 

 

Last month I was invited to take on the role of Social Media Liaison for one of McMaster’s premier science outreach events, Researchers’ Night. This was a great opportunity for me to try designing and implementing a social media advertising campaign – a skill that seems very valuable for an aspiring science communicator. As such, I thought that it may be valuable for me to share and reflect on my experience.

While the details of the research presented is very interesting, I will focus exclusively on the social media and communication aspects leading up to the evening. You can follow this link to see the posts I made for the Facebook page, this link to see the Twitter posts, and for a guide on how to photograph an event… you may wish to go elsewhere (haha…)

The Event

Researchers’ Night is an annual event which gives the Hamilton community an opportunity to learn about some of the work being done at McMaster, and to meet the smart people who do that work. The event is held like an interactive poster session, or as I began describing it, an adult science fair (no, not an adult science fair, I mean the presenters are adults). Ten researchers were invited to set up small exhibits and tell visitors about the work they do in an open-format, casual atmosphere. The event was held at the McMaster Innovation Center which featured a wide-open space for all of the presenters to set up, as well as some beautiful, dramatic lighting.

The event was preceded by a talk by a well-known keynote speaker before attendees were invited to explore the various exhibits.

Getting the gig

I think this may be the most useful aspect of the experience to unpack and learn from. Like many things in life, real hands-on experience is crucial for developing as a professional communicator. Unfortunately, as useful as this information could be, I don’t have much very much insight to share on how to obtain offers like this. However, I can present you with some facts.

Generally speaking, it was the network I developed through volunteering at other similar events and my activity on social media that put me in a position to receive this offer. Particular to this event, my volunteering with McMaster-related events played a role in being visible within the McMaster community. For example, some graduate students in my department started a science+pub night in Hamilton which I have been helping organize. My work for this group includes applying for a grant to run the event (which required me meeting the granting agency face-to-face), and advertising (online and around town). Making contact with (and especially social-media-tagging) the people and groups you want to work for is a great way to make yourself known to the ones who can give you a position.

Summary

  1. Network
  2. Find ways to be seen (volunteer, be present on social media)
  3. Tag people
  4. Make your desires known to everyone (people have wide and diverse networks, you never know who can help you land a job)

Job description

When I was approached for this job, the event was one week away and a social media presence was already in place. This included a Facebook page for both Researchers’ Night the organization, and Researchers’ Night the event, as well as a Twitter account. Advertising had begun with general information about the night (including a beautiful video), and two “featured researcher” articles.

With one week to go, I was asked to take over the online advertising on Facebook and Twitter leading into the event. I was also invited to photograph the event, and if we could organize it in time, do an Instagram take-over of the McMaster account.

Before leaving my first and only meeting with the organizer, I made sure I was absolutely clear on what was expected from the advertising campaign (“probably one post a day, and whatever you think is best”), how the event was going to run (see above), who to contact if I have more questions, and all relevant details (account names and passwords, times, locations, etc) such that I could do the work even if my contact were to disappear. I also made a point of describing and receiving confirmation that what I (very generally) planned to do with the advertising campaign was what the coordinator wanted.

Summary

  1. Obtain all details about the job
    1. What is expected
    2. Account details (Facebook, Twitter, etc)
    3. Time and location of event
    4. Who to contact with questions
  2. What has already been done (in this case…)
    1. Social media accounts exist
    2. Facebook event made
    3. General advertising about the event (including video) posted and promoted
    4. 2/10 researchers featured individually
  3. Pitch a general strategy and verify this is acceptable

Strategy

My goal was to convince as many people to attend the event as possible. With this in mind, and only one week until the event, I decided I would do my best to pick the low-hanging fruit. By this, I mean I wanted these ads to be seen by people who are already interested in the subject matter and would need little to no convincing that the event would be interesting. In my mind, this included local college and university students, STEM professionals, and the friends and family of the invited presenters.

