Saturday, June 30, 2012

Developing your personal digital marketing strategy: A guide for academics

Image via the Keep Calm Gallery
I’ve heard more and more people talking about the importance of establishing an online presence and the ways in which this kind of activity can give academics a competitive advantage.

Yet, while everyone is telling you to “get online!”, few offer any guidance on where on earth to start.

Building an online platform to promote yourself and your work involves a considerable investment of time. Academics are notoriously time-poor. How can you be sure your efforts are being focused most effectively?

You need to develop a strategy.

If you are serious about establishing an online presence you need to do more than share content. You need to create it. The most straightforward method involves creating compelling content (generally, using a blog) and building an audience (using social media). 

Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest... The sheer number of options can feel daunting. It's important to remember that blogs and social media platforms are just tools. Don't let technology lead your strategy. You can choose your weapon/s later based on your specific needs. Your first step should be to think deeply about what you really want to achieve.

How to create your own digital marketing strategy in 5 simple steps.


Step 1: What are your objectives?

What do you want to achieve? Would you like to establish yourself as a thought leader and innovator in a particular space? Raise awareness of your professional skill set? Get speaking engagements or writing gigs? Network with other researchers? Become a public authority on a specific topic? Or perhaps explore an issue that is often ignored by mainstream media? Write a list of objectives and prioritise them.

Step 2:  What is it that you have to offer?

What gets you excited? Successful bloggers genuinely love what they do – and it’s infectious. Many of my favourite history blogs originate from a scholars fascination with a particular topic. I defy you to read Georgian LondonThe Chirurgeon’s Apprentice or The Tudor Tutor without being affected by their inescapable enthusiasm. Your blog topic will stem from a personal intellectual interest or from an insight into what a specific audience needs. Ideally it should come from both.

When I used to write creative briefs for advertising campaigns I would always include a 'single-minded proposition’ - a short sentence that expressed the idea I was trying to communicate. I based it on two things; the characteristics of the product and insights into the audience I wanted to engage.  When I first launched Historypunk it was based on a single idea - Australian history isn’t boring. I was convinced that if people were introduced to a diverse range of untold stories and hidden histories they would fall in love with Australian history. These four words guided me when designing the blog and writing blogs posts. I chose the name of the blog to reflect this vision -  irreverent, fun and provocative. Write a sentence that describes your blog in a few short words.

Step 3: Who is your audience?

Do you want to blog for a public audience or an academic audience? It is extremely difficult to cater for both using the same platform as they have such different needs, interests and concerns.  Can you get more even more specific? The better you know your audience, the more effectively you can generate content that will get them excited.

Step 4: What kind of content does your audience want?

To build an audience you need to create compelling content. What type of information would they find interesting or useful?  What might they like to share with others? Perhaps search for other blogs that concern your particular topic and get a feel for where you fit in. Decide what your blog is about and stick to it. It’s ok to write some posts outside of this. I’d say about 20% of my posts lie outside of history and digital media. But know that a tight focus is the most effective way to build an audience.

That being said. Things can change! I launched Historypunk two years ago as a public facing blog but starting my PhD led me to re-think my content strategy. I was becoming increasingly interested digital humanities and knew a blog would be a powerful platform to learn about this emerging discipline and connect with other academics. I also knew I didn’t have time to write two blogs! After considering the benefits and trade-offs of each approach I decided to change direction. I essentially had to start again. Terribly confusing and alienating for my original readers (apologies guys if you are still here!) but it was the right decision for me. Blogging is a learning process. It’s ok to re-evaluate your strategy as you go along. Just be aware of the consequences.

Step 5: How are you going to manage your time?

Blogging is a long-term commitment and it will take time to build an audience. Be very clear about the short-term opportunity costs of this kind of activity and the long term benefits.  The key to blogging success is consistency. Have you ever heard that old business adage that states ‘it takes more effort to get a new customer than retain an old one’? Well, it works online too. If you don’t post regularly, your established audience will stop coming back and you will have to woo them all over again. In addition, Google loves regular blog posts. Consistent blogging will help you rank higher in search results.

