Confronting the social media revolution: Marketing knowledge and image

Effective communication of science and research, as well as building and maintaining a professional profile, has challenged academics, researchers and their institutions in highly competitive fields for decades. Social media is branded as a way to overcome this and many are adopting into the dominant paradigm. Social media was the feature of the concluding presentation at the recent CSU Institute for Land, Water & Society (ILWS) forum in early July at Thurgoona, with a ‘Speed date’ provided via this YouTube Clip.

As a social scientist l asked myself, how does our ‘profession’ respond to this obviously clever piece of marketing? When confronted by the dramatic music, bold graphics, sense of dynamism, do we question the statistics, the source or the intent, as normally practiced by scientists?

To explore these questions, l ‘visited’ the YouTube site and found the original version, (different music, different mood) produced by a successful American business marketing academic-come-guru, Erik Qualman.

So, given that the video is directed for business marketing, how does this fit into how we want our science and knowledge portrayed, in a field where regulation and control and ethics is largely uncontrolled? Is quantity of tweets and ‘likes’ a sign of success (or a source of tears) of our professional and scientific reputation? Does it mean we are more deeply engaged with our communities in which we work? With the speed and scope of social media gaining a foothold of ‘communications’ (if the statistics in the YouTube video are correct), how can effective monitoring by independent researchers take place? Do we face reactive rather than proactive responses in efforts to understand the consequences of participation in what feels like a huge uncontrolled experiment?

As a result of using social media, do we know if the public has increased empathy for what we do, the ecosystems in which we work, if we are simplifying complexity to such a degree? Don’t we already face that problem in the media’s construction and presentation of science? How does it assist the public in understanding of what is happening around them? These not only represent social issues, but they also reflect the challenges we face in working with policy makers, funding bodies and communities at grass roots levels. The Institute for Public Participation (IAP2) outlines a number of techniques and mechanisms for engaging with the public and communities. Engagement and getting quality information out there is time-consuming and requires good planning. It’s also done more effectively when done in a team, within a network. So much of social media seems to be aimed at solo-practice, solo image, solo identity.

We are told that we need to consider different target audiences in how we communicate (i.e. GenTweet), but historically this has always been the case due to, logically enough, different generations working and living together. Like any policy instrument mix to assist landholders adopt new practices and be better engaged with science and the environment, mixed mechanisms are recommended. Communication techniques and engagement require a similar approach- reliance on only one method may be something we regret later on.

Globally, neoliberalism has transformed nations politically, financially and culturally. It has driven a corporate mantra into policies for education and government agency extension. This transformation has been ably assisted by communications technology. It has also been claimed that economic market forces are becoming a replacement for intellectual creativity, with electronic communication allowing a mass to participate in a far more ‘amusement-oriented’ education and knowledge sharing pastime. Due to the global scale of such changes, “…localised powers, devoid of ecumenical ambitions, seem less receptive of the products of intellectual discourse” (Bauman, 2001). Leading on from this, l pondered on a few more questions. If social media is organised as a marketing platform, and perhaps providing another avenue for neoliberal processes to filter into market influences, where (and how) do science and ‘knowledge’ fit into the financial market? Are science and knowledge in the process of becoming ‘entertainment’, now valued more as commodities? In this context, should we also be asking if the use of social media is possibly contributing to a reframing of knowledge and scientific research?

I left the ILWS forum hoping that the skills and ideas present highlighted the potential for working collaboratively, and possibly exclusively, on real science communication projects. In the competitive matrices-funded world we face, perhaps this could assist communicating our research beyond the current paradigm. As a new distance education PhD candidate, it was a great forum to gain a greater grasp of what was being done in collaborative teams (as well as the potential for the future) in the Strategic Research Groups. It was also ideal to meet students and staff in a stimulating atmosphere, face to face, to practice the art of communication.

Some useful references that l have come across that may be of interest:

Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking sociologically (2nd ed.). Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.

Featherstone, M. (2009). Ubiquitous media: An introduction. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(2-3), 1-22. doi: 10.1177/0263276409103104

Hannigan, J. A. (2006). Environmental sociology. New York, N.Y.: New York, N.Y. : Routledge.

