Resources for researchers

Using social media to advance research

Images of social media icons

Scientists and academics are increasingly adopting social media to increase the visibility of their work, stay up-to-date in their fields, and connect with other experts. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) now uses Google Hangout, Twitter chats, a YouTube channel, Facebook pages in English and Spanish, an Instagram account for posting cancer-related images, and LinkedIn groups to facilitate research. To encourage the use of social media as a research tool, NCI publishes guides for investigators.

The rapid emergence and evolution of social media can be bewildering though. New networks regularly appear--some expire quickly, others take hold. Some earn credibility and create extensive communities. Most are easily accessible and generally free of charge, but figuring out what to use, and how to use it effectively, can be time consuming and daunting if you’re new to the social media environment or if your familiarity is focused on a few favorites.

Specific channels, and how they are used, should be strategically determined based on the audience--the communication channels they prefer, when they are online, and what engages them. We work closely with our clients to develop targeted social media strategies. After creating an online presence and building a community of followers, we can often hand over the ongoing management of the page to the client so it is sustainable long-term.  The Health Communication Core (HCC) has developed social media strategies for:

  • Study recruitment
  • Participant retention
  • Intervention development
  • Dissemination
  • Fostering a donor community

Here are some examples of how we’ve used Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to address research challenges. Contact us for a free consultation on whether, and how, to incorporate social media into your research.

Nurses Health Study 3 (PI: Jorge Chavarro, MD, ScD, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health)

Goal: Recruit and retain the “next generation” of the Nurses Health Study

HCC used multiple social media networks to recruit a diverse and younger cohort: Facebook to reach nurses who could spread the word among their peers, Twitter and LinkedIn to engage nursing schools and associations, and Craigslist to directly recruit participants.

The NHS3 Facebook page, which now has nearly 60,000 followers, supported retention with frequent updates about the study’s successes. Read more about our social media work with NHS3

MoodNetwork (PI: Andrew Nierenberg, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital)

Goal: Build a PCORI-funded “patient-powered research network” to collect data about depression and bipolar disorder

MoodNetwork’s Facebook strategy capitalized on the powerful social media presence of the advocacy groups with which the project partners. HCC established the MoodNetwork Facebook page, developed graphics for sharing by followers, and developed posts--including those requiring IRB approval--until the page was well-established.

After building a community of more than 1,500 followers, HCC transitioned maintenance of the page to the study team. Read more about our work developing MoodNetwork’s Facebook presence.

WebQuit (PI: Jonathan Bricker, PhD, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)

Goal: Recruit daily smokers from across the US who are interested in quitting smoking

Because participants in this study had to meet narrowly defined eligibility criteria, we used paid Facebook advertising to target specific demographics, geographic areas, and interests.

Enrollment rates exceeded monthly quotas, and the ads cost less per enrolled participant than the researcher’s previous campaigns. Read more about how we helped with WebQuit recruitment.

Be Well, Work Well (PI: Glorian Sorensen, PhD, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)

Goal: Engage nurses in a pedometer-centered fitness challenge

A one-month intervention to promote walking provided nurses with pedometers and encouraged them to track daily step totals on their unit’s private Facebook page for a 10-day challenge. Read more about the Be Well, Work Well intervention for nurses.

Pediatric Low-Grade Astrocytoma (PLGA) Program (Director: Mark Kieran, MD, PhD, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)

Goal: Build a community of supporters

The PLGA Program’s Facebook page provides ongoing updates about its research to find more effective, less toxic treatments--and, ultimately, a cure--for children with brain tumors. The program was established by a group of dedicated donors who, together with PLGA Program staff, leverage Facebook’s reach to spread the word to other potential supporters. Read more about our work with the PLGA Program

Tobacco Network to Reduce Disparities (Client: National Cancer Institute)

Goal: Disseminate research on tobacco-related health disparities

HCC used Twitter’s ability to track breaking news in real-time to quickly and broadly disseminate the latest advances in knowledge about tobacco-related health disparities to a global audience and increase access to research findings.