Tools That Work: Ning and MailChimp
Screen shot of COSEE Alaska SeaNET site
How do you communicate among hundreds of ocean scientists and educators spread across the largest, but most-wired, state in the country? How do you add in the many scientists who do their research in Alaska’s seas but have home institutions in many other states? COSEE Alaska identified the development and support of SeaNET, the Network of Scientists and Educators in Alaska, as one the highest priorities of their project.

COSEE Alaska staff decided to begin building the communications network with a combination of a listserv and a social networking site. For the listserv we chose MailChimp, the cousin to Survey Monkey, the popular online survey tool. MailChimp is a marketing tool with the capability of sending out mass emails and managing a variety of mailing lists. COSEE Alaska staff liked the customized formatting for messages and the fact there was no cost for a list of up to 500 email addresses. For social networking we chose Ning, which has a more professional look and feel than Facebook, but which can be customized with an attractive format and provides for easy postings of calendar events, announcements, blogs, and photo and video galleries. We chose to set up SeaNET as a public site, with these types of content available to anyone who visited the site and the additional opportunity to join as a group member and interact with other members through a forum and sub-groups organized around specific topics.

Because the target audience for the network was a mix of scientists, educators, and science communicators, we weren’t sure how many people would choose to be part of the interactive Ning group versus the more passive listserv, particularly since a large number of the ocean scientists were born earlier than Generation X. The initial listserv was developed from an email list of approximately 200 scientists and educators who had attended one of three Communicating Ocean Science workshops in 2007-2009, plus 100 teachers who had attended a professional development workshop focused on the use of the Alaska Seas and Rivers curriculum. Both the listserv and the Ning site opportunities were advertised on a number of science, education, and conservation listservs.

Since the launch, SeaNET Program Manager Marilyn Sigman has been posting new content about Alaska ocean climate change and Alaska Native knowledge about climate change approximately every two weeks, including updates to a calendar of conferences, science outreach events, and trainings; a round-up of recent science news items; and highlighted educational resources. COSEE Alaska’s website links directly to the Ning site, serves as an archive for the postings, and also links to the calendar that is maintained and updated on the Ning site.

After six weeks of operation, more than 100 people had signed up to become members of the SeaNET Ning group. The surprise was that about 80 of these people were not in the initial listserv group and about 40% lived outside Alaska, coming from 15 other states, Canada, and the UK. The group members from Alaska were from 15 communities, spread out from Kotzebue to Juneau. Another interesting statistic was the gender mix of 70% female to 30% male. About 25% of the members are scientists (although members were not asked for specific information) and the other members appear to be spread fairly equally between formal and informal education. Several of Alaska’s best science writers have also joined. The small numbers of conversions from the listserv is not so surprising from the standpoint of access to content - the emails that go out to the listserv provide links to stories and information on the Ning site which don’t require group membership to read.

So far, the advantage of being a member of the social networking site - the ability to interact on a forum and in sub-groups – has received little use. Google Analytics was added to the site in late November after most of the current group members had joined, but logged 400 visits by more than 200 unique visitors in two weeks, with peaks of 74 and 80 visits per day the day after postings of new content and notification of all group and listserv members.

Some interesting challenges to hosting a social network have already emerged, including a federal government server that blocks employees from joining; submission of pictures or blog stories that don’t fit the group goals and themes; and even a cyberstalker who had to be suspended immediately from the site after contacting other members in a “creepy” way.

On January 18, 2010, COSEE Alaska and SeaNET will co-host a half-day Communicating Ocean Science workshop to kick off the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, followed by a SeaNET lunch and organizational meeting that will include further discussion about how best to use these networking tools. This annual statewide multi-disciplinary symposium is attended by more than 600 ocean scientists and educators. Stay tuned for more developments!

Contributed by COSEE Alaska Staff