Hansen, A. (1991). The media and the social construction of the environment. Media, Culture & Society 13(4): 443.

Hansen, A. (2011). Communication, media and environment: Towards reconnecting the production, content and social implications of environmental communication (Vol. 73). UK: Sage publications.

Lockie, S. (2009) Governance in Australia: Agricultural Biodiversity and Neoliberal Regimes of Agri-Environmental, Current Sociology 2009 57: 407, DOI: 10.1177/0011392108101590.

Institute for Public Participation visit:

van Dijk, T. (1997). Opinions and ideologies in the press. In Garrett, A & Bell, P (Ed.), Approaches to media discourse (pp. 21-63). Oxford: Blackwell.

Copyright Sam Strong 2013


  1. Interesting post.

    Full disclosure: I have an aversion to social media. I’m not on Facebook, I don’t tweet, and I rarely carry a mobile phone.

    Nevertheless, I think the strength of social media is that it allows the person with a message to target a specific niche audience.

    You wrote:
    Communication techniques and engagement require a similar approach- reliance on only one method may be something we regret later on.

    I’d tend to disagree with this statement. In the past, you had to diversify your communication strategy – cast a wide net, if you will – in order to reach your target audience. If you imagine that 0.5% of the population are interested in your ideas: twenty years ago you had to connect with 1 000 people just to get your message across to 5 interested individuals.

    New social media platforms mean that you can now speak directly to your 0.5%. If five people scattered across the planet can find you and your ideas through an online search engine, it is no longer necessary to get your message to the other 995 disinterested individuals. You can be much more precise in tailoring your message for your target audience.

    The added benefit of social media is network connectedness. Each of those five interested people might know 5 other folks with similar interests, thereby increasing your range of influence exponentially.

    Basically, what I am trying to say is that I don’t believe that social media is a marketing tool for scientists in that it makes previously indifferent people interested in the scientific message. (If anything it might hamper the wider dissemination of science because social media platforms offer so much competition and distraction in the form of funny cat pictures that the scientific message gets lost in the clutter.)
    I do, however, believe that social media can link, previously unconnected, people if they already share scientific interests.

    In terms of your marketing analogy: social media does not increase the size of your market; it is just a tool to reach a pre-existing market more efficiently.

    • Thanks for your comment Falko – l’m glad it was of interest. I agree with you in that one can target (if all goes well) information to particular audiences, and yes it can be disseminated further to other like-minded parties if it avoids the clutter. Like you, l don’t have accounts with social media and this Blog effort is my first foray into the online communication world! (And hopefully not a funny cat in sight 😉 ) However, l disagree with it being a marketing “analogy”- l guess that also shows how varied people’s interpretations are.

      I admit that this is a really complex issue…but to help clarify some of my thoughts… l hoped to demonstrate the use of social media as a marketing tool due it originating for business marketing tool (with added ‘benefits’ of linking people) and how it is used in with our neoliberal, ‘commodified’ learning and research world. This is can be observed with marketing ‘profiles’ of institutions, our learning and work.
      Often scientists and natural resource managers have great difficulty engaging with broader interest groups and stakeholders to assist them with their projects and research, other than with those already converted to the ‘cause’. This means that expanding education and behavioural change beyond that sphere, regarding ecology and associated practices, is very slow and hard to achieve. In response to these issues experienced across the spectrum, the community engagement profession (see IAP2) has some very detailed processes and levels of engagement to work through in connecting with community and stakeholders, from the most basic level of “informing” -or providing information usually in a one-way transaction, through to a more empowered level, where participation and understanding is two-way and negotiated. The further you work through levels of engagement, the more the people you are trying to engage with understand the process of change, the research or what is behind decisions and information.

