Making your research accessible

Social media ‘engagement’: How can it support research uptake? [Part 1]

By 25 March 2013

We are probably finally able to say that social media is widely accepted as an important tool for research communication.  Like many people, those of us in the DFID-funded Research for Development (R4D) project have been arguing this case more or less since usage of social media really began expand, sometime around 2006 – the year that Twitter was  launched. I say this not to brag but to underline both how long and how short that period is.

Seven years is two or three lifetimes in Internet time. For example, the social photography service, Instagram was founded in October 2010, grew to 1 million users by January 2013 and was bought by Facebook the same month.  But seven years is a hardly a day long in the slow, deep march of research time! So it is unsurprising that, while the general case for the use of social media is now generally accepted, the research community is only now defining how best to use it and developing the necessary capacity.

One strand in the R4D project explored the value of social media and other web 2.0 tools in encouraging uptake of DFID-funded research material. We aimed to engage users and audiences in the online material as well as, more generally, increase knowledge-sharing and collaboration between researchers. This work involved desk research, prototyping and experimenting with a range of online tools and consulting with experienced practitioners in three Peer Exchange meetings held in DFID. The report of that sub-project has itself been published on R4D. This is the first of a series of blogs summarising our main findings.

What is social media and why is it important for research uptake?

It’s traditional to use Wikipedia definitions for terms like Social Media or web 2.0 because Wikipedia itself is one of the earliest and most successful examples of web 2.0 and it has thrived largely because of its social functionality. Wikipedia is created by its users. There are communities of volunteers, and some paid staff, who collaborate online to manage the site. Its multimedia content can be syndicated to other sites and it is open to anyone on the web. Wikipedia says:

Social media includes web-based and mobile technologies used to turn communication into interactive dialogue between organizations, communities, and individuals. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content.”[1]. Social media is ubiquitously accessible, and enabled by scalable communication techniques.

Until recently, in relation to Development Research Communication, suggesting that ‘social media is ubiquitously accessible’ would have drawn a hollow laugh from the many people working on slow, expensive, unreliable Internet connections. The situation is still difficult for many people in many parts of the world but, as recent research from IDS has demonstrated  more and more people, and especially policy actors – the target of much research communication and advocacy – are connected, using the media in the same way as researchers and policy actors in the US and Europe.

Conversations and Interactions – the secret sauce of social media

Social media is about conversation. This increasing emphasis on two way communication and conversation has transformed organisational communications and is crucial to effective online knowledge sharing. Communicators using online media use the term ‘engagement’ to describe the process of moving to a situation where users and producers interact online, discussing and sharing content.

As illustrated below [2], engagement in this context is generally taken to mean individuals moving from simply accessing or consuming the content and services offered by an online platform to becoming more involved in the platform, recommending or promoting it and actively co-creating the content. There is a wealth of material available on the web discussing and recommending how people can be encouraged to move up this ladder of engagement. Most, including the author of this diagram [3], stress the central importance of conversations between organisations and individuals in encouraging people to move up from the lower steps on the ladder. This of course implies resources being available and committed to connecting with individuals in the audience, as is illustrated by our Twitter case study that will be shared soon on R2A.

[3] Kaplan, Andreas M.; Michael Haenlein (2010) “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media”. Business Horizons 53(1): 59–68.


Pete Cranston

Pete Cranston is an ICT, Communication and New Media specialist, with long experience as a facilitator and trainer. His early career was in international and UK education, working with adults and 16 -19 year olds, and for the past 14 years he has worked in the 3rd sector, mainly in International Development. A seasoned manager of organisational IS&T and ICT development programmes, he has worked for five years as an independent consultant supporting strategic planning, organisational communication, research, evaluation and knowledge management. A significant part of his work has been with telecentres and local content exchange while his most recent research has been into global social media trends, with special reference to health communications, and the impact of convergent mobile technologies in rural development. For the past three years advising and training in web 2.0 technologies and interactive media, at both strategic and practical application levels, has taken up an increasing proportion of his work.

  • To borrow an analogy from management consultancy, I would encourage people to turn the pyramid upside down.

    • pete cranston

      Thanks Neil: do you mean that is how to say something about the relationship between real research action and talk about it?!

      • Hi Pete, I mean the inverted pyramid that is promoted by many management consultants, to promote organisational change, whereby all efforts are to support consecutive layers within the organisation to meet the needs of the “customer” at the top. Thus, if we applied this to the pyramid of engagement on CoPs, we would see your pyramid upside-down, with administrators/moderators (which you call Leaders) at the bottom, supporting the next layer up, and so on layer by layer, with everything designed to meet the needs of the wide base of “customers” or readers at the top (which you call Observers). This is the approach – Reader-Focused Moderation – we use with the HIFA email discussion forums (using the Dgroups platform) that we run with the World Health Organization and others.