A Scientist’s Guide to Social Media Branding
How to grow your following and establish your personal brand as a science communicator
Over the last year, I’ve grown my Twitter following from less than a thousand to more than 10k.
I’ve also gained another thousand on Instagram, my secondary platform I use less frequently. As a result, I reach a larger group of people with my science communication, thoughts, and opinions. I’m grateful that it has been such a positive experience, from making new friends to being offered new opportunities, and I’m excited to continue learning and growing. I thought I would share what’s worked for me, in case it can help you.
It’s no coincidence that growing your platform on social media results in opportunities. I credit much of my writing success this past year — science and feminist writing that have helped me earn an additional income of several thousand dollars — to my social media platform. Because of my following and presence on Twitter, editors found me more easily and my articles were spread more quickly.
The thing is, there’s no secret to gaining followers. Anyone who wants to build a platform online and establish their personal brand can do it. I don’t have a degree and I haven’t published a book yet. If I can gain 10,000 followers in a year, so can you. Here’s how.
1. Establish your unique personal brand
Your brand is whatever you want to be be known for. I’m a science writer and a feminist — that means I mostly tweet about science news and feminism. This means on Instagram and Twitter, the majority of my posts are related to these topics. That’s what my followers can expect from me. While I may delve into other topics occasionally, my followers know I’ll always stick to those things. Some days I’m writing hot takes on reproductive rights, and others I’m tweeting about sexism in STEM.
Because I’m already interested in these topics, I know have something to say about them, and it naturally became my brand. It took me about two or three months to figure out that this is why people followed me: they were interested in science and feminism and my sassy responses. I also write book reviews (typically about popular science books or feminism). But maybe your brand is physics and astronomy, and you like to share pictures of your cat. Maybe your brand is molecular biology and LGBTQ rights. Maybe your brand is science policy and communication, and you’re really good at makeup tutorials, so you talk about science during your makeup videos.
Think about a few accounts you really enjoy following. Why do you follow them? It’s probably because you respect them, or admire them, and find value in what they share. You should provide something valuable for your followers — your science and your personal views and experiences — and let them see that unique thing that makes you, you. There you are: that’s your brand.
Your brand matters because this is the content you are providing your followers with — and producing content is incredibly important.
2. Follow other people, not just celebrities
Social media is great for keeping up with cool people like Greta Thunberg and Elizabeth Warren, but they’re probably not going to follow you back. In addition to your favorite famous people, you should follow normal users whose interests reflect your own. I’m talking about people with fewer than a thousand followers, people you can build real connections with. Certain hashtags can help you find people with similar interests, and the #SciComm community is a great place to start.
Inside the science community you’ll find countless other smaller communities of people with similar interests. Is there a particular user whose tweets you love? See who they’re following, and follow those people. Let yourself follow a thousand or more people if you must so your timeline can fill up. Then prune it down to the people you really enjoy interacting with. Build those connections. Leave comments, like, and retweet. The point is, you need to participate. Be a regular. Make friends.
Which leads me to my next tip:
3. Be active every day
Unless you’re famous for other reasons (and I’m guessing you’re not), people aren’t going to follow you if you aren’t posting anything. Remember, you’re trying to establish your brand — that means putting yourself out there by sharing things. Retweet recent research or news and explain your thoughts on it. Leave comments on other posts that interest you. Use the “like” button liberally. Share something you don’t like and talk about it: don’t be afraid to have opinions, but try to make friends and not isolate or enrage other people for the most part.
If you don’t like being on social media at least somewhat regularly, building a brand might not be right for you. That’s okay! But you need to recognize that. Social media is a community, and if you aren’t participating or interacting with that community, it’s hard to get to know people or put yourself out there. If you aren’t putting yourself out there, people won’t have a chance to get to know you — and then you’re following won’t grow.
The point is not to have the most followers or become a social media celebrity. The point is to make connections with new and interesting people in and outside of your field; to enjoy interacting on a daily basis with people who both validate and challenge your point of view; to grow in your beliefs and opinions and as a science communicator. You’re online to learn and help others learn, after all — you may as well enjoy yourself.
Don’t stress about not having “enough” followers. By practicing these tips — being active every day, following regular people, and establishing your unique brand — you can organically grow your following over the next year. Who knows? Maybe you’ll really enjoy it and show me up by getting twice as many followers as I did over the past year. Maybe you’ll realize it’s not important for you to try to acquire a large following, and you’re just happy to be a part of the online science community.
Whatever your motivations are, have a good time and let your social media experience be a positive addition to your life, not an all-consuming source of expectations and negativity. If you enjoy yourself, you can make social media a productive and powerful tool for your science communication.