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Dissemination Centre

What's the research on promoting health research through social media?

Date: 13 February 2018

Social media

This is an exciting time to be thinking about the best ways of using social media to promote health research.

We don’t know all the answers yet. However, the modest volume of published studies is growing all the time, and knowledge about how to do social media research is also developing year by year (see the HARTS blog). Increasing numbers of us now follow and share health research on social media, and take part in social media debate, such as WeCommunities tweetchats. I’m currently working on a scoping review that looks at all these approaches.

Here’s an outline of what I’ve found so far.

Most of the published research at the moment on using social media to `push’ research is about Twitter, followed by Facebook, LinkedIn, and others such as ResearchGate and Instagram.

In journal articles, outcome measures range from straightforward awareness (e.g. have you got a Twitter account?), to viewing posts and sharing, to following the link to a source article, to change in knowledge as a result of dissemination. Altmetric is becoming more widely used as a measure of dissemination, and Number (of posts) Needed to View (NNV).

Studies have a variety of research designs, including randomised controlled trials, before and after, and mixed methods approaches. They typically involve around 100-400 participants, viewing around 40-200 articles. There isn’t much written so far about how to process social media statistics - developing methods is one of Health and Research Through Social media’s core aims.

Research questions are moving beyond whether social media increases dissemination of health research, e.g. by readership of journal articles (mostly it does). Increasingly, studies are evaluating different strategies for social media, e.g. the best format for tweets, and different types of interactive approaches, such as webchats.

People seem to like formats that are visual, appealing and engaging but don’t overload them with information. Ibrahim’s Visual Abstracts seem to fit the bill, and his own team’s evaluation showed that they helped increase reader knowledge compared with plain tweets.

However, a recent Cochrane-based study found that consumers, students and doctors didn’t retain knowledge any better from seeing infographics than from plain text tweets - although they did prefer tweets with infographics. Links and videos in posts seem less popular, but this is based on findings of only a couple of research studies.

There is still much we do not know.  Published research does not tell us who is accessing research and whether research findings promoted by social media reach different audiences than traditional platforms.

My scoping review also looked at social media dissemination in other fields, such as business, marketing, computer science and social science. In published literature, it seemed that context really did matter if you wanted to extract implications for health research dissemination.

We were also interested in learning from commercial publishing – how do they know what works best?  Face to face, we met the Economist social media team, and the Economist Intelligence Unit marketing team. Both take what they called a ‘start up’ approach to social media testing - try something out, evaluate its effect, do more of that if it works, move on to something else if it doesn’t.

Why all this matters to the NIHR Dissemination Centre is that we want to help get good research out there - and taken up by practitioners. Social media offers exciting new ways to do this. Our Twitter account, set up September 2015, is on the cusp of 20,000 followers and we continue to experiment with different content types and new approaches to increase our levels of engagement.

So, watch this space and follow our Twitter account @NIHR_DC ‏, as well as the NIHR’s Facebook page and LinkedIn page.

  • Summary:

    Janet Clapton explore the research on different approaches to promoting health research evidence using social media.

About the author

Janet Clapton

Operational Manager - NIHR Dissemination Centre (Bazian)

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