Make a commitment to write a certain number of posts per month and block time in your diary to write them. Don’t feel too bad if this is the first rule you break. When I originally launched this blog I aimed to post every week. I failed every week. These days I try to post twice a month. It gets easier.

A final word

Maybe this is all feeling a bit contrived. Isn’t a blog supposed to be a creative space? Absolutely! There is no doubt that many wildly popular blogs evolved organically, with the creator stumbling on a great idea that rapidly developed a large audience (for example, the consistently hilarious Feminist Ryan Gosling and Medieval History Ryan Gosling Tumblr blogs). But this is the exception, not the rule. Thinking strategically about what you want to achieve and how you are investing your time does not make your blog any less authentic. It’s got to be led by your passion. Even if my blog had no readers (and I know I have at least one - Hi Mum!) I would continue to write as it reflects my own philosophy of learning and sharing.

My next post will outline the practicalities of setting up a content platform including tips for naming your website, the pros & cons of various platforms, design and content ideas.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

8 reasons why online reputation building can give academics a competitive advantage

 NOTE: The piece below is entirely tactical and does not enter into theoretical debates regarding academic blogging. I highly recommend that you also read Mimi Thi Nguyen’s wonderful blog post, Against Efficiency Machines, as a companion piece. Nguyen asks some thought-provoking questions and raises valid concerns regarding academic blogging. (updated Jan 2014)

I recently read a fantastic blog post that argued that traditional resumes and formal CVs have been replaced by a revolutionary  Automatic CV generator which has ushered in a new age of personal branding.

I couldn’t agree more.

Thinking strategically about your online reputation is not about style over substance. Far from it. It’s about believing in your work, recognising its value and understanding that it deserves an audience. For my part, I’m tired of academics in the humanities underestimating the value of the work they do!

So, have you Googled yourself lately?  These days it’s not egotistical, it’s essential. Your digital footprint does not need to be defined solely by others. You can take simple steps to proactively contribute to this space. Generally this will involve developing a content platform (such as a blog) and using social media to build an audience. It's an active process that involves both content creation and relationship building and one which I believe has the potential to give early career academics a competitive advantage.

8  reasons why you should be investing in your online reputation

1. Connect with a community of people who care about the same thing that you do.
No matter how niche your research area you will find others online that share your interest. It’s a great way to make new contacts, network on a global scale and embrace the Long Tail.

2. Allow people get to know you better (and find you more easily).

Self-publishing to a global audience is a great way to bring your research interests, personality and values to life. It allows people to see what you stand for far more effectively than a formal CV. You can even build a personal brand around yourself and your research. Not only will you establish yourself as an expert on a particular topic, you will become easier to find on search engines such as Google.

3. Improve your writing skills.

Blogging is very different to academic writing, even when you are writing for academic audiences. Whether a blog post is a well-developed idea or a quick thought-point it will generally be quite short (ideally under 500 words, most certainly under 1,000 words). This flexibility allows you to play with ideas and experiment with different writing styles. The prospect of building an audience for your research challenges you to communicate ideas in more engaging ways. The need for brevity and clarity poses a challenge to express complex ideas simply.

4. Refine ideas, collect intelligence and collaborate.
Unlike a journal article, blogging has an immediate feedback loop. For many academics, this is the single worst thing about blogging. In my mind, it’s also the best thing. While a terrifying prospect at first,  sharing your research across disciplines and non academic audiences offers several benefits. Engaging in a public forum means you are accountable for your ideas. Responding to challenges and feedback can help you strengthen arguments, refine ideas and even inspire new ones. This process is what Maria Popova (author of the wonderful Brainpickings blog) calls networked knowledge and combatorial creativity. Chance favours the connected mind...

5. Build a permanent platform from which you can promote your work.

Creating and maintaining a presence online is a long-term strategy.  It’s not about promoting a single journal article or your current research project; it’s about building a dynamic community that you can leverage for ongoing projects.

