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Transformations School of Advanced Study University of London

Project Name: Social Media Assessment for Research Transfer, Impact and Engagement Strategies in SAS

Lead Institution: School of Advanced Study, University of London

Project Lead: Dee Burn

See the full Transformations programme playlist



The School of Advanced Study (SAS) is the UK’s national centre for the support and promotion of research in the humanities. The 10 institutes of the School are dedicated to serving the research communities of their disciplines, nationally and internationally. The School performs a vital role as a driving force for knowledge sharing across the humanities in the UK and beyond.


The SMART project was an initiative of the School's central communications team in response to the opportunities and challenges presented by social media and multimedia platforms in the context of the UK and global humanities research community. These new communication tools are enabling growing numbers of researchers to network, connect, share, and disseminate research and research-related activities and resources more conveniently, more affordably and with greater reach than ever before. These tools offer SAS new opportunities to reach and engage with staff and with external stakeholders in the fulfilment of its national mission.



An initial survey of existing social media engagement across the School had revealed an uneven level of engagement. The central School managed its own social media channels; as did the School’s repository SAS-Space, and the newly developed SAS Open Journals platform (developed with JISC funding). The School also provided a podcast and video streaming service using YouTube to embed films within its website, and via the University's iTunes U platform, also managed by the SAS communications team. Several institutes had engaged to some degree with a number of social media platforms, as well as event podcasting. Further to these institutional endeavours, a small but dedicated group of individual academic and professional staff were using myriad social media channels.


A number of needs to develop a School-wide approach were raised that highlighted the need for an organisation-wide assessment and focused strategy in this area, including: the hosting and/or aggregating of existing blogs into a single locally-hosted server; development of, and staff training in, the use of social media and multimedia sharing platforms, and their integration with existing School platforms.


Aims and objectives

The first stage of the project aimed to assess current engagement levels through a benchmarking study. Following this, the project aimed to provide a deeper understanding using JISC’s Online Promotion of Research Expertise Self Assessment Tool to assess the School's strategy, stakeholder needs, the organisation and resourcing of its online presence and its promotion, what tools were being used, the processes for tracking and evaluating online engagement, current costs, and a gap analysis. 


Expected outcomes were:


  • Development of social media tools and policy/practice in line with the recommendations from the first stage assessment;
  • Provision of training to staff, fellows, students and external researchers in the form of research training in the use of social media platforms in research.


Finally, it was anticipated that the results of the above stages would provide the basis for policies and programmes of work in the following three areas:

(i) adjustments, expansions and revisions of current practice in central School social media use;

(ii) consultations held with individual institute communications staff in order to improve upward integration into central School channels, and to investigate the expansion of and better practice in institute activities;

(iii) improvement of social media awareness and proficiency of individual academic staff in order to enable more effective individual and project-based use of appropriate channels.


The business case

The project formed part of the School’s broader digital communications strategy to increase the use of social media platforms, enhance and improve communications and information-sharing between researchers, students, and staff of the School as well as with external stakeholders, in particular researchers, postgraduate students and research-related organisations nationally and internationally.


The project directly supported the School’s Strategic Priority One, that is to fulfil its unique national and international research promotion and facilitation role for the humanities, related disciplines and wider society. The objectives to support this national role are: to add value to the work of researchers in the humanities throughout the UK; to provide a research base for an international community of scholars; to inspire and support research initiatives and research networks; to disseminate research and related activities beyond what researchers or their institutions could achieve alone; to provide research training at MA, PhD and postdoctoral level.


This project also fitted in with the needs of School staff and external stakeholders. In July-August 2010, the School held a survey of its internal and external stakeholders, which received 1,816 responses. The key findings from the survey in respect to communications were as follows:

  • School staff were split in terms of their overall satisfaction with internal communications within the School and its Institutes, with findings indicating some areas of dissatisfaction. In particular, 35.8% disagreed/strongly disagreed that they felt informed about matters affecting them, and 34.8% that the amount of information and communications received was appropriate to their needs. 
  • Nine out of ten external stakeholder respondents who had heard of the School or at least one of its Institutes associated it with conferences, seminars or events (90.3%). Following these were library services (59.3%), research training (54.6%), postgraduate research programmes (51.4%), fellowships (50.5%) and publications (49.9%). The lowest awareness was around the School’s online/digital resources (34.8%). Much smaller proportions associated the School and its Institutes with collaborative links and networks or online/digital resources.
  • The foremost barrier to using facilitates, services and resources perceived was lack of information on the full range of services offered (62.9% felt this was a barrier).
  • The sources which external stakeholders most commonly used to access information about research opportunities, research training or other research facilitation services and activities included networking with colleagues and respondents’ own organisations.
  • In terms of communicating information about the School, electronic methods (web and email) were generally seen as more useful than print communications.
  • Respondents were generally open to receiving more information from the School, particularly on conferences, seminars and events; forthcoming publications; and research projects. 


