Wednesday 13 March 2024

What is the future of social media in scholarly publishing?

The ALPSP Marketing Maestros Special Interest Group brings together senior marketing professionals to explore and discuss the changing landscape for scholarly publishing. On 28 February, a group of approximately 30 members gathered to discuss the future of social media.

What publishers say – results from a survey

To set the stage, group co-chair, Kin Maclachlan, presented insights from a recent SSP survey asking publishers about their use of social media. Conducted in November 2023, the survey included approximately half non-profit publishers, 12% commercial publishers, and around a fifth from industry service providers.

The changing profile of X

The survey revealed a notable disparity between organisations’ use of X, compared to individuals. Stephanie Lovegrove Hansen, one of the SIG members and report authors, shared her insights, suggesting that individuals can make decisions much faster, whereas organisations can take longer to adjust. Most meeting attendees agreed that X remains a popular channel for researchers, making it a key channel for publishers.

The expanding social landscape

The survey found increasing use of new social media channels, including BlueSky and Threads, as well as lesser-known channels like Mastadon. LinkedIn and YouTube usage also increased, while Facebook had decreased in popularity. Community-specific channels were also seen as important for marketers, for example WeChat for the Chinese market with 1.3 billion users, and ResearchGate as a way to interact with researchers globally.

Member discussion – break out conversations

Attendees then engaged in smaller group discussions. There were similar points raised in all groups, including a continued focus on established channels like X, Facebook and LinkedIn. In multiple groups, attendees commented that internal editors were pressuring marketing to move away from X. Although teams were experimenting with LinkedIn, there was a consensus it didn’t offer the same level of engagement as X. As one group aptly described it, “X is the devil that no one wants but everyone needs.” It’s important to engage with researchers where they are active. However some who remain on X were refusing to put advertising money on the platform, as it didn’t align with their values.

The proliferation of new channels was seen as a challenge, particularly in terms of resource allocation and segmentation. Many were evaluating, rather than actively developing new channels. The consensus was that existing platforms are continuing to decline, and new channels have not yet offered a viable alternative. It therefore remains uncertain where marketers will shift their efforts to fill this gap.

To make social work effectively, the group discussed the need for authenticity and passion, and ensuring a channel-specific strategy for content. Setting clear, measurable objectives and evaluating effectiveness on individual channels is key, particularly noting that channels will continue to change their algorithms.

Break out discussion summaries

1. What works and what doesn’t work on social media?

The breakout group identified several key factors as crucial for successful social media engagement.

  • Authentic Voice: Posts with a human touch, such as those with humour, tend to get better engagement. The group agreed that while tone needs to be appropriate, academics are humans too, and content should reflect this. It’s important to find a sweet spot between professionalism and authenticity.
  • Video needs to be authentic and not overly corporate to engage viewers. People connect more with stories than with facts and figures.
  • Passion: The group noticed that marketing often posts content about topics they aren't passionate about, which can be evident. The suggestion was made to consider hiring PhD students who have a real passion for the subject, although limited resources and bandwidth were identified as potential roadblocks.
  • Channel mix: Many found LinkedIn to be a better channel for lead nurturing. WhatsApp Groups were also identified as a potential new channel to try, though investment in this area has yet to be made. WeChat has significant usage in China, covering everything from parenting to academia. However, the vast amount of content on the platform makes it challenging to stand out. As for new channels, most have tried to use Bluesky and Mastodon, but haven't seen significant engagement to justify a major shift away from existing channels.
  • Avoiding jargon is essential: Messages should be written in plain language, kept short, simple, and easy to understand.
  • Targeting segments has been difficult: it goes against all marketing principles to customise content for specific customer segments.

2. What are the objectives/KPIs for social media – paid versus organic?

Objectives for organic and paid social:

  • Visibility and awareness were the top objectives for the group. Many agreed that organic social is particularly effective in supporting visibility at the top of the marketing funnel, with common objectives including promoting readership, or recruiting researchers for journal issues and articles.
  • Brand: social media was also seen as an essential part of brand building for publishers and journals with their target communities. Sentiment was identified as one potential measure for brand effectiveness, although this requires investment in tools, which can be a potential blocker.
  • Paid supports conversion: The group felt that return on investment (ROI) for conversion and decision-making is low for organic social media, but conversely paid social media, particularly for journal launches, was effective at supporting conversion. Retargeting was one notable option discussed.

