‘It’s necessary to have a degree of cynicism around all these channels.’ Cambridge University’s Head of Digital Comms, Barney Brown, on the need for skepticism when it comes to social media metrics.
How do you tell the story of an 800+ year old academic institution - one of the most famous universities in the world - using the most modern of communication methods? Barney Brown has been doing that for the past decade as Head of Digital Communications at Cambridge University where he has headed up an award-winning team that not only generates excellent digital content of its own but also embraces other creators who form part of the university community, such as student vloggers.
In this episode of Research Comms Barney Brown talks about the power of authenticity, how academic institutions can tap into the creativity of their members, as well as giving advise on what social media platforms offer the greatest returns on investment.
The below is a short excerpt. For the full interview download the podcast.
How do you work with researchers at the university to help them tell their research stories?
There are several approaches. One approach we can take is to look at hard statistics and evidence. So a researcher might say, “We're really interested in getting through to this particular age group in this particular area and we need a website”, and we might say “Okay, well the problem is that the age group you're trying to get through to are not necessarily going to Google Cambridge Uni and end up at your website. They might be on YouTube when they're trying to find out about a particular subject, or they might be on Instagram,” so we would try to show them what the channels are that those particular audiences are using at the moment and what kind of devices they might be using to access those channels. And then once you've convinced them that that is a genuine place to engage with those audiences, and what’s the type of content that's actually working in those places, then they soon realise that actually they need our support and advice to help shape something that's going to help deliver what they want. And that might not be what they came to us for in the first place. So, it’s really teaching by showing what others are doing and then you get enough people on side and you can deliver stories through video or photography or just even different ways of writing a traditional news story. As soon as they can see that working and comments coming back they want something similar.
Do you ever encounter resilience from more traditional-minded members of the university when you try to persuade them that digital is the way to go to drive engagement?
I think it’s necessary to have degree of cynicism around all of these channels because one of the challenges we all have is that you could have a very compelling three-minute video about a cutting edge bit of research, it might have hundreds of thousands of views, and thousands and thousands of comments, and you can work out whereabouts in the world it's been viewed but can you then categorically say ‘there is now a better understanding in the world of how this research has contributed to society?’ And can you draw a line between that digital metric online and funding coming in for that research? Or perhaps someone coming out of the world that’s seen that video that then comes forward with another piece of evidence that supports it?
So where there are areas of the university who perhaps don't want to engage like that, to be honest because of the size of this place, there are enough stories out there that we're very fortunate to always be working with people who are really inspired and who want to try out these new methods of communication. So, of course there will be people that don't necessarily trust digital, it might not be something that they want to invest their time in, because it isn't just the case of spending money on a new project; it might be involve coming to a meeting to learn about social media, for example. So, at the moment we're only working with people that do want us to help them.
What are the different audiences that you’re trying to reach with your digital content?
Because of the the age of this place there are a lot of audiences out there that would say they've already got a relationship with the institution, which might simply be that they've bought a t-shirt with our logo on it on the other side of the world. They see the university as a historical, aspirational place to be and that might be the end of their relationship. And actually for a lot of those people they'll interact with our social media posts, not necessarily because they want to know about the research on neuroscience, but because they follow the institution like a sort of social media star, as it were. So we're conscious of those people, and we do we do bear them in mind when we're putting things out because, quite frankly, their relationship with us, in the algorithm sense of social media, boosts what's possible for us to get out to other audiences because we don't pay for any promoted social posts at the moment.
So, we do bear them in mind but that is that terrible catch-all audience segment that doesn't really exist as an audience. To say to somebody “we’re aiming it at the general public” it’s like, “You mean humans, right?” So, we do refine that and we’ll be aiming at sixth formers looking for places to study, we'll be looking at people that have studied here that we want to keep engaging with, potential donors of course, journalists, and then also because of being a public institution that is endeavouring to contribute to society, we want to make it clear wherever possible the purpose of the work that we're doing, certainly in the world of research, we want to express how this has an impact on society.
And I guess the responsibility gets greater as we’re only one source of information competing against many other, perhaps ‘faker’, sources of information
So, do you see yourselves as having a role that is a kind of counterbalance against disinformation and fake news?
I think it’s important. A lot of the stuff we've done, certainly in the research communication space, has been to try and communicate to society what we're doing here. How can we communicate what we're doing directly to to our audiences? We’re lucky in that people will also read about our research through the lens of newspapers and things like that but we also have our own story to tell that we think we can do effectively without having to be rewritten by others.
How do you work with people from within the university who are creating their own content?
We have a great relationship with a lot of student vloggers and it's been built up by a sense that we need to earn their trust really, that's the the direction. Because as you say they arrive and sometimes they've already got 60,000 subscribers and they've been vlogging about their application journey. Now, in some cases we see applicants on YouTube talking about the fact that they've applied to study here before they’ve even been accepted and then from time to time which, you know, we're really lucky about sometimes you see someone recording a video saying “I've had my place accepted and the reason I chose to apply to Cambridge was because of their vloggers”. So, a video like that for us is an incredible bit of evidence to show people, this is why centrally we need to support these students because it’s pretty altruistic a lot of the work that these students are doing. They're doing it in their spare time and they're giving really valuable advice to sixth formers, not just about applying to study here but for higher education in general. They're really valuable and often institutions, especially more traditional institutions, will see a six second clip of a student doing something crazy on YouTube and they'll go “right, okay that entire channel needs to be taken down” and that's the point where I’ll need to try and make parts of the institution understand the value of those students. So we ask those students if we can take some of their content and put it out through our central channels. What we hope we can give them in exchange is a massive amplification of their channel and they then actually gain a lot more support. And ultimately it means a lot to them to have that kind of institutional endorsement for what they’re doing.
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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director.
He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.