I based my core strategy around the following phenomenon:

Imagine a friend tells you about a free concert they will be going to. The concert is in a few days, and it’s a band you like. You tell your friend you will definitely go. On the day of the concert, you start having second thoughts about going. You know you’ll enjoy the show, but you are a little tired… maybe you’ll just stay in. It’s free anyway, and your friend is going with other people so they aren’t going to be upset if you bail… so you’ve lost nothing. In this scenario, it’s very easy to say you’ll go but decide at the last minute that you won’t.

Now, imagine your friend gives you a physical ticket. It’s still free, your friend doesn’t mind if you don’t go – all other variables are the same. You stick the ticket on your fridge and see it every day. Now, when the day of the concert comes, while illogical, I’m betting you will feel more obligated to go, and as a result, will be more likely to show up.

This is what I perceive as the difference between claiming you are “going” to a Facebook event, and being emailed an actual ticket.

I implemented this by centering our campaign around an Eventbrite page. This site allows you to create an event and “sell” tickets for your event (you can set the price as free, which is what we did). The digital ticket is emailed to the purchaser, along with a button to sync the event to your Google Calendar. Eventbrite will send tastefully frequent email reminders as well. So the goal of the campaign, then, was to point as many people to our Eventbrite page to obtain a digital ticket.

Next, I had to find our market.

Facebook

Our Facebook following was already reasonable and was a great start. There is a wide demographic that is active on Facebook, and I thought advertising there should be the backbone of our campaign. It supports pictures, videos and text very well, and allows for content to be posted and remain visible and easy to find – a very important difference between the other social media services we considered.

Instagram and Twitter

The other services we considered were Twitter and Instagram. I opted to focus on Twitter only and forgo Instagram for a few reasons.

  1. Twitter has an older, more “professional” user base. I assumed that they are more likely to be interested in the event, and more likely to follow through with attending
  2. Twitter is more text-friendly. I planned on using the existing “Featured Researcher” posts which contained a lot of text information, and extending it into being the core of the campaign
  3. Sharing posts is easier on Twitter. The retweet function is a great way of extending your advertising reach into the social circles of people who already like what you do. Instagram does not have such a feature (though it is available through 3rd-party apps)

So in short, I selected Twitter because I believed it better supported the media I would be sharing (short articles), contained the target demographic (older, professional), and had better sharing capabilities (retweets). The sharing capabilities were of the utmost importance since this meant I was able to lean on the reach of McMaster’s Twitter accounts as well as connect with the presenters to access their social circles. Of course, given more time and resources, there is no reason I can think of to forgo any of the social media platforms, but with the time available to me, I thought it was worth focusing on one.

Summary

  1. Pick a tangible objective (get tickets into people’s inboxes)
  2. Identify a target market (university students, STEM professionals, friends and families of the presenters)
  3. Decide on an advertising method (short articles about the work of the presenters)
  4. Pick the social media platform that contains your target demographic and suits the media you will be producing (Twitter = older, professional, text-based. Instagram = younger, artsy, image-based. Facebook = huge base, hosts static information well)

Implementation and Results

The plan was to write short, entertaining Research Spotlight articles for each presenter. However, the first thing I did upon receiving the log-in information to the Facebook and Twitter account was to follow as many other similar accounts, and especially follow the presenters (if they used social media). This would make it easier for me to tag relevant groups throughout the week.

Now, since a few articles were already complete, I was able to release about one a day leading into the event. I would post the full article on Facebook (with a link to the Eventbrite page), then write a very short version for Twitter, linking to the full article on Facebook. The Facebook post was released at approximate 9:30 am every day, and the Twitter post was released at about 11:30 am. I chose these times to match my own procrastination habits, hopefully resulting in the posts being near the top of most people’s feeds when they are more likely to be looking.

In designing these posts, I tried to stick to a formula. Present an interesting, real-life problem, propose a possible solution, then relate how the researcher’s work relates to the solution. These posts would be accompanied by a striking or colorful image that also related to their work. This required a significant amount of research, since I was unfamiliar with most of the presenters’ fields. However, I thought it was worth the time and effort to provide interesting rather than superficial content.

Throughout the week, I was able to monitor the number of views and interactions each post received. This allowed me to slightly tailor my writing style and media selection for each post, as well as try different ways of tagging people and groups. I was also able to supplement a poorly performing Facebook post with additional tweets, to keep a steady stream of viewers.

