Today we sat down for a great conversation with Jennifer van Alstyne, a communications strategist and the owner of The Academic Designer LLC. She dives into how and why faculty and researchers should manage their online presence.
Can you give a bit of background about yourself?
“I’m Jennifer van Alstyne, and I work with faculty and researchers to communicate what they do effectively. My focus is online spaces like websites and social media.
I would say I kind of fell into public relations when my department in graduate school got funding for a professional writing team. They needed help to manage their communications, like updates to the website, the creation of social media channels, and strategies to connect with current and future students.
Now I’ve made helping academics communicate who they are and what they do my business full-time.”
Why are you so passionate about the work that you do?
“I’m passionate about my work because I often see the results in real time. The time it takes for an academic article to be published, or a monograph to come out is often years. The results of sharing your work online, putting it out there for people to connect with, are often seen on day one.
It’s also about impact. I was at a dinner party with the Shreveport Regional Arts Council where they went around the table and everyone had to draw a random question and answer it. Mine was something along the lines of, “How will you change the world?”
There was a time in my life when I had no desire to do that - change the world. But since I started my business, I’ve seen how small practices can make a big difference.
When academics and researchers start sharing their work, and why it’s meaningful, people can connect with that. Not just students, faculty, or administrators within the same institution, but a larger audience that includes the public and the media. It makes the reach of your work limitless, because it can be found and shared in a number of ways.”
What are your favorite parts of running your business?
“Working from home has got to be my favorite part of running my business. I work at the hours most effective for me which tends to be afternoon and evenings. And, I get to take breaks during the day to play with my cats, Bartlet and Ash.
I also love how challenging it is. There is always more to learn and discover. Whether it’s developing new skills, or learning about new audiences I can engage, the ability to grow and change in my work is so important to me.”
Why is it important that faculty and researchers manage their online presence?
“Wow, there are so many benefits to managing your online presence. I want to talk about your personal benefits because it’s not what we often think of when being professional online.
Would you say your friends and family understand what you do? Like the day-to-day teaching, research, and service-related work you do?
I’m going to guess probably not. It’s not anyone’s fault. We don’t always know what work looks like for the people in our lives. Academic work is particularly confusing because there are often many components.
Being more open about what you do means more people can connect with and understand that information.
A good example is, say you win an award. What most people do when this happens is post a photo of the award reception program, congratulate the other people who won/were nominated for the award, or share how excited they are to win that award. The most popular text to accompany this is “shameless self-promotion.”
What tends to be missing from these announcements are important details like what the award is for, why you won it, and what it means to you. So when people interact with those posts when it’s missing that information, people are liking “award,” and your excitement.
That’s a much less meaningful engagement than if they understood the details.
Sharing your work online means that the people who want to find that info, can. People should be able to learn a bit about you and your work when they search for it online.”
Do you have a success story related to your work?
“Talking about your upcoming talks or conference presentations is super beneficial online. Not just for getting the word out there about your work, but actually getting people into seats. I wanted to share this example because it shows how quick and multi-faceted the benefits are.
Jessica was presenting at the Modern Language Association last year, and she was selected for a presidential-themed panel. She knew Twitter was a good place to share this, but wasn’t sure how to approach it.
I created graphics for her to announce her panel on social media, and we worked through the types of info to share in the tweets themselves. We also talked about when to post, and how often. I think I suggested a total of 5+ times over the few days before her talk using the conference hashtags.
Her tweets were liked and retweeted often. The day of her talk, the audience was packed!
But for those who couldn't make the MLA, these tweets also introduced her as a folklorist, and that she was interested in digital archives and fan-fiction. So it helped her connect with people interested in her work who couldn’t be at the conference too.”
What are one or two things faculty and researchers can do right now to improve their online presence?
“The most important way to improve your online presence is to check in with your profiles. Ask yourself, if I were a stranger, would I have some understanding of who this person is and what they share?
If you can’t tell from the first minute or so, other people won’t be able to either.
My other suggestion is closely related: introduce yourself on social media. And, do it on a regular basis. I often recommend monthly.
This is a great way to say hi to your audience, and remind them who you are.”
Is there one social media platform that you see as most important for your clientele? If so, why? If not, why not?
“This is a somewhat controversial question. There isn’t one right platform for academics. And, there are different benefits to each.
However, the most important social media platform academics are on but not using well is LinkedIn. And, it’s all about the profile.
LinkedIn is a powerful social media network that’s most important quality is it’s search function.
But what I see most often from faculty and researchers is an incomplete profile.”
Any tips for when being on social media feels overwhelming?
“Take a break from social media whenever you need it. Don’t apologize for it, or feel guilty. Just let people know you’ll be going, and for how long.
Self-care is so important to enjoying your time on social media. So take a break when it feels right for you.”
What do you see for the future of your company as it grows?
“I’ve recently finished designing my online courses for social media and personal academic websites for academics. I’m so excited they’re complete because it frees up my time to focus on more corporate clients and academic organizations.
And, I love having time for my podcast/blog The Social Academic which features a monthly advice article and an interview with a grad student, faculty, or researcher.”
Is there anything else you would like to add?
“What works online for one person may or may not work for your lifestyle. There isn’t a prescription “If I do these things, I will have the online presence I need.”
I don’t teach people they have to post every day or only talk about their work. I empower people with the tools they need to communicate their work online when they want to.
If that’s something you’re interested in, I’d love for you to check out my blog The Social Academic for helpful articles like “Social Media Platforms for Academics, a Breakdown.”
We would like to thank Jennifer for taking the time to chat with us today. If you are feeling inspired, you can learn even more about the work she does and how to manage your online presence on her website here: https://theacademicdesigner.com/.
Some responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.