Online Entomology Outreach: Tips From a Long-Running Program
By Elizabeth Barnes, Ph.D., and Cliff Sadof, Ph.D.
Even before Covid-19 and social distancing, getting relevant information about new invasive species into the hands of the public and decision makers has always been challenging. Back in 2002 when emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), the most important forest pest since chestnut blight, was detected in Detroit, Michigan, the scientific literature consisted of a single two-page paper. Multiple agencies and institutions scrambled to develop coordinated research and outreach plans.
In 2008 progress made on these fronts was met by an economic downturn that constrained our ability to share information with those who could not afford to travel long distances to seminars. Fortunately, the availability of new webinar software helped to address this problem and bring information to the desktops and meeting rooms of those who could use and act on the latest research developments.
We used this new technology to create a webinar series called Emerald Ash Borer University. The initial focus of the webinars was emerald ash borer but has since expanded to include other invasive forest insects and pathogens affecting the north central and eastern United States. Since our first webinar in 2009, our aim has been to provide state-of-the-art knowledge to our audiences from top researchers around the world. In a report published in February in Environmental Entomology, we share details about how we used evolving webinar technology, search engine optimization tools, and popular video platforms to accomplish our objectives. Here, we offer the following recommendations to help you make the most of webinars for remote entomological extension and education.
Record and Post Your Webinars on Existing Video Platforms
Share webinar recordings on popular streaming platforms, like YouTube. It’s cheaper and doesn’t require as much maintenance as creating a new site. Most, if not all, of these platforms are completely free, have built in analytics, and are updated to keep pace with technology changes. Additionally, people already use these platforms for other purposes. Why fight the uphill battle of getting them to a new site? It’s the same rationale as setting up a booth at a fair: Go to where the people already are. (See an example EAB University webinar recording embedded from YouTube at the bottom of this post.)
Also, include keywords in video titles and descriptions to help search algorithms match the right people with the right video. For example, if someone searches for “EAB Management” and our video title is “Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) Management 101” the search engine is more likely to put it first in the search return than if our title is “Handling Agrilus planipennis.” The aim is to understand what stakeholders are looking for and make it as easy as possible for them to find it.
Aim for an Influential Audience
If the content of a webinar is interesting and relevant enough, viewers will share it with other people, further extending the reach of the message. People who do either formal or informal outreach themselves have the potential to spread the message even further. Don’t just think about the number of initial viewers. Think about who the viewers talk to.
Consider the “Watch Time” Conundrum
Although new viewers regularly watched our hour-long recordings for 4 years after the live webinar, the average length of views on our recorded webinars was about 12 minutes. You can adjust to viewer’s behavior by requesting that speakers take 5 minutes at the beginning of their talk to summarize their key points as a video abstract. People who only watch the beginning of a video will still get the key information, and those who watch the full video will have the information reinforced through repetition. This abstract can even be posted as a separate video to attract viewers who might be scared away by a 1-hour time stamp.
After Covid, Use Webinars to Expand the Reach of In-Person Events
Webinars should not replace in-person events. Quite the contrary. Live events can accomplish things that webinars can’t, and vice versa. Webinars should be complementary to in-person events. These two modes of delivery are likely to attract different audiences.
For example, people who prefer webinars might not be able to take the time or money to travel to a seminar. On the other hand, people who prefer in-person programing might have restricted internet access or enjoy the networking at in-person events. Both of these audiences are worth reaching. Programs that combine web-based and in-person programing are much more likely to reach a more complete representation of their audience.
Elizabeth Barnes, Ph.D., is an exotic forest pest specialist at Purdue University’s Extension Entomology program. Twitter: @LadyoftheLeps. Email: email@example.com. Cliff Sadof, Ph.D., is a professor of entomology and an extension coordinator for ornamentals and pest management at Purdue. Twitter: @CliffSadof. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.