Can a Reddit model create a STEM conversation?

Feb 18 2013

At the beginning of the spring semester, I was tasked with creating a hypothesis centered around audience engagement that we could test on STEMwire.org, the Reese News Lab project on STEM education. In the spirit of Science Engineering, Technology and Mathematics (STEM), here is my experience, via the scientific method:

Question
How can we create a conversation on STEMwire.org about STEM education and the intiatives behind it?

Research
To try and find an answer to my problem, I scoured the Internet for similar problems and resolutions but developed my hypothesis from a conversation I had with a friend. He told me, rather frankly, that he does not engage with websites, share articles or comment on posts. This was rather discouraging. However, he had one exception: Reddit. Thus, I did a little research on Reddit.

Here’s what I found out. In December 2012 alone, Reddit witnessed 34,879,881 unique visitors with 2,065,237,338 pageviews. This is because Reddit is a community of communities where content is user-generated. From lol catz to a timeline of the Colorado theater shootings over the summer, users can post anything, comment on anything and share anything posted on the boards at Reddit.

I was excited to see what the Reddit model could do for a news-oriented site and how it might generate traffic and user engagement. I proposed that Stemwire.org start allowing users to generate content. I didn’t think that Stemwire would see 1,000,000+ unique visitors if users could generate content, but allowing them to produce content (submitting a story, posting a story they read somewhere, posting a video, etc.) might drive traffic because the users would want to share what they produced.

Hypothesis
We can increase audience engagement by allowing them to provide guest content on STEMwire.org

Test Hypothesis/Experiment
Plan A: Each week, we invite users to send in a piece of content of their choosing, as long as its STEM-related. We would moderate what they send and publish after checking the content for spam or trolls. We would ask users to request an invite and then we could choose among those requesting invites and feature that user the following week.

–OR–

Plan B: Instead of having an invite and featured user system, we just allow users to send in content any time. We would still moderate the submissions from users so as to prevent inappropriate or irrelevant content.

I thought the advantages of both plans were:

1. More content
2. Increased user engagement
3. Increased traffic

But there were also disadvantages:

1. More footwork for moderating content
2. Getting users to create or provide content will be difficult
The above experiment was my initial pitch. However, after speaking with managers and discussing the details, we realized that STEMwire.org did not currently have an active audience base. While this sounds like the problem I am trying to solve, the issue was that the site had practically been dormant through winter break. We needed to let what little audience we did have know that STEMwire.org was back in business and reinvigorated from our winter nap. Thus, we refocused and decided to see if we could get users to offer smaller pieces of content by answering simple questions and see if they would elaborate after an initial response. And so #STEMstories was born.

#STEMstories is a weekly chat we host for an hour every Thursday on Twitter. The week prior to our initial chat, we marketed the event with many of STEMwire.org’s followers on Twitter and with the 100Kin10 partners. Our goal with this weekly chat was to have a very informal conversation with those concerned with STEM. For example, our first week’s theme was “Middle school STEM memories” and one question we asked was “What was your favorite middle school science experiment?” On our end, we asked a new question every 15 minutes from the STEMwire account and made sure to retweet and respond with our personal accounts. We were able to follow the entire conversation thanks to the common hashtag #STEMstories.

Analysis
Two weeks into the experiment, the chats are… slow. Most of the engagement has been from Reese staff, though some followers are retweeting our responses which is better than nothing. In our first week, we did have a couple of participants such as one person who attempted an invisibility cloak as a middle school experiment.

The lack of engagement is most likely caused by the problem stated earlier: STEMwire as a site and our Twitter account practically hibernated for all of December while student staffers were on a break. Naturally, initial followers and engaged audiences lost interest. In fact, we gained many of these interested folk from a Twitter party back in October where we had greater success. According to the data we collected, the October party increased our followers 15.59 percent, pushing us over the first 100 followers mark. Also, on the day of the party, we had nearly 80 new visitors to STEMwire.org, most of which originated from Twitter, according to Google Analytics.

So far, we have not seen this kind of engagement in our weekly chats. Another potential reason for the lack of engagement could be the timing of our chat. According to a report from Mashable analyzing best practices for businesses trying to market through Twitter, the best times of day to tweet are from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and, surprisingly, on weekends.

Perhaps we should try moving the chat to the weekends, where most people are off of work and may have time to participate in the #STEMstories chat. Three to four p.m. on Thursday afternoons potentially present a problem, because the majority of our audience is either at work or in school still (students, teachers) or commuting from work to home.

In the coming weeks, we will change some variables, such as time of day, day of the week, and theme of the questions asked. Continue to check back for updates and our final results to see if this Reese News Lab experiment succeeds or fails.
Results:
Coming soon…

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