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Sustained, all-in effort required to produce a return

TTOs leverage social media to create their own buzz

This article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. Click here for a free sample issue or click here to subscribe.

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Brian Shedd, the director of licensing in the Office of Technology Transfer at the University of Houston (UH), is intrigued by the potential of social media to quickly spread the word about UH technologies, but in seeking guidance from social media veterans, he has come to the realization that some of his early assumptions on how to best jump into the social media space were a bit off.

“My thinking was that we would kind of tip our toes in the water … and that is not going to work. We’re not going to get any interaction or traction that way,” observes Shedd. “You’ve got to … put a full effort into it, and then kind of evaluate whether it is something that is working for you.”

Marketing professionals with social media chops in the technology transfer realm concur with these sentiments, but many also contend that the sustained effort required to leverage social media effectively is nonetheless worthwhile. “I think it is just like marketing 2.0 where you are generating more buzz and leads,” explains Ying-Li Chen, the senior manager for business development and strategic marketing in the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) at Stanford University.

In the past you could put something on your website or send out an e-mail, but that didn’t create much excitement, explains Chen. However, when used effectively, social media gives TTOs the power to create their own buzz and draw people to their websites, centers, or faculty inventors. And it’s a tool that virtually every other industry is using, so why not technology transfer? “It’s great for a big or a small [tech transfer] office,” says Chen. “For a small office, social media is even better because it is free, but you do need a dedicated person whose job is to do this.”

Tweet and re-tweet

Of course the sustained manpower required to drive a social media effort is the rub for many, especially smaller TTOs. Still, with a little forethought, a successful foray into social media doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as one might think at first glance.

For instance, when Apex, NC-based Fuentek first started ramping up its social media presence, staff members were churning out blogs several times a week — and it was too much, observes Laura Schoppe, the president of the technology transfer consulting firm. “I think it was information overload for us and for everybody else,” she says. “We have pulled significantly back from that. Now we are [blogging] more like once every couple of weeks, and that is fine. We don’t have to do it so often.”

Similarly, for Twitter campaigns Schoppe advises tech transfer colleagues that they don’t have to post ten times a day. “Once a day is fine if that is the pace you want to adopt,” she says. “You can even do a tweet every couple of days just so you are showing up on the stream on a regular basis, but if you only do it once a month, you are not going to be top of mind [for followers].”

Schoppe also recommends that Twitter users take advantage of opportunities to strategically re-tweet messages. “Doing re-tweets actually doesn’t take that much effort, and you can do that a couple times a day, but you want to intersperse [the re-tweets] with original content — or add value to them,” she says.

For instance, if a tweet refers to an upcoming presentation on a subject or technology that one of your inventors has been involved with, you can reference that aspect and perhaps recommend that people seek out the inventor to ask how a particular aspect of his or her technology works. In other words, look for opportunities to add meaningful information rather than just re-tweeting the original message, suggests Schoppe. “Make people think about it,” she says.

Start with a good story

Some of the most effective social media efforts begin with a good story, either about how a technology was developed or perhaps the potential societal impact that the discovery might have. Danny Jacobs, a senior communications specialist at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV), writes a lot of these stories for the JHTV website, and he also conveniently oversees the social media team.

“I primarily use Twitter and Facebook to share about our technologies, and my primary strategy is to use the content on our website to get people interested in our technologies,” he explains.

Typically, Jacobs will include in his social media postings a link to the full story about the technology on the JHTV site. From there, readers can link to more information about the specific technology.

The social media team that Jacobs oversees is actually part of the Johns Hopkins Medicine communications office, and having a foot in both camps gives Jacobs added power in driving a social media message. “Hopkins Medicine has many more people overseeing multiple [social media] accounts, so I can rely on them to help the spread the word, but also get some tips and best practices and use them as a resource,” explains Jacobs.

In fact, Jacobs spends two days a week in the Hopkins Medicine office, so he is fully enmeshed with the tools and expertise available to further amplify any medicine-related innovations he is pushing through social media. He can simply ask the communications team to share his social media postings with their followers in the relevant medical discipline.

In a similar fashion, when Jacobs is promoting a non-medical technology, he will reach out to the relevant school within the university to share his posting through its own social media activities, further amplifying the message to a larger group of relevant followers.

Ride the wave

Partnering with other divisions of the university is, in fact, a good way to get started in social media because it can provide you with a ready supply of early followers who can absorb and hopefully share your messages, advises Chen. “Team up with your university’s communications office and use whatever content and resources that they have to help you, and that is how you can start getting followers,” she says. “[Communications staffers] would probably love to help you because that is their job — to establish a great communications channel.”

Most university communications offices have Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts for starters, observes Chen. “It isn’t something they have to create for you; it is something they already have,” she says. “And they can help you come up with content.”

When launching a social media campaign, Chen advises TTOs to find a story or announcement that will grab everyone’s attention. That will increase the possibility that readers will actually start following your own social media accounts. Then build on that success by staying abreast of what like-minded companies or colleagues are posting about on their social media accounts. Know what the hot topics are so that you can seize on opportunities to post about your own related research or TTO activities, explains Chen. “You want to ride the wave,” she says.

For instance, if a specific technology area or disease is garnering a lot of attention in social media, look at your own portfolio to see if you have any IP or faculty members doing research in that field that you can post about, notes Chen. In particular, look for innovations or research likely to have a positive societal impact. “You want to have a story that has a personal touch that will influence your audience,” she says. “That is when people think they should ‘like’ this post or share this post. Then you start trending.”

