With the rise of social media, universities and research organizations have immense potential at their fingertips to build visibility and brand. However, too often the vast potential that new social media channels offer is not taken advantage of and hence lost. To harness the potential of social media, communication departments need to become science media agencies. While acting within the university’s boundaries, they drive attention for scientific output and help building brand identity for the organization. In this blog post, you will learn what a science media agency is, how it differs from a standard communications team, and you will be introduced to the five characteristics that define if a communication department has already developed into a science media agency. 

How media agencies operate

The goal of media agencies is to create visibility. Hereby they follow the same strategy that is followed by every major online magazine such as Tech Crunch, Wired or Forbes. It is called a content marketing strategy. The idea behind such a strategy is that organizations give their best knowledge away for free in form of well-developed and produced online content that nurtures the curiosity or plays to the needs of their potential target group. By doing so they attract attention and build a brand in the long run. While online magazines then sell the visibility that they generate to advertisers, communication departments within universities and research organizations fortunately do not have to deal with generating sales. In contrast, all visibility they generate builds the brand of their organization. 

Why universities are content gold mines 

Nowadays, not only magazines but all sorts of companies deploy content marketing strategies. However, as the internet is getting more crowded with free content, universities and research organizations have one specific advantage. While companies must actively search for every bit of information that may be transformed into content, knowledge can be found in each and every researcher’s office in universities and research organizations. This makes them pure content gold mines. As an example, when I was working at Fraunhofer ISI in Karlsruhe, Germany, I could go to any of my colleagues and with each of them – if we had the time – I could have easily had never ending conversation about the science they do. 

Five characteristics of a science media agency

Within research organizations, the science media agency is the department to find golden content nuggets and to present it in compelling ways so it creates value for potential consumers. However, depending on the context or goal of a given university or research organization, the specificities may differ. Hence, in the next paragraph I will outline the five key characteristics that a science media agency needs to deliver content at scale that communicates science and builds a brand. These five characteristics are (1) a content driven mind set, (2) putting the researcher center stage, (3) a balanced yet comprehensive skill set, (4) clearly defined processes and responsibilities, and (5) sufficient resources. 

A content driven mindset

The aim of the science media agency is to create content at scale that provides valuable insights to the organizations’ target group. Hence, the first and most important skill of a science media agency is to develop a mindset that puts content creation first. Thinking, pondering, and strategizing does not lead to content. In fact, in a good number of communication departments I see a disbalance of people who strategize and people who create. Yes, it is crucial to have someone to take the responsibility for action and who tweaks the strategy, but the bulk of energy and should be invested in direct content creation. It is about creating and getting your hands dirty. Because when you create, you learn what works and what does not. Yes, you can build on the experience of your consultants, but every niche in the internet is different and unique, and hence the best results will be reached by creating the best content you can and by evaluating it consistently over time. Click here if you want to learn how to build a content creation machine.

Putting researchers center stage

Often when I talk to researchers, they tell me “But the communicators do not come and talk to me. How should I know what the best way is to communicate my results”? And when I talk to communicators the tell me “But the researchers do not come and talk to me. How should I know what they do research about”? Such situations where expectations are not made explicit are content creation deserts. Not very much can grow here. Researchers are mostly very busy, and since they are seldomly incentivized to engage in science communication, it is key that members of the communication department support them and proactively engage them. Two easy ways to engage with researchers is, is to first assign clearly identifiable contacts to specific departments or research units, and second find ways with low thresholds that inform researcher on what opportunities and channels exist to communicate science results, for example with short presentations in monthly researcher meetings and a clearly structured webpage on the intranet. 

A balanced yet comprehensive skill set

The skill set required differs between smaller and larger science communication departments. The advantage of small organizations is that everyone has a good overview and communicators just need to go next door to be in contact with researchers. However, in such small teams, a small number of people need to cover quite a broad set of content creation skills. Therefore, small science communication agencies should focus on recruiting content all-rounders. In contrast, due to the higher content output in larger organizations, large organizations can afford and should hire special personnel with very specified skill sets, such as videographers or sound engineers. 

Clearly defined processes and responsibilities

While in small communication organizations “everyone does everything” is an adequate tactic, this will not suffice in larger organizations. Here, labor can and needs to be divided up. This gives the organization the opportunity to have resources to recruit specific skills which lead to better content quality. For example, the communication department can hire specific videographer skills which allows for more engaging video content. But the division of labor also requires a more clearly defined set of processes and responsibilities. The larger the organization the more the more it makes sense to set up a key account structure. What does that mean? A key account structure suggests the division of labor between colleagues. On the one hand you have key account managers, who are in continued contact with researchers and who able to perform reoccurring content production processes. These colleagues know what projects are being started and what results can be turned into online content. On the other hand, you have content specialists who can be summoned on-demand when their skills are needed. While such a structure still needs to be managed by a group leader, it ensures that everyone else is participating in content creation processes which secures continues output. 

Sufficient resources 

Communication of scientific results and brand building requires man and woman power and adequate equipment. Communicators require time to talk to researchers, to think about how to present results in appealing ways, and to manage online communities. Furthermore, they need decent gear to record videos and podcasts. If sufficient resources are not provided the science communication and brand building will not happen. 

The science media agency is a concept that – when followed through – will give you the best shot at communicating your scientific results and building a brand for your research organization or university at the same time. In this article you were introduced to the five main characteristics. How many of them can you see in your own communication department? Good luck and let me know how it worked out for you 😊.  

With our blog articles we aim to give you the knowledge needed to become a better social media science communicator. Do you have topics that you are struggling with? If yes, then drop a line to Julius and we will create educational content around it to support you and the community. Here comes his email: julius@scicomx.com.