What viral means for us

This is based on a talk I gave recently to research administrators at Northwestern University in Chicago. Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made it possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Recently, we posted It Gets Worse, an article about the crisis of casualisation in universities. I wrote it in collaboration with the wonderful Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles of CASA, and it was cross-posted to the CASA blog. We thought that it was an important problem.

So, it seems, did a lot of other people.

Graph of daily views, showing a consistent pattern of 200 - 900 views, except for the latest day, which shows almost 3,000

This is what viral looks like for us

The response was amazing – heartfelt and very real. Hopefully, it adds another pebble to the avalanche that will be needed to bring reform to the sector.

While a lot of people were clearly interested in the issue, I thought some might be interested in how it played out behind the scenes, so to speak. This is how we work, and how Research Whisperer got to this point.

The Research Whisperer blog

Tseen Khoo and I have been running the Research Whisperer for five years now. Each week, we post 1,000 words on something about doing research in academia. Sometimes, the posts can be quite specific and instructional:

Others can be quite general:

Sometimes, they are things that we don’t normally talk about at work.

For us, Research Whisperer has become a community. The graph above shows our community responding to this issue. Reading, sharing, quoting, liking – pushing the idea out to their networks.

We have about 5,000 subscribers to the blog – about 3,700 would have got this post via RSS and about 1,300 via email. As I write this, we have about five comments on the blog. Our comments count can vary a lot, and most of the discussion happens on Twitter (where we are @ResearchWhisper).

Twitter: @ResearchWhisper

We push out 2-3 tweets per week that promote our own posts for that week (including one in Spanish – thanks, Eva Méndez).

For the rest of the time, we are sharing links to things we like, asking and answering questions and just chatting. We have been doing this for five years and we have almost 25,000 followers on Twitter, which is nice. Our followers are research administrators, researchers (at all levels: postdocs, PhD students, research directors), the odd vice chancellor, directors of research centres, and some people who work in allied industries like funding agencies. This is now my go-to group when I have a general question. There is always someone there, and they usually have a reasonable answer, or can point me to a useful resource, or someone who knows.

So, you would think that most of our traffic comes from Twitter, right? That’s what I thought, too, until I looked at the stats.

Table showing that the overwhelming majority of people (1,634) came from Facebook, then Twitter (484), then search engines (248)

Most people came from Facebook.

Research Whisperer on Facebook

The table above shows where our traffic came from on the day we spiked. 1,634 views (or clicks) from Facebook, 484 from Twitter, 246 from search engines (almost all Google, and almost all going to other pages on the site). The post had only just gone live, so Google hasn’t time to index it yet. Besides that, I suspect that people aren’t actually searching for it yet. They are talking about it and sharing the link with friends and colleagues.

As it turns out, most of that talking and sharing was happening on Facebook. That was a complete surprise to me. We have a Research Whisperer Facebook page, but we don’t give it that much love. Neither Tseen or I are on Facebook much for work stuff. I don’t like it, and only go there for Research Whisperer activity.

As a result, we have about 4,000 likes on Facebook. Some of you probably have pets with more likes on Facebook than we do!

Table showing 4,068 total page likes, with 77 new page likes this week.

Who likes the Research Whisperer on Facebook?

This screenshot is taken on 30 September 2016, three days after our little spike. On 27 September 2016, when things were spiking, we had about 500 people talking about our page. Which means that either those 500 people are incredibly popular on Facebook, or our subscribers and Twitter followers are picking up this post and pushing it out via Facebook. We don’t know and, in the best possible way, we don’t really care.

Anyone can do this

What I mean is, we aren’t comms people. Research Whisperer isn’t part of our core job. When we started, we were both research grant developers – we helped people to write better applications. I still do that. Tseen has since moved into researcher education and development – helping academics become the best researchers they can be.

We aren’t part of institutional communications, and we don’t have a specific research communications role. As a result, we get to do what we like. We like Twitter and we like Facebook a bit less. If we were in a comms role, we would have to be monitoring and contributing to a whole range of carefully selected social media channels. But we aren’t. So, we don’t.

We had no special training (and no real clue, as it turned out) when we first started. We based Research Whisperer on Inger Mewburn’s very successful Thesis Whisperer. We learnt as we went along, and we love where it has taken us. It is a model that works. The communities that we have built around the blog and Twitter are full of wonderful, sustaining people. We’ve met great colleagues and new friends. In Tseen’s case, it has helped her to get a new job.

So, if you want to do this, there is nothing stopping you. Personally, I would love to see a Contracts Whisperer, an Ethics Whisperer, and a Finance Whisperer. These are all parts of the research process that are complete mysteries to me. I just help people with their applications. I don’t know what happens to them after they actually get the money.

