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.


  1. Thanks! I write briefly about your post on my own blog:

  2. Love the article. I'm actually in the first year of my PhD so I am very new to academia! Formerly a marketing manager in the private sector - so always interested in learning more about the complexities of the academy! Thank you for your insights.

    You are absolutely correct - I have made a choice to assume the value of blogging here on Historypunk rather than defending it. I have been keeping up with this debate for a few years now and have not seen a truly compelling argument against academic blogging yet.

    The way I see it, there is an enormous competitive advantage to be gained by universities who support scholars to improve digital literacy. Right or wrong, the academy is under increasing pressure to compete with the private sector on its own terms - and from what I have seen over the past few years there is no reason why it can't. Reaching out to communities and other researchers online can be empowering. As a researcher in the humanities I understand all too well the challenges of defending and measuring research impact, but there is a huge amount of talent and innovation here. If we undervalue our work, others will too.

    All the best!

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