Once you have ridden the latest wave, however, you need to quickly move on to another topic because followers will lose interest in your social media postings without fresh material, particularly if you are trying to showcase a diverse portfolio, observes Chen.

Highlight faculty

While Jacobs uses social media as a tool to highlight JHTV technologies, he also uses it to demonstrate what the TTO has to offer to faculty inventors. “It shows that we’re getting [the message] out there about what [they] are doing,” he says. “I think it helps to encourage them to want to come to us and use our resources and expertise.”

Chen agrees, noting that social media can be particularly helpful in spotlighting newer faculty members or rising stars. One way to do this is to conduct an interview with the faculty member, and then generate a story about his or her technology. Alternatively, you can record the conversation on video and post it to YouTube, she says.

Another reason why showcasing faculty through social media is good strategy? Because potential licensees of a technology often reach out to the investigators first, advises Chen. “You have to help them … get more exposure for their research, especially those faculty members that are just getting started,” she says.

Schedule your postings

If you are going to write blogs, they need to add something to the community of followers you hope to reach, advises Schoppe. But then you can base a whole series of social media activities off of the blogs. “That is where a lot of your original content can come from, and you can leverage it,” she says. “You almost always want to be linking to something, so you might [post] a little blurb, and then you link back to your blog or some place on your website.”

In this fashion, you can post bits and pieces from the original content, potentially driving several days of social media postings. “When you write the blog, write all the related tweets or Facebook postings at the same time,” advises Schoppe. “It is easier to do when you are thinking about it rather than having to [create the posts] five days later.”

Then you can use a social media management tool to schedule when you want those items to post. Schoppe notes that she uses Hootsuite to manage social media postings in her office, but there are multiple tools available that can perform this function.

Once the postings begin. monitor the responses to take advantage of any re-tweet opportunities, adding relevant content of your own when appropriate, she advises. “This needs to be done more in real-time,” notes Schoppe. “So give yourself 20 minutes every couple of days to take a look at [social media], see if any good content jumps out at you, take one or two things and then schedule your re-tweets and go back to work.”

If you are going to blog as part of your marketing strategy, it needs to be done on a consistent basis to be effective, stresses Schoppe. “I have seen people out there who wrote three blogs back in 2017, and then nothing after that,” she says. “You are better off taking those blogs down and not looking like you ever had a blog.”

Crunch the numbers

How can you gauge the effectiveness of a social media strategy? Jacobs notes there are analytics that go along with all of JHTV’s social media accounts. Further, the office just brought on a new person to regularly crunch the numbers and assess what level of engagement the social media activities are generating. “Even then, though, I don’t know whether you can tell if someone is directly going to see a story on social media and then clicking on a technology,” he says. “The way we are looking at it … the exposure is the value.”

The analytics available primarily tell you how many clicks you have gotten for specific postings so that you can see which ones got the most traffic, similar to the kind of data you look at with Google analytics when you are assessing which pages on your website garnered the most engagement, Schoppe says. “There is an expectation that you are going to see some traffic [with social media],” she says. “I am not sure it is going to be effective in direct marketing. I think it is more indirect: ‘We are out here and we do this kind of work.’”

Further, Schoppe says TTOs that use social media anticipate that it will have some impact on their overall reputation and credibility, and perhaps have an indirect impact on sponsored research. For example, when an outside company sees a social media posting about a technology in a field of high interest, the company may then reach out to the inventor to talk about sponsored research possibilities. The discussion may have little to do with the specific technology promoted on social media, but the posting has nonetheless proven valuable in attracting sponsored research to the institution, explains Schoppe.

One of the reasons why Chen really likes to use LinkedIn in her marketing efforts is because of the wealth of information the platform can provide about people who have engaged with her postings. “If you post an article you can actually see your audience’s demographic,” she says. “It tells you how many people from a specific company viewed your post and also by job level.”

If several managers from a company view an article about a specific technology, then it may make sense to reach out to that company to gauge its interest in licensing or sponsored research, says Chen. “I would say you [can develop] a good pool of people who are actually going to read your postings and share the postings with their own contacts who tend to be your target audience as well,” she says.

Still, Chen sees value in other social media platforms as well. “All of these things can be very useful. You just have to be creative,” observes Chen. “Sometimes [the best social media strategy] will be a tweet or video, or sometimes pictures can tell the story.”

Be socially strategic

Shedd is still evaluating how to most effectively engage in the social media landscape, but he gets that there is value there and he fully expects to eventually dive in, most likely with the assistance of other groups at UH that already have established social media accounts. “We are not going to do LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter all at once because I think we need to figure out where we think we are going to get the most traction and be a bit more strategic with it,” he says.

When the timing is right, UH will probably invest its resources toward making a big splash on a single social media platform to start, notes Shedd. “We will [likely] coordinate a marketing effort around the launch itself just to get people on the platform to interact with us,” he says. “We’ve got a few different marketing efforts we are experimenting with, and we’ve got the capability to have those overlap so that when we are sending out our targeted marketing campaigns, we can fold in content we are promoting through social media … as another way to engage.”

Contact Chen at ying-li.chen@stanford.edu; Jacobs at djacob41@jhmi.edu; Schoppe at laschoppe@fuentek.com; and Shedd at bshedd@UH.edu.


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