      The simplest and cheapest method is sometimes not the one that will bring about change, which is why l suggested using mixed methods of ‘face-face’ with ‘informing’ methods typical of social media. That way we have more control/quality assurance and deeper involvement over what is being said, and with whom, and how it is being interpreted. I am not suggesting we ignore the social media world completely, but suggest not to believe in it in totality and uncritically, without some reflection of how it is being used, and why. Since we are operating in a system that is pared back in regards to extension and budgets (and l am guessing you have similar issues in Belgium?), cheap methods of communication get favoured over more complex (and potentially ‘messy’!) methods; social media looks effective and certainly links some of the links. The added ‘benefit’ is that is ‘quantifiable’. Yet… do we know the quality of these links? Just because l click on a link or respond to a Tweet while l juggle other things, does that mean l comprehend the content and its intent, and it will l change my behaviour and attitudes as a consequence?

      Another problem is that science and research is often misinterpreted by the media due to overly simplified ‘newsworthy’ stories dominating mass media, or unskilled journalists reporting (Hanngian and Irwin both discuss this well in their books if you are interested to explore it further.) Along with the media ‘filtering’ (or selecting by various means and reasons) and then ‘framing’ what is presented and perceived as ‘knowledge’, we have influences that are linked to economic and political processes influencing how we work.

      Considering the simplification of science and ecology already persisting in the broader media, can our rapid-fire and simplified messages through social media (that admittedly are quick to get out the public) assist us in explaining what is actually happening? Is there a risk of volume overwhelming the quality of communications- how much do we/can we take in? Is the current array of social media tools what is best for science communication? I find the social media issue raises lots of questions that need our attention, and this takes time-just as communication and connecting with people takes time. This is especially true to stimulate behavioural and educational change.

      All the best with your efforts Falko and thanks again for your comment.

      Cheers, Sam.

  2. Hi Sam,

    Your absence from social media platforms is reflected in your ability to write proper paragraphs! This is mostly meant as a joke, of course, but thank you for writing a detailed response.

    I think we agree much more than we disagree.

    We agree that relying on traditional media sources is not ideal (for the reasons you mentioned: misinterpretation, simplification, cherry-picking etc.). Researchers should, therefore, take some responsibility for the communication of their own research and shouldn’t just rely on third-party reporters.

    Social media is a tool for public engagement and the dissemination of research findings – we agree on that – but a tool is of no use if it isn’t coupled to the correct strategy.

    All I am arguing in my original comment is that the ideal strategy should never view the “general public”, “broader interest groups” and “stakeholders” as homogenous entities. They are not. Sending a tweet to the masses will not always work in spreading a message. I am certain we agree on this too.

    We disagree, I think, on the most effective strategy for dealing with the diverse group of stakeholders. You seem to believe that a diverse audience requires a diverse communication strategy (correct me if I am misrepresenting your argument). I believe that the most effective strategy is a directed approach aimed at a few interested early adopters (see the terminology of the Technology adoption lifecycle) or connectors (see the terminology of Malcolm Gladwell’s book: Tipping Point). Instead of forcing a message upon the entire population, it is more prudent, I think, to target those select few individuals that will accelerate the diffusion of information throughout the rest of the community.

    This does, of course, mean that we hand over our ideas to whims of real social networks, which can have its own dangers (misinterpretation, simplification, cherry-picking etc). I do, however, feel that this is less likely for the directed approach because (a) the early adopters/connectors are generally already attached to the idea or concepts and will tend to be well-informed and (b) it is easier to maintain a face-to-face dialogue with a few early adopters/connectors to iron-out any misconceptions than it would be with the broader public.

    I’m not really sure if I am still on topic; ignore me if I’m not.
    Keep up the posts,

    Footnote 1: I’m am not especially referring to legally mandated public participation processes as part of Social Impact Assessments because, as I understand it, they already have guidelines for best practice. But even then, attending a 3-hour workshop as an interested or affected party can be as meaningless as clicking like on a Facebook post. You highlight a serious problem when you question whether scientific outreach is actually reaching its audience and whether this can be quantified. I don’t know the answers.

    Footnote 2: Something I missed originally about the commoditisation of research: There are only two ways that scientific output can be seen as a public commodity: (1) because taxpayers fund the research, scientists are obligated to provide them with the outputs or (2) if scientists provide the public with research outputs, maybe the taxpayers will fund future research. I think that only the latter scenario can be seen as marketing, no?
    I haven’t thought this through properly, but it seems like an interesting and important distinction (although in reality it is probably a bit of both?).

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