Curiosity-driven content

What content is most engaging? Why? What can we learn from it?

What content is most engaging? Why? What can we learn from it?

The same curiosity that drives research at CERN has helped develop its editorial content, with findings from a study into how people react to CERN social media helping shape and adapt its content. A few useful tips for crafting digital content and improving engagement.

CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics, is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the largest machine in the world. CERN research is a global endeavour and the world wide web was born at the laboratory. In 2012, CERN announced the discovery of a new particle, known as the Higgs boson and nicknamed “the God particle” by the media. But a Higgs boson discovery doesn’t come along every day, so how do we develop regular, engaging content?

Developing content

The editorial content development section includes the writing, web and social media teams. We source stories, craft written content and work with designers, photographers and videographers to showcase CERN in the best possible way. Our editorial content is just part of our communication, education and outreach offerings, which are all guided by our communication strategy. As a component of this, CERN social media has three main strands to its strategy:

1. Education: to begin a journey, using social media to link back to the website to encourage people to find out more; 2. Engagement: to foster engagement and form an online community of stakeholders interested in the laboratory and its work;3. Marketing: to retain positive sentiment towards the laboratory. By keeping the sentiment positive and handling the negative sentiment constructively by responding as appropriate to questions or concerns, CERN’s strong brand identity is retained.

As well as creating and sharing content about the latest advancements in particle physics (CERN’s raison d’être), we also have regular social media posts to share more stories and showcase engaging photos, with each post linking back to the CERN website.

Every Thursday, we have a throwback Thursday post highlighting a moment in CERN’s history. Every Friday, we post a photo and ask people to guess what it is by adding their comments, then each Monday we post the answer with a link to find out more.

Testing our content

Being surrounded by curiosity-driven research at CERN, with scientists asking questions about the fundamental building blocks of our universe, we can’t help but apply similar curiosity to our content creation.

As a way of testing whether our social media strategy was effective, I collaborated with academics from Israel to publish a scientific study in 2016 entitled Footprints of Fascination: Digital Traces of Public Engagement with Particle Physics on CERN's Social Media Platforms, available via

We investigated eight weeks of data across five of CERN’s social media channels. Each social media post in the study including an image, resulting in 214 posts in total, of which 94 were newsworthy and 120 were simply attractive historic or quirky images.

Across these 214 posts, we identified 35 high-engagement items and looked closely at these to see what we could learn from them.

For the highly engaging news items, audiences reacted by liking, commenting, sharing and clicking-through, but spent very little time on the webpage, quickly consuming the content and moving on. Interestingly though, of the 35 high-engagement items, more than half were not news-related but instead involved beautiful or surprising images.

The power of imagery on social media can work for organisations for marketing, engagement and education.

We also found that when social media took visitors to a webpage including a video or virtual tour the visit duration increased, especially when the video was placed further down the page and seen after reading the text. Retention also increased when viewers were led to playlists where they could click to watch additional videos.

Social media posts with a higher than average number of comments were often due to discourse in unexpected directions, with the discussion dominated by arguments about unrelated, user-introduced topics.

Social media provides a space for more engagement, but gives organisations less control of the message. What can be controlled is how the comments are addressed, either with a suitable response or by enforcing a comment policy. CERN’s for example is “CERN welcomes your comments and will moderate them using these guidelines: Please keep comments relevant. Irrelevant, inappropriate or offensive comments may be deleted. Stay on topic. Other readers expect the comments about a post to deal with the topic at hand”. Thus, where comments are concerned, it is important to read the content and tone carefully to really understand the effectiveness of a post.

Language played an unexpected role in our high-engagement items. CERN is a bilingual English and French organisation and although our social media platforms are predominately English-language we do have a @CERN_FR Twitter account in French.

When comparing the same Twitter post in English and in French, the English-language followers had all the information they needed in the tweet so were less motivated to click-through. Whereas the 140-character-limit made the French tweet a more enigmatic “clickbait”, with readers intrigued to find out more, resulting in 2.5 times the average click-throughs.

Tailoring content to a specific audience also led to higher engagement, be it a beautiful detector image shared with the visually minded audience of Instagram or French Twitter users being led to a whole publication of content in their native language and spending longer on the site by clicking through multiple stories.

A human focus is one of the most established attention-grabbing features in the media, and this is no different for a science-minded audience.

One of the biggest stories during the data-taking period was the announcement that Fabiola Gianotti would become director general of CERN. The comments discussed different aspects of her identity as a scientist, an Italian and a female, they related to her and congratulated her on a personal level. In another example, a Facebook post took people to a series of stories written in the first person. Although the click-throughs were not higher than average, those that did click were engaged in the history and kept clicking further to read the full long-form article.

The human touch, humour and help

The scientific study awakened our curiosity to test these trends even more. In particular, we wanted to test human-interest stories and whether they kept readers on the website for longer. It was time to tell stories.

