SMASH Reflections: Science storytelling in the era of millennials: The top 5 things you need to know if you want to be successful
This post is part of our ongoing project of SMASH Reflections, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
By Rodrigo Pérez Ortega
Did you hear that last Radiolab show? Did you watch the last episode of MinutePhysics? What about the shark photo from NatGeo on Instagram?
From YouTube channels to tweets and Facebook pages, science is now everywhere in the digital world, and science communication has found its niche in this ever-changing landscape. YouTubers, podcasters and bloggers have emerged, each with a very personal touch to their content. With nearly one-third of the world population using social media, creating engaging content for such wide and dynamic audience is especially hard. A key feature of digital and social media is that the production costs are quite low and the reach is high. New platforms and trends are always emerging, and we have to constantly adapt to them if we want to reach more people. During the SMASH 2016, a special session tackled the challenges and peculiarities of creating compelling content in different digital platforms. Anna Rothschild, host of Gross Science, moderated the discussion among the panelists: Joe Hanson, host of It’s Okay to Be Smart, Erin Chapman, host of the Shelf Life series, and James Williams, VP of Digital Video at National Geographic Partners.
What did we learn from this interesting discussion? Here are the 5 most important things you have to take into consideration if you want to go viral.
1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE AND BE LOYAL
Now, more than ever, science communication is about establishing a personal relationship with the viewer/ listener/ reader, connecting with your audience on a deep level. And so, one of the best things about social media is that you get to know them pretty well. With every platform and app, you can get instant statistics and feedback. You can track the age group, the male to female ratio, watch time, etc. of your audience and use this information to shape your content, get more shares and views, and present the science in a more meaningful way. “Going viral” is especially hard, because the competition is fierce and the online audience is quite demanding. As Joe Hanson says: “they have a high bulls**t filter”. So come up with a compelling story and make it authentic. And deliver on any promise you make to your audience.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLATFORM
There are more than 50 social media platforms these days, some more popular than others. And there’s a reason for it: they’re all different, and so are their audiences. YouTube is video and animation, Instagram is pure photo and some video without audio, on Facebook you can throw some text, but visuals are definitely key. So, you have to find the right platform for your content. Always have a story and don’t try to push your content from one platform to another if it doesn't fit the format. For some platforms you have to keep it short, while in others long format is better. For some, you have to start with the punchline in order to hook your audience. What works well in Snapchat might not work in Facebook, so be wise. Also, don't worry about mastering all the platforms. Stick to what works for you and embrace it.
3. FAIL! AND LEARN
Please fail. That's the best way to learn what works and what doesn't. And your audience will let you know. “We’re just bouncing off of failures until we find our focus. We need the failures” says Williams. And you know what's the best part? As Hanson puts it, "if it fails in the internet, nobody sees it". Sounds like a good deal.
4. COLLAB. COLLAB. COLLAB.
In every platform, there are subgroups, small communities that are interested in similar things. And even if it's all science, the audiences can be quite different. So contact fellow science communicators and invite them to do something together. You don't have to be in the same physical space. Great things can come out of a collaboration.
5. BE BRAVE AND EXPERIMENT!
Remember that there are no rules in the internet, so it's a playground for creativity. It has an amazing built-in democracy. Don’t be afraid to try new things and use your platform to its maximum potential. An Instagram documentary? Sure! “It doesn’t matter what the medium is, what matters is the truth and the story” says Erin Chapman. Getting out of your comfort zone and putting yourself out there might be hard at first, but it’s worth it. Some things might not work, but hey, remember point 3?
Perhaps your goal might be to educate and entertain, to make science fun. But always think big, because after all the effort, the payoff can be quite surprising. For example, Hanson was once contacted by somebody in Iran asking how to download one of his videos because the bandwidth was not the best and he/she wanted to share it because it was important content for an Iranian audience. Champan’s series, Shelf Life, has accomplished a good male to female ratio of viewers. Achieving gender balance is difficult in science communication reach, let alone science itself. Thanks to one of Chapman’s videos, an entomologist from Singapore reached out and initiated a collaboration with a laboratory at her institution. Williams recounts that the week Finding Dory came out, his team launched a campaign to raise awareness about the danger of buying tang fishes, which are taken from the wild. It went viral and had a big impact—they were literally “saving Dory”.
So, always take the extent and power of the internet into account. And remember to always take different languages and ethnicities into consideration, since you might be making a bigger difference than you think.
Note: Appropriately for a panel on social media, this session was transmitted live on Facebook. You can watch it here.
About the author: Rodrigo is finishing his degree in Biomedical Science at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. He is passionate about neuroscience, research and science journalism. For the past couple of years, he has been a contributor at TecReview, Medscape en Español, ¿cómo ves? and others as a freelance science writer. His work has been published both in English and Spanish and he works continuously to raise awareness about the science and scientific journalism made in Latin America.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.