While I don’t have data from our Eventbrite page, I observed that my Facebook posts, coupled with links from Twitter, generated on average about a 300% increase in organic traffic. Moreover, I received glowing praise from the event coordinator, who informed me the turnout this year far exceed that of any other year.

As for the actual event, I spent the evening wandering around, awkwardly snapping pictures, trying not to be too intrusive. I really had no idea what to do otherwise. One thing worth noting was the photography notice posted at the entrance. My understanding is that in Canada, anyone doing anything in a public space is legally fair-game for photographers. This, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t creepy, annoying or inappropriate to photograph people and especially their kids, without asking. However, having to constantly ask people in your frame if they mind being in the picture, we posted a sign that informed guests we would be taking pictures to be used on social media. If you do not wish to be photographed, please speak to one of our volunteers. Most people will be fine with this, and knowing that people have seen this made me feel a whole lot more comfortable photographing the event.

Conclusion

This was only a volunteer position and I believe I put a lot more thought and effort into it than was expected. This was fine – from the beginning I had decided I wanted to treat this opportunity as a sort of trial run of this kind of profession. I did find that, like many things, there is basically no upper bound on the amount of time you can spend working on a job like this. I find that exciting, but also a little frightening. I can imagine a career doing this sort of work would require excellent time management skills. But more importantly, I found this job to be quite fun and very satisfying.

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Science for everyone – Pint of Science comes to Hamilton

Science took over the world last week.

 

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Pint of Science, a global science-for-everyone festival that spans three days in May, made its debut in Hamilton last week. The festival is run predominantly by volunteers and aims to bring science to the people through engaging, digestible public lectures – often in a bar or pub.

If this sounds familiar, it is very much like the Science on Tap event I wrote about earlier this year. While Pint of Science made its debut this year in Hamilton, it is actually a long standing event originating in just three UK cities in 2013. Pint of Science has since spread to over 300 cities across 21 countries.

For its first year in Hamilton, we were treated to three days of two simultaneous lectures at two local bars – The Phoenix on McMaster campus and West Town bar. Topics focused on astronomy, light, and neuroscience and featured researchers from McMaster and their graduate students.

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Lots of fun to be had in Hamilton last week.

All of these lectures looked good, so I decided where to go based on beer list.

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Welcome to The Phoenix. They claim they have the largest beer selection and patio in Hamilton.

The first day I got to see Dr. Alan Chen and his graduate student (and my roommate) Johnson Liang talk about where all the big elements come from. In short, during their average life cycle, stars will produce elements as large as Iron via nuclear fusion. To make anything larger requires a star to go through a rare life event like going supernova, which partially explains the high abundance of smaller elements in the universe, and the scarcity of heavy metals.

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The following evening featured Dr. Laurel Trainor and her graduate student Andrew Chang of the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University. Their research focuses on musical and rhythmic development in infants and children, and how the study of music on the human brain can help us understand our own interpersonal communication.

Some of their research is done in McMaster’s LIVElab, one of the coolest “venues” I’ve ever heard of. I say venue, because it is a mix of concert hall and laboratory. It’s so cool that I promise to do an article on it soon. To quote the lab’s website,

The LIVE (Large Interactive Virtual Environment) Lab is a unique 106-seat Research Performance Hall designed to investigate the experience of music, dance, multimedia presentations, and human interaction.

The space includes Active Acoustic Control; Sound Recording Equipment; and measurement of Behavioral Responses (96 tablets), Movement (motion capture), Brain Responses (EEG), Muscle Tension (EMG), Heart Rate, Breathing Rate, and Sweating Responses (GSR).

The final day featured Dr. Kalai Saravanamuttu from the Department of Chemistry at McMaster University and graduate student  Kathryn Benincasa speaking about their work on light. What makes their light interesting is how they can focus it and keep it coherent over long distances.

Typically light will disperse over long distances, meaning a tight laser beam, or the light from a flashlight for that matter, will spread and become weaker as it travels. Dr. Saravanamuttu’s lab uses techniques to keep the light from dispersing, and is exploring applications for these types of long-range, coherent beams. One particularly interesting application is to give solar panels bug eyes.