In 2016, we had two series of long-form articles that showcased theoretical physicists and experimental physicists: #InTheory and #InPractice. Then in 2017, we launched #IWorkAtCERN, which began with the International Day of Women in Science but then went wider with more posts to highlight different professions at CERN.

We wanted to highlight the people behind the science and showcase diversity around CERN, as well as keeping the audience on the website for longer.

What we saw was that despite lower numbers when comparing #InTheory to all CERN mentions on social media, there were moments during the campaign when more people were talking about #InTheory than CERN. And did we keep people on the website longer? Well, the final moment of the #InTheory series saw the average time on the website increase from roughly two minutes to 14 minutes!

Social media gives non-traditional opportunities to directly engage with the public. We can convey the same message with different packaging, to make it more accessible and less formal.

For example, each year we prepare an April Fools fake news story and in 2015, our Star Wars inspired April Fools story – CERN had discovered “the force” – resulted in 26.5K engagements on social media. Although not something we can do every day, these jokes do give us an opportunity to tap into the lighter side of science and strike a chord with our audiences.

CERN is part of a scientific community so it’s important to collaborate on social media with other organisations and laboratories. We use our platforms to showcase the successes of others from congratulating the Physics Nobel Prize winners, to highlighting the gravitational waves discovery of LIGO. We also use #FollowFriday to highlight the worldwide particle physics research taking place in national physics laboratories.

As CERN scientists are strong ambassadors, we encourage them to use social media and have developed social media guidelines for them. We work with a core group of social-media-savvy physicists and share information with them in advance of publications to keep them updated. They often help us answering questions on social media and are a valuable help to give CERN followers the opportunity to directly address them with their questions.

Tools and techniques

Communication campaigns such as #InTheory, #InPractice and #IWorkAtCERN, as well as the campaign related to the restart of the LHC, #WhatsUpLHC, give us an opportunity to test new social media techniques and new ways to communicate about science.

We saw that Instagram stories worked well for our audience with up to 20,000 views. Instagram grids were also effective – by splitting one image into six squares to highlight the #InTheory six-part series we saw six-times the engagement.

Immersive 360 degree photos and videos have also been some of our most highly engaging social media posts. Plus quotes accompanying beautiful photos and our recent experiments with Facebook Lives have also provided valuable insights.

Identifying influencers has helped to reach a wider audience on social media. We organised our first Facebook Live in an experiment’s underground cavern earlier this year, just after a huge operation on the detector that we termed the “heart transplant”.

Before going live, we contacted relevant influencers on social media, including the Facebook page “Interesting Engineering” with more than seven million followers. During the live there was a sudden spike in viewers and indeed it was a direct result of that influencer sharing our content.

Influencers can also be celebrities, and when musicians such as Muse and have visited Geneva, they have also visited CERN and shared their excitement with their audiences on social media, enabling us to reach new audiences.

CERN scientists are excited about what they do, so they have been more than happy to participate in Facebook Lives. This year we have experimented with a number of these lives around key events, including the LHC restart.

There, engineers took part in the discussion although audience questions ended up being more towards the physics. Happily our social-media-savvy scientists were happy to help out responding with their comments afterwards, something that was very much appreciated by the online community.

Social media can show audiences behind the scenes of the laboratory. Using 360 degree photos and videos we have brought people into the office of a theoretical physicist, complete with piles of scientific papers and equation-filled blackboards, and one of our most successful posts this year has been a 360 degree photo of the CMS experiment’s cavern with 12,000 people engaging with the content.

Using our monitoring tools we can also see how each profile is evolving in terms of followers and their interactivity. We see for example that @CERN on Twitter has the largest audience, passing the two million followers mark in March this year, yet our Facebook and Instagram audiences are much more active and engaged.

We also saw that engagement on our Google+ profile had halved from 2015 to 2016. So at the end of 2016, we made the decision to discontinue this account to refocus our efforts on other channels.

Useful tips

Through our explorations and curiosity-driven research into CERN content, we’ve tried techniques, sometimes succeeded, sometimes failed yet learned and adapted. In terms of what other organisations can take from our experience, here are my top tips:

  1. Evaluate channels, audiences and resources – put effort where it makes sense
  2. Use social media to engage and drive traffic to your website
  3. Create regular content to retain interest alongside news
  4. Find human stories that people can relate to
  5. Humour works!
  6. Collaborate with organisations, your internal community and influencers
  7. Test different and new techniques
  8. Monitor the impact and adapt accordingly

There is not one technique that will continue to work for creating content, the format and delivery needs to change and evolve at the pace of digital technologies. The important thing is to try, test and adapt, much like the methods of the curiosity-driven particle physicists at CERN.

Kate Kahle

Kate Kahle is head of editorial of content development at CERN. She began as a physicist before receiving a distinction for a masters in science communication. She joined CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in 2006 to communicate CERN-led European projects after five years of editorial experience in the Pearson Publishing group in the UK. In 2012, she became CERN’s social media manager and was promoted to head of editorial content development in 2016. Kate now leads the writing, web and social media teams at CERN and received a Best Practice award for Digital Leadership in June 2016.