6. Increase the number of times your journal articles are cited.
In 2011, digital humanities researcher, Melissa Terras (@melissaterras), conducted an experiment to test the impact of blogging and tweeting about her research papers. Terras made all 26 of her academic papers publicly available and profiled a series of these projects using her blog and social media. Within 24 hours, this promotional activity resulted in an an average of 70 downloads per paper. Quite extraordinary.

7. Explore life as a public intellectual.
Academia is about sharing knowledge and I believe that scholars have a social responsibility to engage with broad audiences and contribute to public debate. This is an easy statement to make - the reality can be quite daunting! An online platform can allow you to take tentative steps in this direction and begin to explore the philosophy and process of public engagement.

8. Erode the power that academic publishers have over your reputation. 
The time lag between writing a journal article and getting it published can extend between 6 months and 2 years. Richard Price, the founder of has rightly recognised that “2 years is roughly how long it used to take to send a letter abroad 300 years ago”.  Price is committed to reducing the academic ‘credit gap' that results when scholars are unable to capitalise on benefits of their most recent research projects for job and grant applications. While citations are a key metric used to evaluate the impact of research I believe they will be increasingly supplemented by real time metrics, such as the number of times content is viewed, shared, liked and commented on.

In addition, the web is all about open attribution.  I believe that publicly funded research should be accessible free of charge and the more I learn about academic publishing the more my mind boggles. The structure of paywalls is completely at odds with increasing pressures to communicate with public audiences which I have written about here and here. If deliverables and expectations of academics are to change, institutional structures and metrics used to measure research impact must evolve to accommodate.

3 reasons why you are not investing in your online reputation

1. People will steal my ideas.
Your ideas have value. They are not ‘free’. When you communicate ideas online you don’t earn money but you do earn authority. As an academic you think for a living and are likely to be coming up with new ideas all the time. More ideas than you can possibly investigate in detail. Communicating some of these insights can establish you as a thought leader in your area. The best academic bloggers exude generosity and abundance while retaining key elements of their intellectual property. This process is a careful balancing act. Academics who do this well include digital humanist Dan Cohen (@dancohen), political scientist Corey Robin (@coreyrobin) and pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian (@femfreq). Museum curators (and innovators) Nina Simon (@ninaksimon) and Seb Chan (@sebchan) also do this brilliantly.

2. People will criticise my ideas.
Academics are used to critique from their peers, but blogging presents the risk of misinformation and misinterpretation by a much broader (often unqualified) audience. The intersection of academia and mass media is a complex space, often defined by conflicting communication objectives. I am planning a future blog post on this important issue however, in the meantime, let me say one thing.  You are not alone. Consumer brands and public figures also operate within this environment and have developed strategies to guide responses to unjustified criticism and uniformed comments (strategies that I will share in another future blog post). But if critique results in you reviewing assumptions and improving your work? Lucky you. After all. Isn't it more important to understand the world a little better than it is to win an argument?

3. I don’t have time for this.
Bravo. You got me. Academics are some of the hardest working professionals I know. Like any investment, building an online reputation has an opportunity cost and the purpose of this particular blog post is to outline potential benefits so you can decide what is right for you. It's not going to be the right approach for everyone. To succeed, I think it has to be something you believe in and enjoy doing.

My next blog post will outline how to develop your own personal digital marketing plan based on what you want to get out of the process and the time you have available.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Socialising Research: How to get your research results noticed and used.

Research impact is a rapidly emerging trend that academics can no longer afford to ignore.

Scholars have always been concerned about the impact of their research within the academy. Reputations and careers are built on the authority that results from a body of influential work.

But things are changing. Today academics are facing increasing pressures from governments and funding bodies to rethink the ways in which they conceptualise research impact.

