One of the biggest sticking points for academics, artists and organisations when it comes to outreach is worry about having to engage in ‘marketing’ or self-promotion. Terms like ‘personal brand’ can give the impression that we have to create something apart from ourselves, a persona that’s disconnected from who we really are. This is particularly alarming if you’re naturally introverted, and the thought of having to blow your own trumpet gives you chills.
In fact, however, the most effective engagement usually comes from simply being yourself. This is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn – I say this from experience – because, especially in this age of social media and carefully curated images, it’s so easy to keep comparing ourselves to others and feeling like there’s a whole lot of things we ‘should’ be doing, even if they don’t really float our boat.
A common refrain I hear from academics is that they feel they need to have a presence on every social media platform, but they just don’t have the time or the inclination to manage it all. My response to that is simple: if you don’t like it, don’t do it. The chances are your audience will be concentrated on one or two main platforms (probably Facebook or Twitter, although Instagram may be more appropriate for artists or those with a strong visual focus), so go where they are and don’t worry about the others. It’s much better to learn how to use one or two platforms really effectively than to spread yourself too thinly across many.
The same thing goes for personal websites. Some academics get great engagement (and presumably enjoyment) out of having their own blog, such as this one by Dr Andrew Carr, and posting book reviews or other articles – but blogs take maintenance, and if that’s not your thing then don’t worry about it. As Prof Hugh White noted in our April Reaching Out interview, he doesn’t use social media at all, but still reaches his target audience through mainstream newspapers.
I understand this pressure all too well, having just gone through the same thing with my own business. Being in communications, I felt like I should be blogging about new technology or developments in search engine optimisation, because that seemed to be what everyone else was doing. Then, at the prompting of a very wise business coach, I stopped and thought about what I was really passionate about – helping humanities, arts and social sciences academics bring their work to a wider audience, because I see immense value in their work and the contribution it makes to society. Once I remembered exactly why I’d started my business in the first place, blogging suddenly became a whole lot easier, because I believe in what I’m writing about. So if your research and passion is Sanskrit translation, or the history of Lithuania, or the prevention of nuclear war, use that as your main point of engagement. If you’re authentic in your outreach, you’ll attract people who share your interests and who want to hear more about your work. You can’t please everyone, but the good news is you don’t have to.