KPIs and measurement:

Concerns were again raised about audiences, and the level of confidence marketers had that campaigns are reaching the right people. Here, appropriate use of metrics for evaluation is key:

  • The importance of a measurable call-to-action (CTA): It’s important to have a clear CTA from campaigns, such as engagement with a submission page.
  • Strategies for different channels: Each channel requires its own evaluation, considering costs and reach. For example, while LinkedIn was mentioned as more expensive, it was seen as valuable for institutional targeting. Facebook was identified as having relevance for specific countries.
  • Set budget goals by campaign across platforms, with an emphasis on optimising spend.
  • Be mindful of regions targeted: to ensure that ads reach the right audience, it’s important to set budgets for priority regions. Cost-per-click (CPC) was identified as a valued performance indicator.

Ultimately, the group recognised that outcomes differ from organisation to organisation, highlighting the need for a customised approach.

3. How is social media use changing in light of new channels?

Publishers tend to rely on the same trusted platforms:

  • As noted elsewhere, LinkedIn, Facebook, X and Instagram remain the most popular.
  • Instagram was felt to be for a younger audience. However, with Facebook declining, and since Meta owns both platforms, there is still potential to reach communities moving from Facebook to Instagram.
  • LinkedIn is emerging: Many are using LinkedIn more intensively than before. One member explained how LinkedIn newsletters are helping to gain a new subscriber base and more followers.
  • Closed groups and their use: these were very popular during the pandemic but are less so now. However, some of these groups are still active and engagement tends to be high. There was a consensus that maintaining these or contributing to them is a lot of work and highly resource-intensive.

New platforms:

  • Some have experimented with Bluesky, but the lack of resources and lack of critical mass on some of these newer platforms is preventing publishers from going full throttle.
  • No one in the group reported using Mastodon or Threads. Publishers are in an observation mode to see what happens next.
  • None of the representatives in the group used Tik-Tok. But all agreed that this is probably not the first place to go for academics. The conclusion was that publishers go where their audience is, based on their topics and publication format.

One challenge noted was that Algorithms are constantly changing: the changes that platforms are constantly making are not necessarily to the advantage of publishers.

4. Differences in social media usage for different demographics

There is limited segmentation: across the board, there was consensus that small teams can only afford to do so much. There is only one handle per platform. There is some specific targeting for these channels specifically, for example one member is using BlueSky to target a German-speaking audience.

Different platforms work for different kinds of content. For example, LinkedIn was valued for press releases and thought leadership. Instagram for motivational posts. In other words, it is possible to pursue different personas across channels.

Similar to other groups, existing channels continue to be important, and newer channels were mostly being used for experimentation at this stage:

  • X is where scientists continue to engage. The group acknowledged we need to be where our audience is and engage where they are.
  • Facebook engagement was seen as mostly non-existent, however the group discussed some evaluation was needed on the quality of the traffic.
  • There was interest in WeChat and Weibo, but a crunch in available resources. Some were working with vendor partners such as Charlesworth to put out translated content.
  • Mastodon had no engagement, although some were trying it out.
  • Reddit was mentioned as a venue to put out “real science” as opposed to “junk science” on most platforms.

About the ALPSP Special Interest Group

Co-chairs: Zita Jeukendrup, De GruyterKin Maclachlan, CUP, Mithu Lucraft, TBI CommunicationsAnnabel Daly, OUPHarini Calamur, Cactus Communications 

The ALPSP Marketing Maestros SIG provides a unique platform for senior leaders to connect, collaborate, and address pressing issues outside of industry events where marketing topics are often overlooked. It exists to bridge that gap and have a forum for leading marketers who have a significant influence on marketing strategies and business decisions at either a CTO, VP, director, or senior manager/head of department level. Find out more about all the ALPSP Special Interest Groups.

About the author

Mithu Lucraft is a Senior Consultant for TBI Communications based in the UK. A strategic content marketing expert with a passion for business storytelling, Mithu started her marketing career in 2004 at Oxford University Press, before setting up and leading the first PR team at SAGE. At Springer Nature she was responsible for the development and implementation of global marketing strategies for eight years, with a significant focus on open research and open access. At TBI, she provides marketing and communications support for clients across the scholarly communications industry including societies; publishers; researcher services; and technology platforms. She is a co-chair of the ALPSP Marketing Maestros Special Interest Group.

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