Research facilities are key to combating COVID-19, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) pivoted from its usual cancer, genomics, neuroscience, quantitative biology, and plant research to doing ground-breaking coronavirus research. Our fans and funders needed to know about that and all the other innovative research we do every day. The Public Affairs department (PA) is a small office tasked with informing the public about all the research and education done by our 600 scientists. Before COVID-19 struck, we published a print magazine (the Harbor Transcript), an annual report, website (cshl.edu), and content on various social platforms. When the pandemic forced us off the Laboratory grounds, we needed to connect with supporters more than ever, but we were forced to rethink our mix of products to achieve our goals. We had to produce content from our homes and create something brand new—quickly—using only the time and talents of our small team. There would be no new resources allocated for this instant digital transition.
We developed a program that combined all our previous products into a single, new campaign with multiple interrelated parts. First, we examined what kind of information our key audiences expected and how they would be most likely to engage with the content. Instead of designing, printing, and mailing both the Harbor Transcript and the Annual Report like we usually do, we sent a printed postcard to our donors alerting them that these documents would be available online only. We provided a QR code on the postcard as well, for them to use to quickly and easily navigate to our website’s homepage. We also emailed them our standard monthly electronic newsletter, which links back to the articles originally slated to be printed in the two products, but were now redesigned and reorganized as interactive web pages. Each article is linked to an online table of contents with branding similar to what we use on print products. We promoted the table of contents and individual articles through all our social channels: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. A key component of the campaign was to inform funders of how the Laboratory was able to pivot from its traditional research program to one that is also investigating COVID-19. The president of the CSHL thanked donors in a video for their support and explained why it was important for them to continue to support the Laboratory. In addition, leading up to the release of the digital only editions, we instituted a social video awareness campaign to introduce our audiences to the human side of CSHL. For Mother’s Day and Father's Day, we asked the children of some of our scientists to describe what their parents do for a living. We had another campaign to introduce our fans and funders to some of our essential workers who are still on campus while others work from home.
We reached at least as many critical funders as we usually do with digital versus print products. In addition, we exposed more potential funders to our institution’s financial reports than we would have by sending the annual report only to current donors. We increased community engagement and understanding of the critical role of science in addressing COVID-19 and many other diseases. We accomplished these goals for less money than it usually takes to print and distribute the print products. In addition, we were able to design new web pages and articles with new layouts with our internal staff. Selected stats from July 1, 2019 to July 1, 2020:
Social success – we acquired critical mass in our space
Emial Newsletter: Subscribers up by 3000 in a year
Base Pairs (podcast): 32,000 downloads/year. Up 20%;
Facebook: 22,000 followers, 150,000 video views/year
Twitter: 20,000 views; up 5,000 over the previous year
Instagram: Up 1,000 to 2200 in a year
YouTube: 60,000 views/year
We enhanced engagement
Email Newsletter: Open rate up to 40%, clickthrough rate up to 30%
Public Events: 4,000 participants
Cocktails & Chromosomes–physical and virtual informal talks by our scientists for a general audience
Lustgarten Foundation collaboration–90,000+ Facebook Likes
Twitter: Likes/Retweets up from 100,000 to 180,000/month
Instagram: Likes up to 100 per post
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