In conclusion, the survey findings revealed the need, both internally and externally, for SAS to enhance its digital communications in order to more fully engage with its stakeholders, to support the wider circulation of information about its research support and promotion activities, and to raise awareness of the benefits of appropriate use of social media tools among researchers generally.


The unique nature of SAS, being dedicated to supporting and promoting research in the humanities, provided an ideal opportunity to address the issues of developing the use of social media in a research environment. It was expected that the findings from this project would feed into other exploratory activities and that the lessons learned would be applicable to other environments where teaching, business and community engagement, and other priorities can take precedence to address the particular issues of communications in research communities.


Key drivers

The key drivers for this project were:

  • The changing research landscape. Social media and multimedia platforms were enabling growing numbers of researchers to network, connect, share, and disseminate research and research-related activities and resources more conveniently, more affordably and with greater reach than ever before.
  • The opportunities that these new communication tools offered the School to enable it to reach and engage with its staff and external stakeholders in the fulfilment of its national mission. 
  • An initial survey of existing social media engagement across the School revealed an uneven level of engagement. 
  • A number of needs to develop a School-wide approach had been raised that highlighted the need for an organisation-wide assessment and focused strategy in this area.
  • Within this broader strategy, there was a clearly identified need for the development of a single locally hosted blog server, which should also host and/or aggregate existing blogs.
  • There was also the need for the development of and staff training in the use of social media and multimedia sharing platforms.
  • Consideration also needed to be given to the integration of these platforms with existing School platforms.


JISC resources/technology used

The following JISC resources were used:

  • Online Promotion of Research Expertise Self Assessment Tool

Myself and a colleague used this tool to assess the School's priority areas for the promotion of research expertise. Overall the tool was considered a useful exercise. Our results, despite us being in separate parts of SAS and having quite distinct roles, overlapped considerably. However, there were difficulties using the tool in the context of a federal institution such as SAS, for example dividing between central and locally-managed websites. The School's national mission also required us to replace categories with more meaningful ones outside the context of a standard teaching and research UK university. The findings were helpful in pointing us in the right direction by identifying areas to be looked at and prioritised, if not within the time frame than as a direct result of the project. For example, the development of the SAS communications strategy to include social media and online channels, the expansion of the website development plan to include other online channels, the need to continue to improve metrics, tracking and evaluation of online channels, the need to develop skills and experience in social networking, and to review the risk assessment and management plan for social networking.


  • Social Software Guide

This guide was used by a colleague in the benchmarking stage at the start of the project, largely to determine definitions and to ensure that there weren't gaps in the media we were exploring within the context of a research and knowledge-sharing institution such as SAS. The guide was useful to a degree in doing so. However, due to the age of the document (2006), the feedback from other HEIs (one of the main reasons for using the document) was less useful given the dramatic shifts in technology and the knock-on impact on communications culture in HE more broadly.


  • Online Collaborative Tools for Business and Community Engagement

Initially, I was very interested in using this tool, in particular from the community engagement perspective. I found the broader concepts, such as the guidance for choosing tools and the considerations stages of the process helpful as a general guide to my role as Head of Communications and External Relations. The comments from the project participants were also useful for gaining insight into different experiences and uses of the tools. However, I found the tools themselves, with the exception of WordPress, largely uninspiring and most irrelevant to our needs for the open and democratic sharing of information and knowledge. The experience cited of WordPress has been useful in galvanising our decision to proceed with the development of a centrally-hosted SAS Blogs WordPress server.  


  • Change Management InfoKit

While this resource is not directly relevant to this project, I have found this to be an extremely useful resource for my role more broadly and will definitely be very helpful in guiding the next stage of our work following the completion of this project as we take our findings forward and support SAS in its transformation as a social media-ised institution.


