The role of social media in astronomy

I’ve been pondering what role social media should play in an observatory’s outreach and marketing efforts.

If you exist and serve customers, people expect you to have a web site. These days, they also expect you to have a social media presence as well. At a minimum, astronomy facilities must have an online social media presence to publish their latest news bits, press releases, pretty pictures and so on. This is the bare minimum we must do. Additionally, some observatories also engage users in contests for telescope time, tours of the facility,and other such promotions. These additional efforts offer some slightly enhanced return, but there is still more to be gained. Social media offers us an opportunity to develop messages that target specific stakeholders.  The interconnected social aspect of these media streams will help us naturally deliver targeted messages to the right groups.  We can also therefore targeted advocacy for the observatory depending on what the current needs are. This apporoach can help activate passive stakeholders and help neutral stakeholders become more vocal advocates.

Social media can also be used to gather public opinion. What are people saying about us? Which of our messages are they sharing? This information can provide valuable feedback to evaluate our general performance, reputation, and the effects of our communications.

While these additional considerations offer even more return than the basic press release approach, there are even larger gains to be had from a fully developed social media program. The real gains from social media come from taking advantage of the unique  power of social media – the social aspect of it.

The real power of Social Media lies in tapping into its unique social networking aspect.  Image from

The real power of Social Media lies in tapping into its unique social networking aspect. Image from

People turn to social media not primarily to get news from companies and organizations that interest them, but to engage socially with people and develop relationships with both old and new friends1. The next step in gaining from social media is to find ways to help people connect with each other that provide a benefit to your organization. Following an article I recently read in the Harvard Business Review by Moktaj Jan Piskorski (Social Strategies that Work, November 2011), firms can extract more from social media by developing strategies that get them something of value by helping people build or establish their social connections if they do some free work for the firm. For example, a credit card company might offer elite customers a discount shopping day at a store of their choice with the amount of the discount dependent on how many friends (with the same kind of credit card, of course) the customer gets to shop along. In this case, the company would be reducing their customer recruitment costs and increasing sales by offering users the chance to connect with old and new friends by getting them to recruit new customers. The elite customers get something of value (a discount) and an excuse to make new and old contacts while they recruit more people to join them for their day of shopping.

So, how does this model apply to astronomy? What social connections can we offer our community that will inspire them to do something of value for us?

The GLORIA project, is one example. The GLORIA team is building a network of small telescopes equipped with useful instrumentation and offering them free to the public. By investing in the hardware and developing communities of users with scientific interests in using this hardware, GLORIA gets science output for free. They don’t have to hire any researchers, write any observing proposals, or pay any page charges. They actually get the public to do work (deliver science) for free. GLORIA gets free labor; its online users get access to hardware and a community to explore with. GLORIA gets the power of social networking.

How can we tap in this potential to both increase the number of engaged users and get free labor in the process? First, we need to find ways to attract and motivate users. What do people want? What need besides providing basic information can we fulfill? Second, we need to encourage people to form identities within our platform. Allowing users to take on specific roles engages them more fully and promotes a real interactive community. Third, we need to channel their attention to tasks we want done. Maybe it’s analyzing data, measuring performance metrics, developing growth plans or strategic visions, advocating or fund-raising, or who knows what else. Next, we need to incentivize users to do these tasks – using the social needs we identified earlier. We can provide recognition for achievement, methods to bring in new friends and contacts, and/or the sense of being involved in the thrill of scientific discovery, for example. All these things could be used to fill users’ needs and incetivize them to do the desired tasks. Finally, we need to monitor the results, being careful to resist attempting to control them completely. Sometimes it may be best to let the community evolve, even if it ends up on a different path than we originally intended.

Any ideas on what we try first?

1Although I did recently attend an excellent seminar on social media which said people actually DO get their news from social media. However, they don’t go looking for news; they expect news to find them. That is, they expect their social network to provide the news that is important to them. So, organizations who want to get their news out still ought to be thinking about how to create a social network that will naturally propogate its news to those most interested in receiving it.

Scot is not a terribly active social media user, but he does see the significant potential in it for many companies and yes, even observatories. He is still taking classes and learning lots of other real world techniques that can be applied to improve the business and management of astronomy – if only he had more time to write about and practice them! You can follow his occasional posts on twitter via @GScot.

This entry was posted in General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *