What can sustainability communicators learn from social media marketers?

Recently, Ann Dale, Jamie Clifton-Ross and I wrote an article for the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing. In it, we detailed a case study about Canada Research Connections (@CRCResearch) and how we applied social media marketing concepts, specifically content curation strategies, to more broadly engage a broad audience with academic research on sustainability.

An image showing arrows between two word bubbles and the phrase social media marketing
“Social Media Marketing” by Jerry Nihen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Over two years, we took a deliberate approach grounded in best practices in social media strategy. We attempted to build a network of interested followers friends, we engaged in reciprocity, sharing the posts produced by others, and we deliberately used engaging visuals, narratives, and accessible language in our posting. Furthermore, we ensured that we were posting to social media platforms on a regular schedule, and posting according to the times that were most appropriate for each platform. Finally, we tailored our content to suit different platforms. Longer posts and videos for facebook, short bite-sized content and retweets with images on Twitter, Strong images and short videos on Instagram, and longer videos with animations on YouTube. Every approach we followed was well known in the social media marketing world, but interestingly was not broadly used in science or sustainability communication. Instead, these communication domains tend to rely primarily on a more just the facts style communication with an academic presentation and tone.

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What can sustainability communicators learn from social media marketers?

Climate Change Through the Lens of Communication

There are currently over 500 wildfires burning in my home province of British Columbia, Canada. At the same time, Toronto, Ontario is experiencing floods due to heavy August rainfall. Around the world, extreme weather events seem to be becoming more common place. California, like BC, is experiencing wildfires, Sweden’s reindeer are starving after a severe drought, and Hawaii is in the path of a hurricane, just to name a few examples.

Texas Wildfires by DVIDSHUB. CC-BY-2.0. Available from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dvids/5664238595

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Climate Change Through the Lens of Communication

21st Century PR: When All Else Fails, Pretend You’re a Journalist

Despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about fake news, biased journalism, and journalists as “very bad people“, the very people complaining the loudest about the press seem to be those who are most adept at manipulating it. Take for example, the current President of the United States, who employs a combination of direct to consumer social media tactics, and also maintains strong relationships with non-professiona,l we-cannot-really-call-them (cough cough) news organizations like infowars, in order to perform the idea of news while supplanting the actual purpose entirely.

A yellow plastic fish caught in a net hangs against a grey cubicle wall
“Fake fish, fake lomo” by Patrick Fitzgerald. CC-BY 2.0. Available from Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/barelyfitz/34407290

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21st Century PR: When All Else Fails, Pretend You’re a Journalist

Is your content bot or not?

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center that I, ironically enough learned about because it was shared on Twitter, “an estimated two-thirds of tweeted links to popular websites are posted by automated accounts” also known as bots.

Automated accounts post the majority of tweeted links to popular websites across a range of domains

Two thirds.

To me, this means three things:

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Is your content bot or not?

Social Media and Information in a Post Cambridge Analytica World

I was fortunate enough to attend two great International academic conferences in the last two weeks. The first, The International Conference on Social Media and Society, took place at the Copenhagen Business School, and the second, the IEEE Professional Communications Conference, took place at the University of Toronto. The first conference was entirely about research having to do with social media, and included a panel about how social media research must change now that platforms are cutting access to their API’s in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The second conference was, broadly speaking, about technical communication, but included a plenary about how the ways we communicate can either facilitate accuracy, truth and information access, or undermine all of these things. The IEEE Professional Communications Conference also included panels centred around using social media to teach and research communication. Now, after both of these conferences, I have a few reflections of my own on social media, data gathering, research and access to information in a post Cambridge Analytica world.

A sidewalk spray painted in red with the words "facebook in death"
“Facebook” by Frank Hebbert. CC-BY-2.0. Available on Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/Sq4x8
  1. Post truth issues such as “alternative facts”, polarization, and propaganda cannot simply be countered with more information. It is clear that people are not swayed by data. Providing additional arguments to back up your claims will likely be countered with additional false information from the other side. The information bounty of online spaces facilitates this. So if we can’t counter mistruths or propaganda with more information what can we do?
  2. HOW you tell your story is very important in this context. This means that if you really want people to have access to truthful information, you have an obligation to present that information in a way that is accessible, including using plain language and easy-to-understand images, and telling a compelling story whenever possible. Humans tend to respond to narratives better than they respond to  straight repetition of facts, so science communicators and researchers need to think about how we can remain faithful to the facts while also telling a compelling story.
  3. Research therefore, and necessarily must focus on people – what do they want? What resonates with them? How do they access information? What do they believe to be true, and how does this influence how they engage with one another and with the information environment? Since access to API’s is becoming much more difficult in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, we will be challenged to come up with new methods for understanding what people do online, but this is also a wake up call for researchers, as we were becoming quite complacent scraping twitter for the low hanging fruit of our research, without having to ask critical questions about the limitations of API scraping.

