During the summer of 2011, Google.org hosted a workshop to provide hands-on training on technology and science communication with a focus on climate science. The participants, who were primarily climate scientists with an interest in science communication, were offered an opportunity to learn more about how new media tools such as blogs, search technology, and games could be used to help them become more effective communicators. Although there was a wide range of topics covered during the workshop, this essay will focus on optimizing the YouTube platform and the related use of other social media tools to communicate climate science. A case study using the Green Ninja Project—a Web-based educational project that utilizes social media to improve climate change literacy (see inset)—will be described to illustrate how some best practices for using YouTube were applied to an existing educational program.
With more than 3 billion videos viewed each day, YouTube offers the opportunity to share science with a lot of viewers without the cost and challenges of other commercial media. However, with more than 1 million new films uploaded daily, competition for viewers' attention is fierce. A variety of strategies were shared during the workshop to help participants understand this medium and the best practices for building a strong subscriber base. Although no single recipe for success exists, a majority of the current top 100 YouTube channels use elements of these best practices. It is also clear that having consistent viewers and building a strong and loyal subscriber base is the goal for any outreach program; aiming solely for a video to go viral should not be the goal. While YouTube is known for those viral videos, they are actually quite unusual—almost like winning the lottery.
So how do you build a solid and loyal subscriber base? Here are some important steps:
Honor your image. Start by creating a solid look, feel, and image. Consistent branding is important. Does the site have a recognizable look and feel? Most people remember the theme song to their favorite TV show.
Every second counts. Unlike TV viewers, who are leaning back, Internet users are leaning forward, ready to engage and do something. So, paying attention to each video, and making sure it's lively and engaging, is important. YouTube analytics provide each channel with useful data about their viewers, including a tool (called “audience retention”) for determining if there are sections in a video where people stop watching. If such a situation is found, then the video can either be edited or amended using the annotations feature to help better engage the audience.
Be regular. Regular content—weekly or at least a couple of times per month—is important. As with commercial television, people tune in regularly for their favorite shows, and often they have their favorite YouTubers.
Engage your audience. The Internet is about interactions, so create ways to make the experience two-way. Develop a call to action—ask your audience to leave a comment, subscribe to the channel, tweet about the show, share with their friends, or upload their own photos or videos. This builds loyalty and can attract additional viewers.
Socialize. Use other social media tools to bring people into your world. Partner with other groups with similar values; collaborate so you can copromote. Use your blog or Facebook presence to draw traffic or solicit feedback. Then, analyze your results to learn about your viewers.
Make money. Finally, if you do the right things, it's also possible to make money by selling ads that play during your video. YouTube claims there are hundreds of YouTube artists making six figures a year, so it's possible that a successful science or educational program could make enough money to support part of the production efforts.
The Green Ninja Project (www.greenninja.org) is a useful case study to exemplify some of these steps. An understanding of successful YouTube approaches led to various changes in the outreach strategy for the Green Ninja Project, and it also led to some rethinking of earlier assumptions. These changes included a stronger emphasis on a consistent brand and feel, the use of annotations to generate calls to action within the videos, and more emphasis on both a blog and Facebook presence to help drive traffic to the videos and generate more audience interactions. At present, these strategies appear to be working, as total viewership this year is already 30 times larger than in 2011. However, it was also realized that one of the challenges to further expanding viewership is producing regular content. Although plans for a weekly show are in the works (stay tuned for The Green Ninja Show starting in January 2013), an understanding of YouTube best practices will help shape priorities and expectations for the weekly show that are realistic.
The value of social media as a communication tool is well established, and yet remains a challenge for many. With so many tools for engagement (e.g., social, blogs, chats, tweets, and videos) and so many platforms (e.g., Facebook, Tumblr, Google+ Hangouts, Twitter, and Vimeo), getting started can seem quite daunting. A piece of advice shared often during the Google workshop was to choose one tool and then experiment with it. It's not necessary to tweet, blog, and use Facebook all at once. Try one out, play with it for a while, and see if it's something you enjoy. The goal for many scientists and educators is to communicate with others, so use a tool you feel comfortable with and have fun with it. Good luck and see you online!