And if you want to do it, then do it the way that works best for you. If you like Pinterest, become the Post-award Whisperer on Pinterest. If SnapChat is your thing, become the Methods Whisperer on SnapChat.

Why you should do this

While I realise that this isn’t for everybody, it has worked phenomenally well for me. It works on two different levels.

After five years of regular weekly blogging, we now have 260 posts. I incorporate these in my staff development processes all the time:

It is a very soft form of staff development, but it works. When I send people the post on how to make a budget, I get better budgets.

On another level, it is more than staff development. It is self-development. Once a week, for an hour and a half, I sit down and reflect on what I do. I write down my ideas as posts, and in writing them down, I straighten them out in my own head.

By publishing them to the world, I get feedback (and sometimes pushback) that makes them stronger and more nuanced. Also, people add their own resources and voices to the posts, making them both more varied and more useful.

By doing this over time, we’ve built a resource that is pretty strong, and a community that is phenomenally helpful.

How to do it

If you want to do this yourself, here is our recipe.

Find a buddy. It is incredibly helpful to have a friend to work with, to share the load. If nothing else, this means that they whole enterprise doesn’t grind to a halt when you get sick. Tseen and I work extremely well together and we love working with each other. At the start, we would each write one post per fortnight. That has changed a bit now, with about a third of our posts being guest posts.

Find an audience (choose a topic). At the start, I thought that our main audience would be other research whisperers – people who do the sort of work that we do. That is true, but we also have a large number of academics (especially early career researchers) and PhD students. We kept our topic base pretty broad, but we had a picture of where we wanted to go. We wanted to talk about what we knew, and what we were doing. We live-blogged our jobs, so to speak.

As I said before, there is plenty of space out there. Personally, I would love to see a Finance Whisperer emerge. The way that a project actually runs, so that there is no overspend and no underspend, is something all researchers and research whisperers would love to know more about.

Set a schedule. We publish once a week. The Thesis Whisperer publishes twice a week, and I think she said that was hard to maintain until she blitzed her blog post pipeline as a project and now has 6 months’ worth in the wings (SIX MONTHS!). I don’t think it matters whether you publish once a week, once a fortnight, once a month… as long as you are regular. A regular publishing schedule helps you to plan the work. I imagine that only our most loyal of readers look for their Tuesday dose of Research Whisperer. Most, I suspect, are more opportunistic – grazing on the posts that look interesting and occasionally going back to the ones that they find really useful.

Be active and helpful. Push your posts out through your favourite social media channel, and be active and helpful in that space. I am bit of an extrovert – there is nothing I like more than a platform for my ideas. Tseen tends to be an introvert, but social media works for both of us. When we first started, I thought that Tseen was a social media maven. It turns out that neither of us were, but we have found our voice over time. Social media is very much a ‘learning by doing’ environment.

Talk to your boss. I’m a great believer in ask for forgiveness, not permission so I would like to think that this step is optional, but it probably isn’t. You probably need your boss to understand what you are doing, and at least provide some benign neglect for the activity.

There a many different ways that this can fit into your work life. I have 1.5 hours per week built into my schedule to write blog posts, and I do Twitter when I’m on public transport. It used to take me about three hours to write a blog post – nowadays it takes longer (I’m not sure why).

Tseen, on the other hand, does just about all of her Research Whisperer post-writing and editing out of hours, even though she got her current job partly on the strength of her Research Whisperer cred. She prefers it that way. If you are doing this in your own time, then you theoretically don’t need permission. However, probably best to ask.

We asked permission when we first started, and the university politely asked us to jump through a few hoops. That was useful, as it pushed us to think about what we were trying to do. We wrote a rationale, which got us over the line.

If you want to do this, let us know and we will send you our rationale. I’m personally willing to ring your boss and have a conversation with them about how good this can be, if you think that would help.

Or, if you just want to get a taste for it without committing yourself, we are always keen on guest posts. You could just write one post, to see if you like it.

Why did our post, “It gets worse!”, go a little bit viral? We don’t know. We think that it had something to do with the strength of the community that we have built up over five years. We cared about the issue and we thought that you would, too. So if you tweeted, liked, forwarded, commented or promoted the post in other ways, thank you.

—————————–

PS: I use the term ‘a little bit viral’ because this isn’t the most successful post we’ve had. That would be Academic Scattering, by the awesome Katie Mack, which clocked up 11,807 views in a day. Now, that’s viral!

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt. At the moment, he is spending a bunch of time looking at crowdfunding for research. In fact, he has enrolled in a Masters by Research to do just that. He'll let you know how it goes.

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