More broadly, throughout the course of this project, I discovered a range of JISC resources that while not relevant to this project are useful to my role, including the Relationship Management Infokit, Planning a Participatory Workshop Infokit, and the Creative Thinking Toolkit.



  • By far the biggest outcome of the project was the recognition that embracing social media wholly and effectively has meant a major transformation not only in the way that we communicate but also in the way that we work:
    • Social media represents a cultural shift away from the traditional broadcast function of communications into one that is truly engaging and exchanging. This culture change is demanding that organisations such as universities provide for the transparent and democratic share and flow of information. No longer are we quietly undertaking our work or our research and then publicly announcing the outcome; now we are encouraged to share how we are working and researching, publicly announcing our challenges, our errors, our questions, our musings. Our successes, failures and learnings - indeed ourselves as humans - are all on display for others to comment on, empathise with, and to share their own. Ultimately we are learning as we work, sharing and inviting participation from the wider community to in turn inform our decisions and actions by providing different perspectives, experiences and skill sets.
    •  Social media requires time and exploration in the development of a digital presence and accompanying content strategy. We still have traditional research communications media that we need to continue using to engage with our varied stakeholders in the most relevant and effective ways. So while we are practising and trialling the myriad social media available to us - and new ones pop up daily - we are still supporting more traditional methods. It feels akin to having one foot squarely and firmly in each camp and not unlike having to manage twice the workload. As a result the uptake of new media across an organisation can be uneven, located around pockets of activity where there is familiarity and enthusiasm. It is the role of a central communications team to support the development of skills and awareness of these new communication methods, to share good practice, and to shine a light on case studies that utilise these media in different ways across an organisation thereby encouraging the development of a more effective and consistent digital presence. 
    •  Thirdly, and this is the really exciting bit, social media is about people, it is not about communicators providing an accessible version about somebody else's work. It is about the researcher finding a social media voice that represents them as a person and that enables them to talk about their research in their own way and to their own stakeholders. It is about empowering researchers to engage directly with their mentors, their peers, their influencers, the general public, and the organisations and individuals that will benefit directly from their research and related activities. In so doing, researchers can build communities and networks around shared topics of interest, sharing and informing research and creating collaborations that would have otherwise been nigh on impossible. Social media, therefore, provides a new opportunity for researchers and communicators to work more closely together, to build and strengthen relationships around communicating projects that enables each to provide their own particular expertise and together to create more engaging content and create and disseminate knowledge more effectively. 
  • Another major outcome of the project has been its influence on the development of a broader communications strategy. The process of developing our social media skills and experience has been an iterative one. We have tested different initiatives within the central communications team on different media, analysed the results, made changes, looked at the results again, made a new set of changes, and so on. We have also trialled different approaches using different media in close collaboration with staff across SAS in support of individual projects. The findings from this process, which we will continue, have fed directly into our communications strategy as we hone the role of the central communications team and the needs of staff across SAS accordingly. During August 2013 we will be reviewing and updating our plans and goals for the next 12 months in light of the project's outcomes and achievements as we place increased importance on social media and digital communications within the context of our broader communications strategy.



So far the achievements of this project have been:

  • A benchmarking study, which enabled us to assess the degree of engagement at the start of the project in July 2012. More than 100 social media accounts (mainly departmental but also some individuals) were identified through an organic search of institutional websites. These were mainly Blogs (22), Linked In (22), Academia.edu (20), Twitter (13), Facebook (12), Fora (4), and dedicated podcasting channels (2). The spread was representative of all departments, but the level of presence markedly uneven. There were undoubtedly more, but the purpose of the search was to identify how many are readily available through searching the websites of SAS, its institutes and their centres, which also enabled us to assess how integrated the platforms are, and how easily accessible, from the School's static sites.


  • Key priorities for SAS were identified early on using the JISC promotion of research expertise assessment tool, which will be taken forward and shape the focus of the work continued following the project. These include:
    • Development of the SAS communications strategy to include social media and the use of online channels to communicate research and research promotion and facilitation expertise.
    • Expansion of the website development plan to include other online channels, the identification of expertise information as a type of information, and the promotion of online tools and how usage will be developed.
    • Development of features, including information on digital channels to help users understand how to work with SAS, and the use of blogs.
    • Continued improvement of metrics, tracking and evaluation, including tracking users’ paths through the website, and identifying returning visitors.
    • Inclusion of consideration of expertise information and the development of opportunities to exploit that expertise within the context of social networking.
    • Development of experience and skills in social networking for the purposes of strategic planning and implementation.
    • A review of the risk assessment and management plan for social networking.