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Social Media and Information in a Post Cambridge Analytica World

If Something Seems Right… Try To Find the Opposite

Digital communication and PR professionals recognize a few truisms about online communication:

  1. Strong emotions get shared more often on social media.
  2. People tend to share things they really strongly agree or disagree with.
  3. Google and Facebook tend to tailor or curate your feeds, giving you more of the stuff you already like, because that’s what we tend to view as more relevant.
  4. Messages that are easily digestible and meet criteria 1-3 will be more shareable than ones that are not.

In this information environment then, if you want to get your message out, you try to craft something that arouses a strong emotion and is specifically targeted at the audience you want to reach. If you don’t believe me, then think about how Trump’s campaign so masterfully employed Facebook targeting to reach their key demographics. While many still claim that Russian meddling helped to win the election, in reality it was strong, emotional and tailored content that won the day.

A picture of a sticker on a road sign. The sticker says I love propaganda
“I Love Propaganda” by Newtown Graffiti CC BY 2.0. Available from Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/irEHoL

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If Something Seems Right… Try To Find the Opposite

Giving Back to Our Communities: An Understated Value of Local News

This is a repost of a blog post I originally contributed to Medium.com, related to my local news research project from 2015-2017.

A large envelope with the text "Please Give Generously" printed on the side
“Generic charity” by Sascha Pohflepp is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Local news outlets contribute more to communities than just access to relevant information. Ryerson Professor, Joyce Smith, has published a paper in The Future of Local News: Research and Reflections that shows how embedded local news outlets have traditionally been in the practice of charitable giving in their communities. Her work details a historical connection between local news and charitable giving, and then touches on the ways that new media technologies have influenced, and in some cases disrupted this relationship.

Local news outlets play a role in their communities that digital replacements have yet to replicate… To read more visit Medium.

Giving Back to Our Communities: An Understated Value of Local News

Is the Presence of a Local News Outlet Enough? Buchanan’s Examination of Hyperlocal News

This post was originally posted to Medium, you can view the original here

One of the key benefits often ascribed to local news is that local news outlets facilitate more hyperlocal reporting. That is to say, the presence of a local news outlet is associated, at least in many people’s minds, with an increased coverage of local stories in a community. But is this correlation true in practice?

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Is the Presence of a Local News Outlet Enough? Buchanan’s Examination of Hyperlocal News

How can Universities Ensure We’re Providing Social Support?

In a recent Vancouver Sun Op-Ed, SFU President, Andrew Petter makes the compelling argument that universities are vital contributors to their communities, writing, “Canada’s public universities, colleges and institutes have an obligation, as well as an opportunity, to harness the instruments at our disposal to the greatest extent possible to benefit the communities we serve”. I, and many of my colleagues at institutions of higher education across Canada, could not agree more with this sentiment. The university of the future will absolutely have a strong role to play in creating the kind of communities that we all want to live in, and also in fostering the kinds of citizens who want to actively contribute to those communities for the good of all. I agree with Petter, and as an Ashoka U change leader and the program head of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads, I have seen this work firsthand. As a result of my work at a university that, like SFU, is pushing the boundaries of education, I can see that providing social support within community means changing the ways we deliver education, so that our raison d’etre in higher education is centered around the good of the communities we serve.

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How can Universities Ensure We’re Providing Social Support?

Using Technology to Understand Local News

This post is cross posted from medium.com. You can access the original here.

A map showing changes to local news outlets across Canada
A screen capture from Lindgren and Corbett’s (2018) Local News Map. Available at localnews.geolive.ca

This week marks the one year anniversary of our international conference: Is No Local News Bad News: Local Journalism and Its Future which was sponsored by SSHRC and the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and held at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. This groundbreaking conference brought together an interdisciplinary and international group of scholars, journalists and media entrepreneurs to discuss the importance of local news to communities, the current state of local news around the world, the role of technology in local news, and what the future of local news could look like.

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Using Technology to Understand Local News