Why Social Media Isn’t an Effective Way to Promote Scientific Articles

Social media is a powerful way to promote mass-market content and increase exposure. Facebook in particular has a content-friendly algorithm that rewards users for writing articles, with a preference for long-form ones.

For all these reasons, you might assume that Facebook will help drive views to your scientific articles. This would be excellent, given that views correlate to citations, but unfortunately that's not what we see.

For starters, Facebook encourages users to stay on-site instead of sending them to external publications. This means they’re actively discouraging their 1.86 billion active monthly users from getting to your content.

Meanwhile, we found the other major social network - Twitter - to be one of the least effective ways to engage users in a 2-month study we ran last year.

But here’s the most important argument: both of these findings were reiterated in a randomized, controlled study, run by Caroline S. Fox and her colleagues on articles published in Circulation in 20161. They found that social media had no effect on a medical journal’s pageviews. The researchers even tried using paid ads - but saw no added benefit to using either Facebook or Twitter.

This post will give you a breakdown of the experiment conducted by Fox et. al1 as well as its implications for content creators and consumers.

The Experiment

152 original articles published in Circulation, a weekly publication about cardiovascular medicine, tested the effectiveness of social media promotion using 152 of their original articles published between January 13 and September 22nd 2015. These articles were randomly assigned to a control (n=78) or social media group (n=74). The social media group articles were promoted via Facebook and Twitter, while the control group got no additional promotion.

Design schematic from Fox et al 2016 1

The social media group promotion strategies included:

  • Posts with images and statistics linking readers to newly published articles on both Facebook and Twitter
  • 3 posts were published per article - once when it was published, and two more at 11 am and 3 pm the next day
  • Facebook posts were promoted using $10 worth of paid ads to their target audience
    Outside the scope of the experiment, Circulation’s Twitter and Facebook accounts maintained engagement by posting and reposting content (2-7 posts per day).

    Both organic and paid traffic was used as part of the promotion and their marketing efforts were highly effective, just not in the way the researchers had hoped. Both their Facebook likes and Twitter followers increased significantly during the study. But that this did not correlate to an increase in page views for the promoted articles.

    The Results

    As a whole, the combined efforts of the researchers - the paid ads, the social media activity, even the growing number of followers - didn’t do anything for Circulation’s page views.
    The mean number of 30-day views the 2 groups received per article was extremely close: 616 for the Social Media arm, and 597.2 for the No Social Media arm.
    The Median figure was a little further apart - 499.5 in the social media arm and 450.5 in the control arm - but neither difference was statistically significant.

    Section of Figure 2 from Fox et al 20161 depicting cumulative percent of 30 day page views by treatment arm.

    Potential Implications and Questions
    Throughout the study, there was no difference in 30-day page views, despite the repeated use of best-practice promotional strategies on the web’s biggest social networks: Twitter and Facebook. Social media marketing was very effective in driving a 50% increase in followers on both Facebook and Twitter, but those extra followers didn't result in more article views.

    While this is not ideal for those banking on social networks to drum up readers for your academic content, there are many effective ways to market scientific articles - and one of them involves social media, albeit in a different way.

    Here’s what this experiment means for you as a content publisher or consumer:

    Takeaway 1 - Social Media Doesn’t Drive Organic Traffic

    If you’re a marketer, you probably know that Facebook has been reducing its organic reach in recent years. You might also know that Twitter’s algorithm is moving in a similar direction, with Ogilvy and Mather’s social arm saying that “organic reach will approach zero” soon.

    Even if Facebook and Twitter have made it abundantly clear that they’re diminishing the power of organic traffic, it’s still shocking that going from 46,000 to 87,000 likes on Facebook, and 6,700 to 10,000 followers on Twitter, didn’t do anything for Circulation’s views in the experiment.
    That’s why the first takeaway from the experiment is that social media doesn’t drive organic traffic, at least for academic content.

    Takeaway 2 - Social Platforms Want You to Stay Around

    Twitter and Facebook are the world’s biggest social media sites. In the last two years, both have made significant steps to fill their platforms up with new (and varied) content.

    First, Twitter acquired Periscope for $120 million so users could view live video within their content ecosystem. Then, Facebook responded by giving us Live (for streaming) and Notes (for articles).

    The message is clear: both social media platforms want you to consume more content through them. They don’t want you taking visitors to your own site.

    Unfortunately, what this appears to mean for publishers is that users resist visiting their journals to read articles. The experiment showed that even paid ads are no longer effective at drawing users out of a social platform.

    Takeaway 3 - It’s Time For Other Solutions

    Earlier, we mentioned that Twitter provides less user engagement than other platforms. This is consistent with the results of this experiment, in which social media provided no significant boost to page views.

    It’s also consistent with what we know about Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms actively keeping users focused on their content instead of your content.

    This might worry you if you’re a publisher, researcher, doctor or pharmaceutical company. Social media’s keeping your content from the people who want and need it - which means it’s time to consider other ways of getting exposure.

    One solution is to build your own contact list. When you have people’s e-mails and LinkedIn profile adds, you can reach them anytime. You no longer depend on Twitter or Facebook to get in touch with your target audience.

    Another strategy is to use specialist services to get your content in front of the right readers. In the 2-month study we ran, PubMed and TrendMD - two services that put relevant content in front of interested readers - drove more engagement than Twitter, Google and Google Scholar.

    Key take-away:

    Optimize your Facebook and Twitter to increase your brand awareness, but consider other options if you're looking to increase your readership.

    This post summarized the research conducted by Caroline S. Fox and her colleagues in the Journal of the American Heart Association1.

    If you're interested in learning how to grow your readership with TrendMD, contact us!

    1. Fox, C.S., Gurary, E.B., Ryan, J., Bonaca, M., Barry, K., Loscalzo, J., Massaro, J. (2016) Randomized Controlled Trial of Social Media: Effect of Increased Intensity of the Intervention. J Am Heart Assoc 5:e003088 doi: 10.1161/JAHA.115.003088