How can we make research communications stickier? Reflections from the Institute of Development Studies

21 December 2011

News or blogs on development research are highly unlikely to compete with viral YouTube sensations involving celebrities or pets that reach millions in hours. But a quick scan through the top ten most viewed news stories from the IDS web site from 2011 still tells us a lot about what it is that makes some research super sticky.

In fact, some IDS news stories were so sticky they came top of the 2011 list even though they were not even posted in 2011. A story about Ian Scoones’ book on Zimbabwe’s land reform posted in November 2010 came in at number one followed closely by Andy Sumner’s New Bottom Billion – also a 2010 story. What did these stories have that others did not?

Well of course exciting, original research helps. And both of these examples tick that box. Scoones’ revelation that Zimbabwe’s land reforms were not so bad after all quickly ignited a lively media debate that has just run and run. It was still running a year on with  this BBC Radio 4 documentary looking closely at his claims. Sumner’s startling findings on the changing nature of poverty also ignited debate in the media and academia and stoked up the blogosphere. This is why traffic just keeps on finding its way back to the original web stories.

However, not all of our top ten scorers from this year can claim to have promised robust research with counterintuitive findings. Consider our official number one story from 2011 (the most page views of all the stories actually posted in that year). It is news of a special Robert Chambers conference with links to all the related materials. This is not hard news and it is not particularly surprising or controversial. Here we have the awesome stickiness of a big, well stellar, name in the development research community. How often is Chambers’ name googled? How big are the networks of people who have shared the link with one another and will have flocked to access this content? How quickly did news of his conference spread across the blogosphere with links back to the original content?

Robert Chambers was not the only big name to make the IDS top ten. At number two we have Kate Middleton and Prince William who, according to the IDS headline from last April, ‘got engaged in Africa’s land grab hotspot’. Yes that’s right, we took the convergence of a royal wedding, the happy couple’s obscure connection with land grabs and a recent IDS hosted academic conference on land grabbing to produce something really sticky. Just think how many royal wedding fans inadvertently became informed on the land grab issue. Such are the rewards of working in research communications. To be fair to the Future Agricultures Consortium, who organised the Land Grab conference, this is a pretty sticky topic even without royal endorsement. It features in no less than three of our top ten spots from 2011.

The tactic of using highly topical and sticky words or names in your headline is known as search engine optimisation (SEO) or cheating, and it works. Of course topicality is itself one of the greatest assets of all. Just take the Arab uprisings or the Horn of Africa crisis which both, perhaps not surprisingly, made the top ten. However, as any newspaper sub-editor will tell you: If all else fails you just need a great headline. What else can explain a story about a podcast from an IDS Sussex Development Lecture coming in at number eight? Don’t get me wrong it was a really great lecture but a story about a podcast! It was titled: ‘Decline of the NGO Empire – where next for international development organisations?’ Pretty good huh? Yes, it was one of mine. Also very nice, (and not one of mine) and slipping in at number ten is: ‘Taking the scare out of scarcity – how faulty economic models keep the poor poor’. See what we did there?

Now I know the whole subject of traffic drivers and SEO is way more complicated than this. Our study of the IDS top ten has severe limitations. Clearly content published early in the year has an advantage over the stories that came after and some of our high scorers were boosted by extended periods on the IDS home page.  Plus it is about push as well as pull and for that we have to start thinking about the role of social media, where content is positioned on the site and a multitude of other factors. This is another blog for another day, but my point is this: If you want lots of people to find the story about your research irresistible consider this 2011 IDS top ten. Methodologically sound and original research is great, but a crowd pulling name, timeliness, a big surprise and a great title all helps a lot too.

If you want to know more about this stickiness business I suggest you read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath which should be a compulsory text for all those working in research communications.

Happy holidays

And here is that 2011 IDS website news stories top 10 in full (listed by order of unique page views to date):

  1. Revolutions in development reflecting forwards from the work of Robert chambers
  2. Prince William and Kate Middleton engaged in Africa’s land grab hotspot
  3. Bellagio Initiative starts an IDS led global debate exploring the future of philanthropy and international development
  4. Debating the global land grab
  5. How a citizen led approach can transform aid to governance
  6. The East African food crisis beyond drought and food aid
  7. Experts warn of new scramble for Africa at an international conference on land grabbing
  8. Decline of the ngo empire – where next for international development organisations?
  9. The people revolt why we got it wrong for the Arab world
  10. Taking the scare out of scarcity – how faulty economic models keep the poor poor