  • Insight into the perspective of staff working in SAS in a variety of roles was gained through a survey of staff and two follow-up workshops attended by representatives of all SAS departments. We received a much higher than anticipated response to the survey held in February 2013 - 30% of staff responded - reflecting a growing interest among colleagues in the new media since our initial assessment the previous year. The survey indicated that, among respondents at least, SAS staff are using and benefiting from social networks in different contexts. There is a high level of interest in developing an effective and focussed social media presence.The survey also highlighted the key concerns for staff: time was considered a major deterrent to developing a digital identity by the majority of respondents. Other concerns included establishing the relevance of social media activity to research (rather than a vanity exercise) and the pathways to building a relevant audience. These findings were corroborated by the discussions of the workshops, which delved deeper into exploring what platforms to focus on during the project and the role of the central communications team in supporting staff to develop their digital identity.


  • The JISC funding enabled us to appoint a social media advisor to provide a much-needed external viewpoint, to support the development and strategy of the central communications team, and to lead the workshops and one-to-one meetings with staff. The advisor worked closely with the central communications team through a set of agreed deadlines in order to ensure that focus and momentum was sustained throughout the project. The collaboration was successful and the team will retain the advisor to continue this development into 2013-14.


  • The project enabled us to develop a SAS Blogs service using WordPress. The Blogs service was developed in the first half of the project and went live in December 2012. It currently hosts 10 institute blogs with a number in development. Discussions are ongoing with the Institute of Historical Research to move their remaining blogs across to the SAS server as part of a wider strategy in the institute and SAS on how to effectively integrate blogs within other digital platforms, including websites. Final development work is being carried out to SAS Blogs to ensure consistency of design across the blogs, while ensuring each institute is able to maintain their own brand identity.


  • The team set up its own SAS blog, located on the SAS Blogs server homepage, for recording and sharing work processes, as well as to highlight the content on other blogs across SAS and provide a space where institutes can contribute blog content when they are unable to commit the resource to manage a separate institute blog. One of the ways that we are changing our work processes is bu using this blog to share content publicly that we would previously have used for internal purposes only, such as the monthly statistics and analysis of SAS digital platforms. By providing its findings in a public space and encouraging others to comment, the team aims to develop relationships with other communications teams and to build a community of like-minded individuals and the sharing of good practice. In the longer-term we hope that each institute will develop its own blog, where individual projects and staff members can create blog content, rather than creating separate blogs for individual projects as has been the case to date. 


  • We have developed closer working relationships with individuals in a number of institutes through a series of one-to-one meetings where we discussed a social media strategy to support specific projects or objectives. This has led to collaboration on a number of activities, including the IHR project to bring its numerous blogs together on a single platform that will encourage cross-promotion and raise awareness of the broad range of blogs that it manages. 


  • Social Media seminar series, tentatively titled 'The Social Scholar', is currently being designed for the 2013-14 year and organised under the auspices of the SAS Research Training programme. Beginning in October, the series will offer monthly lunchtime seminars - open to all and free to attend - at SAS in Bloomsbury. The 1-hour seminars will be given by invited guest speakers from academia and beyond, including from the media, local government, and the heritage sector. Following their presentation, there will be a Q&A and discussion. The seminars will be offered in webinar format as well, enabling and encouraging attendance from across the UK and beyond, in keeping with the School's national mission. The events will also be tweeted from the @SASNews account (using #socialscholar) and questions from Twitter will be fed into the discussions. The resulting will be Storified and available as a summary of the discussion and experience shared from the SAS blog.


  • The project findings have fed into the production of a University social media policy and guidelines document.


  • The project has enabled us to focus on improving our metrics and reporting and evaluation processes. Social media statistics - from the SAS Twitter, Blogs and Facebook accounts - have now been added to the metrics that we collect and analyse on a monthly basis in the team's monthly digital statistics meeting. We have trialled several social media monitoring platforms over the past six months and we have decided to proceed with Sprout Social. More work needs to be done to determine how we evaluate these statistics and how these in turn support and inform our strategy. 


