During the last MCAA Annual Conference that took place in Vienna on the 24–25 February, Valentina Ferro, Nehama Lewis and Valerie Bentivegna (who also chaired the panel) organised a session titled “Branding yourself — How creating a brand for yourself can increase your visibility, improve your communication skills, and help you navigate social media” (you can watch the whole session here). The panelists involved in the session were Martijn Peters, Nehama Lewis and Matt Murtha, who answered various audience questions and gave valuable advice relative to science communication and how to properly use social media.
The session began with Valerie presenting An Incomplete Introduction to Branding Yourself, in which she tried to explain “what a personal brand” is by citing a tweet and thus narrating the most stupid way in which she has accidentally injured herself.
For the curious: she tried to kick a football with both feet, but it didn’t end well as you can imagine. Moreover, she gave an overview of “what a brand is”, which basically “is everything that is associated with that product”. In fact, when we see famous logos, images or slogans we directly associate them with a specific product.
The next logical question that needed to be answered was “how do I be the brand?” A personal brand is everything that other people might associate with you. If we think for example of famous people like Oprah, Bill Nye or Banksy, we automatically know what these people do for a living. However, the most important thing that was discussed in this session is that you DO NOT have to become famous to create a personal brand and, at the same time, becoming famous should not be the goal of creating one.
So, let’s try to underline the most important thing that came up during the session.
How can we effectively use social media?
One question from the audience focused on the different use that people from diverse countries make of social media, which is of course related to cultural differences. For this reason, one of the most important things is to understand what your targets are, which social media is more appropriate and which medium would be the most effective for your research field, always remembering, as Matt said: “social media are just TOOLS”. You should use them to brand yourself if you really want to reach out to the world. In fact, if you post interesting stuff, people will more likely read a post on a blog or a tweet then read a scientific paper you have published. Using social media can help you in getting more views; it can help you to reach a large audience. However, you have to be careful with what you post. For example, one important tip suggested by Martijn is that “you should keep the personal life and the branding part separated”.
Moreover, you have to remember that doing social media is not easy, and it is a “real job”, you have to actively focus on it, and it takes time to reach a considerable number of followers. One way to do this is to keep posting as much as you can (e.g. for Twitter it is recommend posting 1 tweet a day, in order to keep the “algorithms going”). Another tip is to connect with other scientists, but the important thing is not only to follow who you like, but to broaden your horizons, as Matt suggested. You should also be ready to reserve time to interact with the other scientists you follow. Martijn underlined the importance of creating connection; sometimes we underestimate that, but this is what social media are made for!
Are social media important while seeking for grants?
YES, THEY ARE. As Nehama (who doesn’t like social media very much by the way) pointed out, the world we are living in requires communication, and it is important. Just to be clear, she doesn’t say that social media communications are more important than the research itself, but sometimes having a well-established “social media plan” can make the difference while applying for a grant. So, when you will write your next grant, do not forget to have a media strategy, this can help you to defeat your competitors!
How do I get more followers? How do I get visibility on Google?
These two points are actually very important. The people who joined this session also wanted to get some practical tips in order to be more visible. So, the problem is very simple: how do I get started on social media? If I search my name on Google, will I find in the first page of the results the things that I want to be seeing?
Regarding the first question, Martijn (who has 11.7k followers on Instagram and counting…) suggested to “Just do it!”. If you want to create content and be on the social you just have to start, and time by time you will be better and improve yourself. As said before, you will need to be consistent (remember? 1 tweet or post a day) and you should spend some valuable time on it. With every post, you will increase your followers, improve your post quality and be able to start reducing the number of posts, but remember: you should always post something, in order to get the algorithm working. For example, Martijn is actually posting on average 1 post a week “to feed” both the algorithm and the followers.
The second tip underlined by Matt is that you should “let your passion to guide you” and keep working on it. As said before, practice makes perfection!
Considering the second question, in this case we deal with something that is not totally under our control. But, as Valerie and Nehama suggested, it’s important to use keywords in order to be found on the internet. Moreover, convince your friends and colleagues to read and like your posts to improve the visibility of them and share them the most you can!
On the other side, sometimes we see something that we would prefer not to when googling our name. It happens, but what can we do in this situation? Well, if something you don’t like appears on the first page of your results section, you can always contact the person responsible for the website asking him/her to delete it. Hopefully it will be enough!
Another point relative to this second question was how to get visibility if you have a name that is very common in your country. The answer in this case is very easy: use a brand name! Martijn himself is known with his brand name “stories of a scientist”, just because his name is very common in Belgium; so, unleash your creativity!
Take home messages and final tips
It’s not easy to write in a few words what was discussed during the session; however, below you can find some good advice (can also be seen as a summary) from the three panelists to actually start branding yourself!
● Figure out who you are, who you want to reach and how you want to do it!
If you follow these 3 rules, creating a brand will be much easier for you, because you will have everything under control, and you will always know where you are and what to do next.
● Put a lot of effort into it and push forward by putting yourself out of your comfort zone!
If you decide to start branding yourself you will need to dedicate time to it; you will need to create accounts, prepare the material you want to post, and interact with as many people as you can in order to increase your followers and gain visibility.
● Be sure to appear where you want to appear! Use keywords and focus on them. Don’t underestimate the bios on social media, they are really important!
As said before, we want to be known for what we want, not for other things; so, try to use keywords that can easily be associated with you. Don’t underestimate the social media bios! They are the first thing that people will see in our profiles, they should be attractive and tell people what kind of stuff you do.
● See the branding as an opportunity to evolve!
You start branding yourself because you want to, not because you are obliged to. So, think about how this process can help you and how you can improve your “image”. All of this will help you gain experience and learn new things.
● Be consistent in what you post and most importantly, be what you want!
You should always post things that you want to post, and most importantly things that you know. Remember, always post something you can explain and discuss. Do not post something that you don’t know, because this can be tricky if a discussion arises. So, usually, if you post something that you know, probably the posts will be relative to the same field and you will be consistent.
● Study, learn, take part in workshops and courses as much as you can!
No one knows everything, and for sure not all scientists are marvellous communicators. So, participate in workshops and courses that can help you improve your communication skills. Keep studying, be curious and most importantly keep posting! You will see that you will get better.
And do not forget what Valerie added at the very end of the discussion, citing (at least partially) Gandhi:
“Be the brand you want to see in the world!”
In conclusion, do not pretend to be someone you are not. “Branding yourself” does not mean that you have to create someone who is different from you. “Branding yourself” means telling people what you are able to do, why you do that and why it is important. If you properly “brand yourself” you will be recognised for something that you actually do, and when you will look for yourself on Google, the first page of the results will be full of pages, videos and links connected to your projects.
About the author
Ruben Riosa is an animal nutritionist currently working as a PhD student at the University of Bonn, where he takes part in the MSCA ITN project MANNA (European Joint Doctorate in Molecular Animal Nutrition). His project focuses on dairy cows’ nutrition and physiology. In the MANNA network he is the Newsletter Editor. He is deeply interested in science communication.
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