When New Zealand science news goes viral

“Wooo, there’s New Zealand did ya!” Wrote one commenter on the Facebook page “I F*cking Love Science” last week.

Okay, hardly the most articulate response to a story, but one that expressed the pride in seeing New Zealand science receiving exposure and recognition on a global scale. The story attracting attention was about researchers from the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute who made the remarkable discovery that a particular type of DNA can move between cells in an animal. As IFLScience reported it:

Not only could these important findings help further our understanding of cancer and other diseases, but they raise the tantalizing possibility that one day, it might be possible to replace faulty, disease-causing genes with synthetic, custom-designed mitochondrial DNA in a bid to fight a wide variety of illnesses.

The research was published in the journal Cell Metabolism last week. It was picked up by IFLS, the less than three year-old Facebook page founded by Elise Andrews, which attracts a staggering 45 million unique monthly visitors and 150 million page views.

After a few days on IFLS, the story had racked up:

87,000 Facebook likes


26,000 Facebook shares


132 Upvotes on Reddit

Malaghan reported that in the wake of the IFLS exposure it had experienced a “1200% increase in web traffic, especially from America, Canada and Australia”. Professor Mike Berridge, the Malaghan Institute’s Cancer Cell Biology Group Leader was quoted in a press release as saying,

“I am hugely encouraged by this recognition by the international community, and hope it can lead to further development of our work here in New Zealand.  The ultimate goal of cancer research is to stop the suffering many people experience with this disease, but cellular research often surprises.  It may be that this new understanding offers future treatments for some of the many other debilitating diseases caused by defective mitochondria.”

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Social news and science

Other New Zealand science stories have also achieved significant traction recently via new media channels.

In May, 2014, NIWA reported that the tiny marine animal Protulophila, that was thought extinct for the past four million years, had actually just been found living in New Zealand waters. IFLS picked up the story which resulted in 89,000 Facebook likes.

An article sourced from Te Papa Museum and AUT University inviting people to view a live dissection of a colossal squid received 31,000 Facebook likes on IFLS in September.

A story from New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust about the discovery in the ice of a 100 year-old notebook that belonged to a member of Captain Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expedition attracted 66,000 likes on the IFLS Facebook page.

Impressive stats, and a quick look through the comments suggests it is mainly overseas Facebook users reading and sharing these articles.

But how valuable are all those ‘likes’ really? On that point there is heated debate.

Some marketing experts estimate an individual like can be worth $200 or more, while research giant Forrester puts the value at zero – it claims a like represents just the potential to undertake an action, not an action itself.

For a not-for-profit that relies on donations and grants to do its research, a major boost in internet traffic is very valuable for the Malaghan Institute. Even if a tiny number of those website visitors decide to donate money as a result of seeing the post on IFLS, that’s a big positive for Malaghan.

Some have even come up with a formula for calculating the value of likes of your own Facebook page.

Other marketers argue that you can’t look at Facebook likes in the way we do other forms of media promotion, such as advertising in newspapers. Likes can represent a much greater engagement with readers and supporters which has significant longterm value. In this slightly outdated (2010) presentation from Facebook’s Justin Osofsky, he notes that:

– Facebook likes means increased referral traffic to your website as articles containing links to your site are spread through the friend networks of everyone clicking the ‘like’ button.

– People who like articles visit 5.3x more websites than those who don’t like articles.

– People who like articles have 2..4x more friends than those who don’t, so attracting those likers has a positive knock-on effect.

– Users who click like have a median age of 34, compared to 51 for newspaper subscribers, so creating content that attracts Facebook likes can be a good way of attracting a younger audience.

So if people are liking your page, they are providing a valuable amplifier for your content that could help you reach a younger audience. This is why Facebook has proven to be a useful platform for promoting science content.

The Australian science news site ScienceAlert has achieved significant success by leveraging Facebook, exactly the same way IFLS has. It promotes Australian and New Zealand science news and has attracted 6.3 million likes.

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Scientists are achieving success on other platforms too, including Youtube.

In the run-up to Christmas, AUT University Professor of Applied Ecology and Sciblogger, Steve Pointing, released a light-hearted video explaining the science of Christmas. It has accumulated over 100,000 views on Youtube.

The team at the University of Nottingham behind the hugely successful Periodic Table of Videos know the value of leveraging social media. Their short videos have amassed 260 million views on Youtube.

What seems to work?

It doesn’t take long, browsing the posts on IFLS and science-related videos on Youtube to get an idea for what gets that viral effect:

– Unique and novel stories with well written headlines and introductory blurbs that genuinely flag something new and important.

– Eye-catching and novel images – some of the most-liked posts on the IFLS Facebook pages are simply beautiful images of nature.

– Short videos (2 – 3 minutes) that explore a science-related concept in a slightly quirky or unusual way.

At the Science Media Centre, we’ve been undertaking a study of how New Zealand science-related institutions use social media which we will be publishing in the next few weeks.


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