Social Media Marketing for Academics: Yay or Nay?

In this article, Gillian Chu discusses the pros and cons of using social media marketing in your academic life, offering some thought-provoking suggestions on its benefits. Gillian has just completed all the requirements for her PhD (Divinity) at University of St. Andrews.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

I used to write for (online and physical) lifestyle magazines way before influencers were a thing. When I first wrote for these publications, I hid behind the camera and focused on the event, thinking that was what would most interest readers. After a while, I found that whether I was reporting on a car launch, or writing a travel piece or sports explainer, the most important thing I brought to the table was myself. My personality mattered; I needed to be in the photos. When I wrote about the friends who went with me to these different events, readers engaged more with the articles.

I find this tendency to be quite similar in academia. At first, I thought the most important things I had to communicate were my ideas and arguments. But later, I realised that reflexivity and positionality matter in academia as well. Some might see academics as being those who make ground-breaking discoveries; others might see them as those who teach and nurture the next generation. There is a misconception that scholarship alone should be an academic’s focus. Marketing, branding, and other ways of being seen can be very much frowned upon. Yet, people cannot care about important academic work unless they know it exists and where it comes from. This is why I propose that social media presence is unavoidable and even a welcome tool (or distraction) for contemporary academics. Here are a few ways social media can be helpful.

Branding

There is a saying in Hong Kong that ‘if there is musk, the scent will spread naturally’ (有麝自然香). Some academics think of their work in this way, but I find that, if people do not know about the scholarship, there is no way they can support it. Cathy Mazak argues that academics need branding because, if we are not crafting our brands consciously, then they will craft themselves through how we are portrayed by our institutions and in our personal social media. That might not be what we want for our professional image. Likewise, Mazak proposes that, by sitting down and writing about our brand, it helps us to hone in on what academic activities build that brand and what do not. One way I have crafted my personal brand is through creating and maintaining a research website. This belongs to me and gives me the space to create what I want others to see first when they google my name. It gives me control of my brand. Likewise, claiming my Google Scholar page and creating an ORCID are different ways of maintaining a brand and letting others know what has been published.

Disseminating Ideas

In Hong Kong, there is an advertising term called ‘eel draft’ (鱔稿). It is said, in the 1930s, there was a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong that wanted to sell an eel delicacy before it went bad, as refrigeration was not common at that time. So, they got the newspaper to write about the eel as a news article. In Hong Kong, an ‘eel draft’ is now synonymous with advertorial, an advertisement in substance but presented as news to lean credibility. Mark Carrigan, in his book Social Media for Academics, talks about the negative connotations associated with being a ‘self-publicist’ and with social media, which is equated with triviality and narcissism. However, that would downplay the difficulty of translating an academic piece into a public engagement piece that is accessible to a general audience. Whether disseminating ideas through traditional channels, such as journal articles and monographs, or via digital media, such as blogs, Twitter, podcasts, or mass media outlets, one important thing to do is to respect the medium. Think about the ideas you want to disseminate. How can that idea be shared on, say, Twitter given the character limits? One way to go about it is through observing how others tweet longer, suspenseful narratives by telling their story over multiple tweets. Another way is to engage in a hashtag conversation with others. Equally, how would the research be reshaped for a blog post? Rather than seeing it simply as narcissism to write about yourself, or just shortening sentences to fit into a tweet, think about how to respect the medium. Think about how to translate the research for a general audience on a specific digital media. By letting others understand the important research work through the understood format of a given platform, there will be more of a chance of receiving constructive comments and feedback on such work.

Collecting Data

The up-and-coming field of digital humanities utilises digital tools to analyse data coming from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like (that is, born-digital records), a topic of increasing importance in the field of social sciences. Think of social media as a field site that has already digitised their data. How will the analysis be conducted? There are many apps such as NVivo and Atlas.ti that captures tweets for analysis purposes. Setting alerts to certain hashtags that are helpful for the research work is also another way to keep up with the conversation. With an abundant amount of data to analyse, time needs to be devoted to think more carefully about how to limit the scope and what needs to be achieved, as well as how to draw boundaries between professional and private lives on social media. This is not unlike being in a physical field site.

Networking

Priscilla Chu (coincidentally, my mom) recalled a time when she co-wrote with Robert D Hisrich, because both wanted to have a more international focus to their research. The two have never met, but through email correspondence they were able to collaborate. Their article was published in 2001 but is still cited by other academics in 2021, which demonstrates the impact of their work. Nowadays, we have more than just email: there are Twitter chat hours, Facebook groups, and hashtags, where like-minded researchers can meet and chat on a designated topic. Researchers can also easily reach out to others on social media and ask them about their work. Rather than seeing this as a negative, business-like, or goal-oriented approach, I would think of it as letting others know about me as an academic and my niche in the field, so as to differentiate myself from others in my field. Then, when they encounter something that is immensely suitable for me, they would be able to point it in my direction. It is through networking online that I find out about events, such as conferences and special issue calls for papers, academic and learned societies positions, and opportunities to serve as a reviewer or editor.

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

Activism

Activism can be more than just protests or lobbying. Andrew Wai-luen Kwok uses education and public engagement as a form of activism. He participated in creating a peacebuilding project ‘Cultivating Peace’ through the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Centre for Sino-Christian Studies. As a public intellectual, Kwok performs a quiet activism that is gaining traction in a society that is increasingly closed to physical forms of protest in public spaces. Kwok chose to conduct talks, seminars, and write op-eds, which are backed by his research. His use of various media to promote his research—and his cause—is something I aspire to.

*****

At the end of the day, discoveries have to come from somewhere. Researchers sharing their positionality and reflexivity demonstrates their academic integrity. By being involved in the academic community from the beginning to the end of the research process, I am able to take the opportunity to encounter others through different social media and create an encounter of ideas and identities.

Ann Gillian Chu graduated from the University of Edinburgh with MA (Honours) in English Language and is currently a PhD (Divinity) Candidate at the University of St Andrews, based in the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics. Funded by the University of St Andrews and the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) respectively, Gillian led training on using apps to facilitate doctoral research, building writing accountability groups, and creating inclusive academic conferences. You can follow her on Twitter @agillianchu and on her research website, http://gillianchu.com

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