Social media and REF score: how universities are helping academics to increase engagement

30 August 2013 By Northern Lights

Social media and REF score: how universities are helping academics to increase engagement image

The Guardian recently highlighted how public engagement for universities is changing.

Engagement as a two-way process is now a necessary part of university research and the publication of academic work. But for many academics and researchers, it involves a big culture shift. Moving from a culture of ownership and protection of ideas, to one where there is an obligation to share and invite debate about ideas in a public forum, can be problematic, difficult to implement, and take time to establish.

Northern Lights work with a number of universities, supporting them with community and business engagement campaigns, corporate networking, media relations and raising the profile of their academic research. Our experience is that the benefits of social media far outweigh the risks, but that it is important to understand what you want to get out of social media campaigns before you start, and to build appropriate internal communications activities and social media training into the project to ensure success.

Why social media is likely to become a key tool for REF impact in future

While academics can sometimes be reluctant for their work to be distilled for distribution through the media to a ‘general public’ audience, one thing that everyone is agreed on is the value of activities that assist with REF impact.

The Research Excellence Framework states that assessment of impact will be based on expert review of case studies submitted by higher education institutions. Case studies may include any social, economic or cultural impact or benefit beyond academia that has taken place during the assessment period.”

While peer reviews in journals are highly valued by academics, readership is often small and limited to the academic community. By its very nature, social media has more social and cultural impact beyond academia, and when something goes viral, it has the potential to

  • achieve impact for the research – reach and help the people the research was designed for
  • create debate and influence academic peers
  • spark public interest and raise the profile of research
  • increase the chances of securing research funding or sponsorship for new projects
  • build long term relationships with leading industry players
  • open the door to potential commercial partnerships and consultancy work.

Which universities are already using social media to engage?

There are a number of educational institutions that have already established themselves on social media and are seeing great results. We’ll be publishing a list of our top ten education blogs in the coming weeks, but for now, here are examples from two universities we have had the pleasure of working with on social media campaigns:

  •  Bradford School of Management The Management Experts blog that Northern Lights helped Bradford School of Management to set up is currently ranked #2 across the UK by Google for “university business blog” [28/8/13]. It now has established an extensive and loyal readership (several thousand each month) and is popular with both students and business leaders alike, helping to boost the school’s visibility online via organic search.

  •  Sheffield Business School asked us to work with them on business engagement. The campaign involved setting up a blog and Twitter account (@SBSinspire) to share learning and development advice for business leaders. The blog now includes guest posts by business leaders who have been involved in research by the university (Kath Fontana MD of BAM FM, Sue Blight, Head of Learning and Development at Dairy Crest, and Michael Wall, managing director at Beaumont Robinson Ltd, to name but a few), and is a great way of starting discussions about key industry topics that will help establish the university as a valuable source of information for other business leaders.

The key to a successful university social media strategy is having specific objectives in mind – what do you want to achieve? Set measurable targets and plan ahead for content. Internal buy-in is also critical to success.

An online presence is becoming increasingly vital for businesses and universities alike. It can take between one to three years to build a successful online community, so the sooner you make a start the better.

Next steps…

(1)    Get your LinkedIn profile 100% complete – This advice on business-focused social media will help you to rank higher in LinkedIn search results for your research topics of interest.

(2)    Set up a blog that encourages comments and debate – Victoria’s recent blog Ten great blogging tips for #academics to promote their research gives a step by step guide to the key principles of setting up and managing a successful university blog.

(3)    Use Twitter to engage with peers and industry leaders – Read this detailed plan for using Twitter for engagement and building long-term relationships.

What social media activity does your university do? Do you have specific engagement objectives and target people in mind when posting through social media or are your social media channels used more for broadcast messages?

Have you any social media success stories to share? Or do you believe it is a waste of academics’ valuable time?

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