Picture the honey-comb-like eye of an insect. By multiple facets over a lens allows them to focus light over nearly 180-degrees. For a bug, that means it can see everything and have a minimal blind spot. For a solar panel, this means it can absorb light from all directions at once. This requires a system of keeping light focused and coherent (check), in a geometry similar to a bug’s eye, that can coat a solar panel. By making these thin, specially designed coatings for solar panels, the researchers hope to increase the efficiency of solar panels making them more economically viable.

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Imagine building this structure so the straws point outward over a full 180-degrees. Then shrink it down so you can paint it over a solar panel. You would get light from every direction focusing onto your solar panel.

The best thing about all of these lectures is that they were all completely free to attend. I have written about how important it is for scientists to keep the public informed about their work, and seeing how successful these public lecture events are suggests there is a strong desire for more of them. If you are interested in this sort of thing, keep an eye on this facebook page. There will be some very exciting news in the near future.

Science on Tap: a Night of Drinking and Deriving with Local Physicists

“Do you know where you’re going?”

“Generally, yes… I know it’s around here somewhere…”

“How did Joey find this place?”

“I have no clue…”

On February 28 I met Connor, a fellow physics graduate student at McMaster, for dinner (which he still owes me for). As we ate I described a science outreach event that I would be attending later that night. After explaining that beer would be served, it was fairly easy to convince him to come with me. The event was being hosted at Artword Artbar, just down the street from where we were eating. Investigating their website, it seemed they were predominantly an event space, hosting poetry and jazz several nights a month.

Joey Rucska and a handful of physics graduate students had been planning this event for several months. Inspired by the very successful Astronomy on Tap event hosted by the University of Toronto, Science on Tap places short and accessible lectures by local scientists in a welcoming pub atmosphere. For the first event, the speakers included Ashley Bemis, an astrophysics graduate student, McMaster’s Radiation Sciences Program Director Dr. Fiona McNeill, and Dr. Paolo Bianchini, a post-doc in the Astronomy department. To keep things light, informal question-answer periods were sprinkled throughout the night, as well as small discussions about scientific stories that had been featured in the news recently. Additionally, a rotating set of images were displayed throughout the night and guests were challenged to guess whether the images were “micro”, “macro”, or “celestial” scale. Prizes were awarded to the top three scorers.

Connor and I arrived slightly before 7:00 pm, entering a cozy single-room dotted with round tables and chairs. A piano lurked in the corner of the room, opposite a short, dramatically-lit stage. We were immediately received by a cheerful older couple, clearly the owners of the bar, and clearly very busy preparing for the evening.

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Connor (left) talking to another physics graduate student between lectures.

“Hello! Come in, come in! We have a special event tonight, are you two interested in science?” the couple asked. “You bet. I’m actually helping with the event, they have me taking pictures.” “That’s really great. Do you know how many people will come?” “I have no idea…”

The room filled steadily as we drifted closer to the official 8:00 pm start time. The space boasted a perhaps ambitious 60-person capacity and it seemed like this would become a relevant factor. As the room filled, anticipatory buzz grew out of the crowd. A several-people-deep row lined the bar as the hosts made final preparations next to the stage.

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Local science enthusiasts began arriving at Artword Artbar at 7:00 pm, nearly filling the space by 8:00 pm.

At 8:00 pm, Ryan Plestid presented a short, and only slightly sarcastic look at recent science headlines. After a brief discussion with the audience, he introduced the first speaker of the evening – Ashley Bemis.

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Ashley Bemis explained that good science comes out of learning from your mistakes.

Ashley led us down a winding path of scientific accidents that resulted in paradigm-shifting realizations. We learned about the first-discovered collection of Jovian moons, that the universe is expanding… and actually speeding up, and of course the many mistakes that resulted from trying to shoe-horn real astronomical observations into an Earth-centered “theory” of the Universe. The last point turned into an interesting discussion with the audience on the conflict between science and politics. In hindsight it seems ridiculous that Galileo would be put under house arrest for claiming the Earth orbits the Sun, yet you can still find examples of “controversial” science being censored today. The discussion took an introspective twist, ending with the question from the audience, “if you were Galileo, would you have the courage to go against the church?”

