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Friday
Aug082008

Social Media and Enhancing the Engineering Profession's Image

By Dennis D. McDonald


Background


In my blog post Can Social Media Help Change the Public’s Perception of the Engineering Profession? I commented on the National Academy of Engineering’s report Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. In my original post I lauded the NAE report but suggested that any implementation program designed to change the public’s perception of the engineering profession should incorporate social media and social networking elements. In this post I discuss some of these elements.

The underlying idea is that, if the public has a better understanding of what engineers do and how society benefits, good things will occur. These good things include a more accurate — and positive — public image of the engineering professions, and more success in recruiting good students into engineering schools, including qualified students who might not otherwise consider a career in engineering.

If you think about these goals, it’s possible to measure criteria for tracking the success (or failure) of a campaign, such as positive/negative responses on some sort of rating scale as well as actual student decisions to apply to engineering schools. These are complex measurement goals but not outside the realm of feasibility, given enough time and money.

These questions arise:

  1. How can social media and social networking contribute to accomplishing such goals?
  2. How would this differ from campaigns involving more “traditional” communications and advertising vehicles such as magazines, radio, broadcast and cable television, and static web sites that exist primarily to distribute or publish information?


Traditional and new media


Consider some of the basic differences between “traditional” and “new” media and some distinctions between old and new concepts of advertising and public relations.


The perennial issue: “control”


One distinction between employing old and new media concerns control over the message itself and control over how the message is received. These are perennial issues that arise whenever advertising services are sold, i.e., how do we know when our message really influences the actions of our target markets?

The shift from print to electronic and online media has not necessarily clarified such discussions. Even though we can track mouse clicks and cable channel exposure in much finer detail than was ever possible with older media, we still don’t know what goes on in the head of the “consumer” and how our campaign efforts, mixed with the consumer’s other experiences, desires, and sources of information, will influence a desired outcome.

Even when we use traditional broadcast techniques to distribute highly shaped messages to target populations, as proposed in the NAE report, we still don’t control what happens to the message after it arrives at the destination. At that point other factors and influences come into play — the young student’s friends, parents, and teachers; the information and images already being broadcast by other media; and, the target’s own preferences, history, and prejudices.

Here we’re not talking about selling bars of soap or boxes of laundry detergent, we’re talking about very complex and personal decisions about careers and professions. Given that we already have only a modest amount of control over how our target populations receive the desired messages about the engineering profession, what can we expect social media and social networking to offer over and above what are already available from traditional media?

Two factors in particular are important: group relationships and group engagement.


Group relationships


We already know how important friends and family are in influencing and shaping perceptions and behavior. “Word of mouth” is consistently rated by market research studies as one of the most highly rated influencers of selection decisions and behavior. “What other people think” — especially those people we know and respect — is always important. It’s true about all kinds of phenomena, including perceptions of careers and professions.

The NAE report discusses a variety of groups that are relevant to public perceptions of the engineering profession, including:

  • Young students K-12
  • Teachers
  • Older students
  • Other engineers and role models
  • Guidance counselors
  • Friends
Each of the individuals within these groups has a constellation of individuals and groups relevant to different situations. As the NAE report discusses, for example, the concerns of parents are not the same as the concerns of students, so it may be appropriate to target differently a message about the engineering profession to parents than to young people thinking about college and professions.

But this situation has always been the case. Each individual in a “target demographic” belongs to a constellation of groups. Each of these groups has the potential for influencing, via word of mouth or otherwise, the perceptions of the individuals in that group.

Now, there’s nothing new about that. Advertisers, social scientists, marketers, and others have known and taken advantage of these “birds of a feather” relationships ever since advertising and targeted communications were developed. The difference now is that cheap, easy to use phone and web based systems have emerged that many people — especially younger people — are using to form groups online, build relationships, and exchange thoughts, ideas, and information content. Significantly, these online groups often operate outside of the direct control of parents, teachers, and other authorities.

If you send a message to a student, and that student decides to tell all his or her friends about it online in, say, a Facebook post, dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of other online “friends” will know about the message before you can even blink. And if you are the advertiser supplying the message, you have no direct control over how that message gets re-sent, reformatted, commented about, and criticized.

That scares a lot of people who are more accustomed to having more “control” over communications. But as I’ve suggested in other environments (e.g., in terms of applying social media and social networking to support emergency response communications in schools) the horse left the barn long ago. People are using these systems now to independently create and exchange information. In many cases, they are using these systems already to discuss and influence the very decisions that advertisers — and groups such as NAE — care about.

Group engagement


This brings us to the question of what NAE should do given that social media and social networking systems are already being used by the very groups it wants to influence. Given that the NAE cannot directly control how people use social media and social networking to exchange information, does that mean that such techniques should be avoided?

Definitely not. But it does require some understanding of what is possible given that “control over message” is now so highly decentralized. Two things in particular are key: listening and engaging.

Listening means that you need to become aware of what people are saying about your topics of interest on existing social media and social networking systems. Many systems allow public access, others are open to membership only, with some being free and some requiring more formal membership.  There are also a variety of free, near free, and commercial tools and services that allow you to monitor mentions of various topics and keywords.

One way to get this started would be to identify all the potential groups and individuals you’re interested in reaching, then work from there to identify the groups, networks, and systems these people use to communicate online. It’s not “rocket science,” but it does require some knowledge of where to look.

After you start to listen, you can then consider engaging with the groups you’ve identified. That means carrying on a conversation. If someone asks a question, answer the question. Don’t proselytize, but communicate in a way that engenders trust. Engaging with a “community” is not something that happens overnight. Also, if someone says something that is wrong or negative, respond quickly and honestly. This not only helps to spread information, it builds respect and trust when carried out correctly.

Conclusions


I’ve just scratched the surface here concerning the application of social media and social networking to improving the public’s understanding of the engineering profession. There are additional topics to consider, including:
  • Strategy
  • Management
  • Build versus Buy
  • Metrics & Performance Assessment
  • Technology
Note that I listed “technology” last in the above list. Ultimately we are discussing a very complex topic, the image of a complex and diversified profession. Stepping back and considering the larger issues first  is really the most important thing to do. Specific technology decisions can then be made later.
  • Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.
  • To learn more Dr. McDonald, click here.

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