Four ways to generate social engagement with science: A case study in space

To social engagement infinity and beyond! There are several challenges to social media communication, including limited space for copy and volatile conversations (see The “Nasty Effect”, a study out of UW-Madison about online incivility). Organizations that communicate science topics face an additional challenge: complex (and sometimes dry) information.

In a paper from the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior, “What makes you tick? The psychology of social media engagement in space science communication”, researchers aimed to determine how people engage in space-related science content on social media.

Methods (how they did it)

They developed a system using machine learning to predict potentially engaging space science social media messages. They tested these messages against 50 Facebook users and 60 Twitter users and tracked engagement. The team compared these messages to three other fields, non-profit, politics, and business. The messages developed using this algorithm were successfully engaging.

Here’s what created an engaging space science message:

  1. Visual elements were important features in engaging space science-related social media messages. Example of a message that featured a photo: “Celestial Valentine! Generations of stars can be seen in this infrared portrait of a wispy star-forming region.”
  2. Angry or anxious messages that displayed a frustration with the current state of affairs in the world. Example of an angry message: “Things that are still wrong in 2016: Astrology Homeopathy Climate change denial Anti-vaxxers…”
  3. Assertive messages that featured lots of certainty in space technology proved to be very engaging. Example of an assertive message: “There’s nothing you can ever tell scientists about the natural world that will hurt their feelings”
  4. Authentic messages were more engaging. These messages used a down-to-earth, relatable and sometimes funny tone that resonated with audiences. Example of an authentic message: “If you never make mistakes then you are not on the frontier of discovery for there is where mistakes are made all the time.”

These successful message types appeared unique to science-related topics because they didn’t produce as much engagement on non-profit, political or business pages.

This study confirms some general science communication best-practices. Authenticity and assertive messages build trust with audiences. Our brains are also visual, and visual content drives engagement.


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