Networking sites help align publishers with customers

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Academic publishers are starting to take advantage of Web 2.0 tools to interact with their customers. David Stuart looks at how two publishers are using social networking

Over the past two decades the world of academic publishing has changed beyond all recognition. We’ve gone from a world dominated by the physical journal on library shelves, to a world where not only are the journal articles available on the web via subscription, but often for free in institutional and subject repositories. The journal article also faces competition for attention from an increasing quantity of grey literature. This is not only technical papers, working papers, preprints and reports, but also less formal forms of user-generated content. Publishers need to find new ways of engaging with their users if they are to continue to be relevant.

The term ‘Web 2.0’ reflects the change in the way the majority of users view the web. We’ve gone from a web where the majority retrieve information, to one where they can create content, profiles, and networks. On social network sites users create all three. Some sites are primarily content-focused, like Flickr and YouTube, while others are more network-focused, such as Facebook or LinkedIn. The relative position of a site on the content-networking axis heavily depends on the choice a user makes: whether to use a site such as Twitter to primarily broadcast information, or to converse with others. The popularity of social networking sites has seen them embraced by many organisations as they search for ways to engage with their stakeholders, including large academic publishers.

The potential of social network sites

Social network sites are now some of the most popular online sites; in March this year internet analysis firm Hitwise reported that Facebook had surpassed Google as the most visited website in the USA. These sites are increasingly part of individuals’ social and working lives (either officially or unofficially) and as they go about their daily lives they discuss and reflect on the things that matter to them. Irrespective of whether an organisation has decided to adopt a social media strategy, they are likely to have a growing social media presence as external individuals discuss their interactions and experiences with the organisations and the organisation’s work. Those organisations that embrace social networking sites have the opportunity to become part of the conversation.

Good organisations have always been looking for ways to have conversations with their users, although this has traditionally been through more formal avenues such as questionnaires and focus groups on specific topics. Social network sites allow for more informal communications, in the places and on the topics in which the user is interested. And this has not escaped the attention of academic publishers. As Clive Parry, marketing director of SAGE Publications put it: ‘The most exciting thing is being able to connect with people on their own terms; we can put content where they want it and where they choose to spend their time.’

Clive Parry, marketing director of SAGE Publications

Social network sites also present the opportunity for added value to the primary content, not only through the addition of feedback and user contributions, but also through the use of the social network sites to make content easily discoverable. ‘By providing Web 2.0 tools, we enable anyone to engage easily with the content we create – RSS feeds, social bookmarks and widgets,’ Parry continued.

The importance of social network sites in the promotion of traffic and the value other people can add to the content is equally recognised by Nature Publishing Group (NPG). Grace Baynes, of the company’s corporate public relations department, noted how sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Stumbleupon, and Digg, are driving traffic to and its articles.

Internal versus external

Unlike many other types of organisation that want to develop a social media strategy, academic publishers are already likely to have a strong web presence that interested parties will visit on a regular basis. This provides academic publishers with the choice of whether to build a presence on an existing external social network site, such as Facebook, or develop their own site with network functionality. Both SAGE and NPG have attempted to do both, albeit slightly differently.

SAGE has taken a piecemeal approach to social media, considering each product on a case-by-case basis: ‘If a community isn’t engaged in social media then we need to look at other channels to reach them,’ said Clive Parry. Taking such an approach, SAGE has established a number of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages for specific communities and journals (such as @SAGElibrarynews, which provides updates for librarians on Twitter). In addition, the publisher has a presence on YouTube, Flickr, and Slideshare to enable people to engage with relevant content. SAGE has also built on its position as a major research methods publisher, creating its own social network for the research methods community on the online platform Ning. Since its launch in March 2009, Methodspace has already gained 5,000 members, and is growing on a daily basis.

NPG has taken a broader approach to social networking. In addition to establishing a presence on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it created its own social network site in 2007, Nature Network. Unlike Methodspace, Nature Network is aimed at all scientists and other users, with forums and groups within Nature Network for particular interests. For example, NPG Libraries is a public forum for the library community. The large-scale approach to social networking is also demonstrated with the creation of Connotea, NPG’s free social bookmarking and social management tool for researchers.

Left: SAGE’s Methodspace. Right: Methodspace’s Facebook page.

The development of new services specifically for researchers is understandable, as it allows for the inclusion of increased functionality specifically relevant to the academic and the research process. Nature Network will soon be making live a new-look site with more functionality; its aim is ‘to make Nature Network a truly useful productivity and collaboration tool, as well as a place to interact with like-minded people,’ according to Grace Baynes. These academic networks also provide the opportunity for the separation of professional and social lives, a problem that is increasingly recognised as the social networking sites bring together previously separate social spheres.

It is the social sphere, however, that plays such a big part in users returning to social network sites. No single academic network seems to have reached such a point of dominance that users have an expectation that their colleagues will be members.

Social networking maturity

It is increasingly clear that social networking is reaching a level of maturity within academic publishers. Both SAGE and NPG have dedicated social media teams, which is understandable considering the size of some of the projects, while editors, marketing managers, and PR staff are creating much of the content. ‘Moving forwards we envisage this being a standard part of every marketing manager’s job description, and something that people from across the business from editorial to customer service will be engaged with,’ observed Clive Parry.

According to a recent survey by SAGE it would seem to have reached a level of maturity among academic publishing customers as well, with social media increasingly seen as important to their work. The difficulty for publishers is to ensure that their vision of social networking aligns with that of their customers.

The world of both publishing and social media is constantly evolving, and publishers, like every other type of organisation, need to regularly reassess their communication channels. New technologies rarely fully replace established methods of communication, and the future is likely to see organisations sharing increasing amounts of information over an ever-growing number of channels. What will become more important are the aggregators that allow seamless interaction and updating on multiple sites at the same time.

The future for social networking within academic publishing is as assured as it is in so many other types of organisation. As Clive Parry said: ‘There is a view in some circles that social media creates less of a need for publishers (since it facilitates greater peer-to-peer sharing). But really social media creates new opportunities, and it is up to publishers to add value, by adding functionality to allow users to engage with our content, and by providing a space where we enable users to connect with other people who share the same research interests.’

Successful publishers of the future will be those who align their vision of social networking with that of their customers; those who ignore social networking will quickly lose ground.

Further information

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