After a short break, Dr. Fiona McNeill, the Radiation Sciences Program Director at McMaster University, took to the stage. Dr. McNeill chose to address something that brings all Hamiltonians together – a distrust towards tap water. Specifically, Dr. McNeill addressed the fluoride that is put into tap water. Studies show that some fluoride intake is beneficial to bone health, but like most things, moderation is key. Too much fluoride has also been shown to be detrimental to bone health. So where is Hamilton’s tap water on this scale? “It’s actually pretty good!” Dr. McNeill assured us. “And it happens to be very, very clean.”

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Dr. Fiona McNeill assuring the audience “Hamilton’s tap water is actually very clean.” Even still, Carmen chose beer instead.

The story changes, however, for avid tea drinkers. “I’m Scottish, and I love my cup of tea, so of course I was also worried about this” she said. Dr. McNeill’s findings show that drinking several cups of tea a day increases the uptake of fluoride in humans, and in fact can push people into the danger-zone. Her research group tested a wide variety of teas, finding small differences in brand name, but most importantly showed this effect to be greatest with black teas. However, she finished by bringing the tea-lovers in the room back from the brink. “So black tea is the worst, but there is good news – adding some form of dairy will actually neutralize the threat.”

The last speaker was Dr. Paolo Bianchini, and he was a treat.

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Dr. Paolo Bianchini looking over his slides before his talk.

Paolo ascended the stage to cheers from the audience – I guess he has some fans in Hamilton. On this particular evening, Paolo showed us the entire life-cycle of a star. In short, depending on its size, a star may go “supernova” or collapse into a black hole. However, this is an extremely simplified description. Condensing millions of years into 30 minutes is not an easy task and required some ingenuity. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and emoji are the hieroglyphics of our time, then Dr. Paolo Bianchini may have found the sweet spot in conveying information.

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A summary of Paolo’s talk – the life cycle of a star.

During the discussion period, Paolo addressed a common misconception about black holes. “Black holes don’t actually suck you in,” Paolo explained. “They behave like any massive body from a distance. It’s only when you get too close does it become impossible to escape.” That is to say, if the Sun were to suddenly be compressed to the size of McMaster campus, it would become a black hole, but the planets would continue orbiting the same way they always have.

After the final talk, the winners of the trivia contest were announced. Congratulations to Katie C., Annie W., and Katie P., who were among 8 people who tied for first.

The event continued for some time as guests discussed what they heard that evening with the presenters, volunteers, and other guests. As I talked to some of the attendees, a common sentiment was that this sort of event was sadly lacking in Hamilton. Case in point – trivia nights have become increasingly popular, showing there is a desire to both have a night out and be mentally engaged.

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Kathleen, a health science researcher had been “looking forward to this event for weeks”. She thought that there was a real lack of mentally stimulating night-out events and is looking forward to the next one.

The response to this event was so favorable that many attendees asked if another Science on Tap is in the works. It’s likely that a follow up will be scheduled some time this summer. Follow their Facebook page and be the first to know when and where it will be. I am excited to see this event grow, and reach out to other scientific disciplines. I am grateful to Joey, Artword Artbar, and everyone else who helped organize this event. And of course, thank you to the speakers who made the night so enjoyable.

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Ashley Bemis is a PhD candidate at McMaster University studying astronomy. She received a bachelor’s of science from the University of Amherst, Massachusetts, and a master’s of science from the Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn Area, Germany.

Dr. Fiona McNeill is the Radiation Sciences Program Director at McMaster University. Her research focuses on advancing radiation-based measurement techniques and uses them to study trace toxic elements in humans, as well as performing behind-the-paint measurements on famous pieces of art (the latter of which was featured in a travelling exhibition. Check out The Unvarnished Truth interactive website.)

Dr. Paolo Bianchini is a post-doctoral researcher from Milan. He received his MSc from the University of Milan, and his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg. His work focuses on the structure and internal dynamics of stellar systems.

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