Leveraging Social Media as an Academic

Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal

Imagine writing or editing over 1,000 blog posts in a year. Or what about engaging with over 28,000 followers on Twitter. For Duke Professor Mark Anthony Neal, this is not a dream but a reality.

In a previous post, Mark outlined why he considered external communications important as a professor. So if you are not sure why you should blog, revert back to that post first! In this follow-up Q and A, he shares some of the lessons learned from his years of blogging and using social media.

How did you first get involved with blogging?
I started my blog in 2006 in part to promote my new book: New Black Man. I quickly realized that I could connect my content to my book and generate more visibility and also use the blog to promote radio and television interviews.

What does it take to be a successful blogger?
I never thought of myself as blogging. In fact, I work hard not to describe myself as a blogger. When I write on my site, I am writing. It might be shorter and pitched to a different audience, but it follows the same kind of sensibilities if I was doing a piece for The Atlantic Monthly or some other outlet.

Your blog features lots of YouTube videos. And your posts are often times quite short.
Yes, when we could start embedding YouTube videos in blog posts, that changed everything. That meant I could go from the written word to visual piece. It was clear to me that the younger folks were much more attracted to visual.

What do you see as the main pros of blogging?
It allows me to get my ideas out there, particularly given the landscape of the newspaper and magazine industry. I had many columnist assignments, but every time one of the editors left, I would need to explain what I did and its purpose to the new editor. It was quite frustrating. The blog allowed me to do the kind of writing I wanted to do without having to do pitches and explain everything to an editor.

So what’s the secret? How do you actually get so much content posted on your blog every day?My target is four times a day. Rarely can I do that these days. My site re-design changed everything and brought lots of visibility. I realized that if I opened my space for other contributors, it would change the dynamic. So I have several folks contributing on a regular basis and I serve as editor in chief. When video embedding came along, I was able draw from other sources and use this as sources of content.

Did you always consider yourself skilled at this?
Absolutely not – it was something that I learned along the way.

And how did you learn this skill?
Practice. You learn by doing. Working with good editors in traditional media also helped. My first editor would always get on me about why I needed a lede. Academics don’t think about a lede in the same ways as journalists. I learned very quickly that you need to make your points succinctly in the first paragraph or you are going to lose them. As academics we never hear that. Another editor pushed me to streamline language and be less theoretical.

Editors want pieces to be fairly short. I tell the contributors writing for my blog that if readers have to click down a few times, you will lose them. You have to find a way to say things succinctly. The academic wants to have these multi-faceted arguments. With digital media and the traditional press, it is different type of writing. It is not a lesser type of writing, but rather more focused and targeted.

So what is your strategy?
I want to create content that helps shape the conversation in a broad sense and that people will find interesting. Often that means the counterintuitive. I am very conscience of the visibility that my content is generating. My daily goals are to attract at least 4,000 hits per day. I track it religiously. It gives me sense of what people like. Content needs to be interactive and needs to change regularly. I remember talking to a colleague about departmental web sites. I asked my colleagues how much traffic the site got a month. They would tell me 1,000 hits per month. I would say I get four times more than that in a day!

My blog is my digital home. I use social media to disseminate. I know what stuff will do well on Facebook vs Twitter. You need to find creative ways to re-brand posts. For example, one blog post is four tweets with four different angles.

You also host a podcast. Can you tell us how this came to fruition and your strategy for this medium?
Our podcast is video. It started out as an experiment as I wanted to use the Skype studio at Duke’s News and Communications office to address a technology issue on my computer to do a video interview. Afterwards, my colleagues at Duke and I looked at each other and realized we had the makings for an interesting video podcast.

When we started production in September of 2010, we used the studio for in person interviews and then we started bringing people in via Skype for interviews. We do about 30 shows per year and formed an editorial collaboration with theroot.com. It is primarily focused on book reviews. 85 percent of my guests are new book authors who share their subject matter with my audience. The podcast is another medium connected to my brand.

What has been the benefit for you of doing this?
When I go to conferences now, people recognize me for the Left of Black podcast. It has introduced me to the work of many new authors and been an interesting way to build relationships and my audience.

What would you say to the average professor who is skeptical about communicating his/her research and expertise through digital media?
I always go back to the email. When we first all got email 20 years ago, we reacted the same way. I’m not going to have time to check all of these messages, right? We found a way to integrate it into our daily routines so now no one thinks about email being a new overwhelming technology. Same thing with the mobile phone. We have found a way to seamlessly integrate this into our daily work lives. I feel the same way about social media.

The train has left the station in terms of how people communicate. We need to nurture this way of communicating in young academics. There is a shift, and those in positions within the academy need to understand this and accommodate for it accordingly. We are hired for our research and teaching, but many people in society don’t understand what we do. Social media allows people to understand the social value of our research and teaching.

Learn more about our forthcoming Online Media Training Program for Professors.