  • Most critically, the project has changed that the way that the central communications team works as it embraces the opportunities that social media offers. The initial findings from the project have started to feed into our broader communications strategy development. The project has also provided insight into the results of different approaches to collaborative projects. By bringing us closer to our colleagues across SAS, enabling us to find out more about their projects, work more closely with them, and support their work directly, we are in turn informed as to how manage the support that the central communications team provides.



The SMART project has begun to see the following benefits:

  • Increased awareness of benefits of social media among the central communications team, and staff across SAS
  • Social media is being brought in from the margins as staff are becoming more aware of the benefits of using it for their daily work and to raise awareness of specific projects
  • We are sharing much more information across the departments (institutes) of SAS
  • Informing strategy
  • Community-building 
  • We are starting to see increased use of social media as part of an integrated approach to communications in a number of institutes, although this needs further development


We are currently planning The Social Scholar social media seminar series, which will be launched in October 2013, aimed at sharing ideas and experience of social media in academia as well as across sectors, including media, library and heritage. We have gained an additional staff member as social media expertise is being consolidated in the central team. The new team member, who has moved across from an institute, will support podcasting, blogging and research training activities with effect from 1 August. They will coordinate The Social Scholar seminar series and assist in the development and implementation of a strategy for SAS Blogs, as part of a broader communications strategy. 



The project has experienced a number of drawbacks:

  • The project was delayed at the beginning when the joint project leader left SAS. The project was delayed further when a staff member from the IT department in the University was unresponsive to requests to complete their commitment to the project (an external assessment of the School's social media presence). Finally, another external social media advisor was appointed to undertake this work, with effect from January 2013.
  • The JISC resources were less relevant to the project than anticipated and there was a degree of time wasted at the start of the project in trying to find additional resources that would be relevant. The School's mission and scale make it very different to other UK universities, which makes UK university resources largely redundant or requiring substantial modification.
  • The time commitment was a major drawback for the project. The nature of social media requires continued content, engagement, monitoring, evaluation and development. The process is iterative as new ways of communicating and working need to be found, embedded with our daily lives, and developed as part of a broader communications strategy. This work required a full-time staff member, which unfortunately the funding could not cover. We therefore decided to use some of the funding to appoint an external social media expert to work closely with the team and to maintain the focus and momentum required for the project, in tandem with the appointment of a marketing intern to coordinate objectives and deadlines for the team. 


A number of smaller drawbacks were experienced, such as the difficulties in encouraging content from academic staff and inconsistent take-up of social media as a communications tool across SAS. However, these were to some extent expected and have contributed very useful findings from the project as we continue to take our learning forward. One anticipated drawback, which was a lack of interest among institutes in using social media, did not materialise to the extent it had been expected, and certainly less than has been experienced for other communications projects. Again, another finding from the project that we will be drawing upon as we take the project forward.


Key lessons

A number of key lessons were learnt from the SMART project:

  • The importance of dedicated time and resources to developing social media capability.
  • The iterative nature of developing our understanding around these new communication tools and the deeper impact on our daily work lives as well as longer-term strategy development.
  • The importance of the communications team's role in providing access to external advisers and sharing good practice from across SAS and beyond in order to develop good practice within the institution.
  • Social media needs to be developed as part of a broader communications strategy; it cannot exist in isolation.


Looking ahead

SMART has been an enormously useful and truly transformational project. It has both illuminated gaps in our broader communications strategy and informed our strategy development to enable us to fill these holes effectively going forward. The team has made major changes to its daily work life, as it commits to spending regular time using social media and developing a SAS community through these tools. We are using social media to share and inform our work processes as well as to celebrate results and new findings.


We have taken big steps forward. Most critically we now need to maintain our momentum and continue to build upon the work and findings from the project. There are a number of activities planned to continue our work in the future:

  • Provide ongoing support and training for staff through the one-to-one meetings with our external adviser, by developing a set of social media resources, and The Social Scholar monthly lunchtime social media seminar series planned for 2013-14, including securing funding and ensuring that the programme can be shared digitally as a webinar. 
  • Continued work to develop the digital presence of departments that have not yet taken advantage of the one-to-one project meetings with our external adviser.
  • Continued work on developing a social media strategy and setting objectives as part of a broader communications strategy.
  • Supporting the work of institutes to integrate their social media presence into other existing digital platforms.
  • Continued relationship building between the central communications team and other departments and staff across SAS.
  • Continued work to feed our learning and skills development into the work of other departments across the University to develop relationships with other communications teams.