I recently attended an IAS masterclass on Socialising Research in which Professor Robyn Owens (@robynowens), UWA’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research,  offered  insights into the rapidly evolving Australian research landscape and outlined ways to get research results noticed and used within the academy and beyond. It is no coincidence that this was the second conference on research effectiveness that I have attended within a month at UWA!

The focus on research impact is based on three principles.
•    Universities create knowledge
•    Knowledge has value
•    Research is publicly funded and should be shared

The academy has not always approached knowledge in this way. 
Professor Owens offered the marvellous example of mathematician G. H. Hardy who wrote the 1940 essay ‘A Mathematician's Apology’. For, Hardy, the best kind of intellectual theory had no real life application at all. The ideal of ‘pure knowledge’ was seen to reflect the highest calling of the academy. Hardy died in 1947, so luckily he will never know that the number theory he developed is now a fundamental part of internet banking security systems!

Academics solve problems.
When Professor Owens asked how we saw ourselves as researchers, the answers reflected our disciplines. We were ‘historians’, ‘anthropologists’ and ‘linguists'. She reminded us that a discipline is merely a set of rules that a group of scholars use to solve problems. For example, the problem of obesity is tackled very differently across the disciplines of Law, Politics, Sports Science, Urban Planning and Psychology. I love this structural inversion. Our role as researchers often involves questioning conventional wisdom, yet we often fail to examine the institutional logics we work within.

The political landscape of academia is changing.
Australian funding bodies are increasingly influenced by European impact agendas, including the UK’s “Pathways to Impact” which I wrote about in a previous blog post. In 2010 the Australian Research Council (ARC) launched the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) Initiative which evaluates the quality of research by Australian universities. Fields of research at each university are ‘scored’ as being above or below ‘world standard’ using a combination of metric evaluation and peer review. A contentious process!

The research impact of individual researchers has traditionally been measured by the extent to which their research has influenced the advancement of their discipline. This can be indicated by the quality of the journal in which work is published, reviews and reactions, article downloads and patents – however is generally measured by the number of citations the work receives.

While the number of times fellow academics reference your work provides a helpful indication of impact, the system has many limitations. A high number of citations is not proof of research quality in itself. The statistic is also notoriously difficult to measure. Different platforms can provide wildly different estimates (ie: Google Scholar vs. Web of Knowledge). The processing of ‘getting published’ can take a long time -  months or sometimes even years. For information to be 'sticky' it must be relevant and this time lag can be frustrating. In addition, the pay walls of academic journals often prevent public audiences (including the media) from accessing the original article.

Academics should actively promote their research.
Out of 3,303 research papers published by UWA in 2011, 58% have no citations (yet). This statistic is more notable for its commonality among major universities than its size. Once a work is published there is a window of opportunity during which it tends to be discovered -  around 2-3 years after publication. So how can we promote research during this pivotal time?

Professor Owens outlined several ways in which online platforms can used by academics to boost visibility of new knowledge;
  1. Write for media outlets that have been specifically created for academic engagement with public audiences such as The Conversation.
  2. Where appropriate, use multimedia to share ideas on social platforms like YouTube.
  3. Integrate collaboration into the research project itself. Can you create an online platform that can be used as a resource for other scholars or public audiences? Or perhaps even get the public involved in the creation of research itself
  4. Start a blog to share your research and build a reputation within your area of expertise.
  5. Use social media to engage with communities and contribute to conversations.
Inspired by the possibilities, the reaction of her audience of UWA early career researchers was enthusiastic. Many however, were united by a single question...

Where do I start?
Academics are intellectual entrepreneurs. Much of our knowledge is self-taught and to a certain extent it is the responsibility of each individual researcher engage with new technologies.  This being said -  there is a clear need for support and advice in this area. It is for this reason I will be launching a multi-part series of blog posts written for academics in the humanities that will provide a guide to online reputation building. It's something I have been thinking about for a while.

The project will be a learning process for me too. I have worked for several years as a digital marketing manager in the private sector however am looking forward to your feedback which will help me learn more about the complexities and challenges involved faced by scholars in this space.