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Planning Outreach Communications for Your Grant-funded Research

A growing amount of grant-funded research is tied with outreach and education components. Here we teach professors and researchers how to develop a useful communications plan outline for use during the grant writing process.

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A growing amount of grant-funded research, especially in the life sciences, is tied to public engagement. This means a portion of the grant funds must go toward outreach and education so that scientists inside and outside your field, practitioners, professionals, and even society at large can benefit from the knowledge you created.

Professors and researchers, especially early-career researchers, might find this added dimension on grant applications difficult to address. Communicating research can be difficult enough as is, let alone having to prove to a sponsoring organization that you can do it. However, it’s not as difficult as it would seem, and if it’s done well, you can make your application for funding stand out.

Grant applications can be very specific, and they can vary widely. For this reason, we will concentrate on helping you incorporate the elements of a good communication plan into your application, as opposed to recommending specific formats. Ask yourself - and, if applicable, your collaborators - the following key questions. The answers will provide the basis for an outreach plan that you can use to communicate your research.

What is important to this grant-funding organization?

When writing your proposal, whether it’s for philanthropic organizations or public agencies, pay close attention to the organization itself. Aside from making sure your work supports the specific requirements of the grant, what is the funding organization’s mission? What are its goals? Who do they ultimately serve? Show that you can fulfill the research needs outlined in their request for proposal (RFP), as well as support the organization’s overall mission and goals through your outreach communications.

Who would benefit from seeing or using the results of this grant-funded research?

The answer to this question will help determine your target audiences, which is an important element of any communications plan. Obviously, researchers in your own discipline are going to be a target audience, but who else? Perhaps it’s researchers in different but related fields. Research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and your findings may ultimately help advance other disciplines. Perhaps it’s practitioners or professionals who can use your research to benefit an industry. Perhaps it’s policymakers who could use your research to change public policy. Or perhaps it’s even enthusiasts or the public at large, those who could generally find your research fascinating. Public exposure like this is valuable to you, as well as to the funding institution. Start with a large list, but be ready to pare it down. Reaching too many audiences at once is what communicators call a “shotgun approach.” Be targeted. Limit your number of target audiences to five unless there is an obvious need for more.

What do I want each target audience to do with my research?

The answers to this question will help define your communication goals, and it’s normal to have more than one. Let’s say your research is tied to a major issue like climate change. You may want 1) the general public to simply read about your findings and 2) your research to help influence public policy on climate change. Your corresponding goals could read as follows: 1) “Build awareness of our research among the public at large”; and 2) “Inform better public policy by sharing key data with municipal, state/provincial, and national leaders.” Whichever goal(s) you choose, make sure they are aligned with the needs stated by the funding organization in their RFP, as well as with the sponsoring organization’s overall mission.

What types of media (text, visuals, or sound) should I use to communicate my findings?

The answer to this question will depend largely on who your target audiences are. Long-form, text-based media like journal articles or white papers will mainly be attractive to researchers, as well as highly educated and technical audiences. But like anyone in this increasingly busy world, everyone prefers brevity; hence, it’s important to consider thinking of ways you can condense the information for these and other busy individuals. Short, easy-to-understand videos are an excellent way to do this. Educational presentation slides, which mix sound, text, and imagery, are also an excellent medium. The use of sound alone, such as through podcasts, is also an option. When communicating to lay publics, brevity and the use of imagery to explain concepts becomes even more important. Videos and infographics are excellent ways to reach the general public for this reason, as are social media posts.

Whatever media you use, be as inclusive as possible. Aim to make your research understandable to a 10th grade high school student. This way, your communications can be easily understood and widely viewed - not just by scientists who speak English as a first language but also by scientists worldwide and the public at large.

What communication tactics and channels should I use to reach my target audiences?

Tactics here simply mean the types of communications used to promote your work. Press releases, short educational videos, and social media posts are all examples of tactics. Channels are the media outlets through which you can promote this information. For press releases, channels can be news platforms. Video channels include YouTube and Vimeo, which are excellent avenues for research promotion. For social media, Twitter and LinkedIn are among the better channels for communicating research findings.

Look within your own institution when planning the tactics and channels section of your communications plan outline. Universities and other research institutions often employ communicators. Ask them for some guidance on the best tactics and channels for the audiences you’ve identified. If there is no such help available, just keep in mind that the more specialized your target audiences, the more specialized your channels should be. If your research can benefit an industry, plan to share news of your findings in that industry’s trade magazines. If your research could be of use to researchers in a few specific disciplines, consider targeting the channels of relevant scientific societies, which often have a wide array of communication channels to accommodate online presentations, thought leadership pieces, videos, educational programs, and the like.

How can I measure and show impact?

As a researcher, you’ll almost surely want to build impact through citations - if not for the grant then at least to further your career. For scholarly articles, many journals and the more feature-rich preprint servers like Research Square offer advanced metrics platforms - like Altmetrics, Dimensions, and scite. These can automatically keep track of your successes right on an article’s landing page. If possible, budget for open access articles in your proposal. They can yield up to twice the number of citations of regular articles (1). If you cannot budget for open access - or even if you can - consider sharing your research early on preprint servers like Research Square. They can help build citations of your work for up to several years after your article is accepted and published (2). Ideally, every communication you produce to promote your findings should link back to the full-text, published version of your article. This can help build your citation count by increasing the exposure of your research.

Aside from citations, how else can you show impact? There are many online tools out there to help you measure and show impact. If your outreach content is housed on your own organization’s website (or a website owned by one of your collaborators), chances are good you will have access to Google Analytics and the plethora of data it collects. Video platforms like YouTube automatically count the number of times a video has been viewed. Social media platforms also help you keep track of how many likes, comments, and other engagements your posts receive, and tiny URL providers like Bitly can help you count how many times your audiences click through to specific URLs where your communications are located. If you sent out a news release, you can count how many media outlets picked up, or published, your news. And if you carried out a live online presentation, most platforms show counts of how many people registered for the course, as well as the number of those who actually viewed it. Do your best to record all of your analytics for the post-award phase of your grant and potentially for future grants to show the impact of your research.

After answering all of these questions, you should have a sufficient outline to help you communicate how you will engage in successful outreach with your chosen publics if your grant gets funded.

Communication is all about making connections. Having a well-laid-out communications plan, in whatever form you can present on your grant application, can really help you to establish a connection with grant reviewers - and ultimately your target audiences.

Need help with grant writing or help with producing videos, infographics, and other grant outreach deliverables? Learn more.

References

  1. Jump, Paul. Open access papers ‘gain more traffic and citations’. Times Higher Education. July 2014. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/home/open-access-papers-gain-more-traffic-and-citations/2014850.article

  2. Crew, Bec. Studies suggest 5 ways to increase citation counts. Nature Index News. August 2019. https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/studies-research-five-ways-increase-citation-counts

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