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Hope after all: How a Yemeni immigrant built a massive community with science videos

A German graduate from Yemen is a Facebook superstar

Hashem Al-Ghaili bei seiner Abschlussrede an der Jacobs Universität in Bremen (Quelle)

Hashem Al-Ghaili holding his keynote address on graduation day at Jacobs University in Bremen (source).

Actually, Hashem Al-Ghaili was supposed to be farmer. Today, though, the 26-year-old Yemeni holds two degrees and informs his six million plus Facebook followers on the latest scientific developments and technological advancements with science videos. In less than a year, his videos have generated more than 2 billion impressions. Al-Ghaili told OMR the details of his story, shared some secrets to his success and what’s essential for science videos to be successful.

Hashem Al-Ghaili

Hashem Al-Ghaili

Al-Ghaili is a sign that we aren’t all doomed. In the span of just a couple of years, he has proven that science can in fact be cool and engaging in the age of social media. The proof is empirical: 147 million views for a video about a new safety system for aircraft fuselages, 110 million for a clip about the remarkable connection between human fetuses and their mothers, and the medical ramifications it entails, and 101 million for a video showcasing a medical device that is said to be able to reanimate hearts of deceased individuals. But these are just three of the top-performing science videos. In total, Hashem Al-Ghaili’s Facebook page, “Science Nature Page,” features over 600 short videos, all produced in his free time on topics that are by no means trivial.

Not all views are created equal

Al-Ghaili’s 10-most successful videos have notched 812 million views. In the past 12 months, he’s cracked the 8 million-fan mark on Facebook and surpassed 3 billion views.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, that last figure needs some clarification. You see, Facebook’s manner of measuring and recording what a view is, is highly disputed. While YouTube doesn’t count a view until after 30 seconds, Facebook counts one after a mere three. And that’s before you consider the fact that videos on Facebook are aided by auto-playback in Newsfeed—sans sound. On balance, Facebook video views are seen as inferior compared to their YouTube brethren.

Off-the-charts interaction rate

However, there is a very reliable metric that Al-Ghaili can take solace in: engagement. Engagement is any sort of interaction with content, on Facebook that consists of shares, comments, reactions and, of course, likes. This is where his clips excel. Not only are Al-Ghaili’s videos seen an average of over a million times each, but likes, reactions and shares are in the five-figure range, while comments average four figures. In the past seven days alone, official figures released by Facebook state that 1.5 million people have been “talking about” the “Science Nature Page,” which is a cumulative engagement metric. Is 1.5 million good? Yes. Yes it is. To put it into context, “I Fucking Love Science,” the most popular science-themed page on Facebook with 25 million fans, has a current engagement of 1 million.

Facebook engagement ScienceNaturePage

Current Facebook engagement figures for ScienceNaturePage

Whether it is a third or a half of users who have actually seen his videos, the figures are impressive. Media houses, not to mention scientific trade publications, would absolutely jump at the chance to piggyback off of such reach and engagement figures.

Subsisting on the land or prospering in the city

Al-Ghaili’s success is even more impressive when you consider the obstacles he overcame. The young science enthusiast grew up in the hinterland of one the world’s most remote and, in recent times, troubled countries, Yemen. Located on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen is a country unsullied by tourists and western influence, boasting three UNESCO sites, the “Manhattan of the Desert” and is rich in history and tradition. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries. Yemen came in dead last in the Global Innovation Index and is a land when subsistence and survival trumps prosperity and dreams of a career. “Every child in Yemen is born to be a farmer,” Al-Ghaili recently said in an interview with a higher learning portal for the Arab world. “It was hard to convince my father that my ambition was in science.” In 2015, the country’s simmering tribal conflicts finally boiled over into a bloody civil war with geopolitical underpinnings, in which Yemen is still embroiled. 

Terrassenförmige Landwirtschaft im Jemen (Foto: Franco Pecchio, CC BY 2.0)

Typical Yemeni terraced landscapes (image: Franco Pecchio, CC BY 2.0)

After finishing school, Al-Ghaili embarked on the six-hour journey to the Yemeni capital Sanaa—in secret—to submit his application for a scholarship. The trip ultimately paid off as he was awarded a biotechnology scholarship to the University Peshawar in Pakistan.

Network building through Facebook groups

It was while he was enrolled at college in Peshawar that he first became active on Facebook, creating a private profile in 2009 where he occasionally posted things about or pertaining to new developments in the scientific world. “I didn’t really have many friends on Facebook at the time,” Al-Ghaili recalls. And his initial posts fail to resonate, mostly due to the fact that all of his Facebook friends are people he’s actually met in real life who do not share his passion for science. So Al-Ghaili begins searching for science groups within Facebook and starts posting there. By doing so he begins to make contacts—and friends who appreciate his science posts.

If success is any indication, Al-Ghaili has a good feel for packaging scientific information in a way that is not only easy to understand, but also excites his audience. One of his favorite ways of doing so is by creating infographics on a wide range of topics, like why man should go to Mars, fascinating facts about ants, the oldest trees in the world and the positive impact of bike riding. His series “This Week in Science” on the latest from the world of science is especially successful. He saves all of his work to Flickr—and it’s definitely worth a look.

Ein Beispiel für eine von Al-Ghailis "This Week in Science"-Grafiken (Quelle)

Al-Ghaili’s infographic series “This Week in Science” from January 21-26, 2013 (Source).

Permanent front-page resident on Reddit

In early 2013, someone else posted one of his infographics on Reddit. The post took off, resonating with the social community in such a way that it was vaulted to the all-important front page. Word of the success soon got to Al-Ghaili and evolved and expanded his efforts, posting all of his infographics on Reddit. Success here proved to be no fluke as his posts “appeared on the front page every week.” The sustained success turned on the proverbial light and he started expanding to other platforms, like tumblr and Youtube, where he currently maintains a base of over 45,000 subscribers and total views numbering upwards of 12 million. In Summer 2013, international science organization “Humanity+” took note and published his infographics in their eponymous blog.

By maintaining a profile on various platforms, Al-Ghaili was able to continuously expand his reach and augment his brand. When Facebook introduced the subscribe button in 2011 to allow users to follow private profiles of people they are not friends with, Al-Ghaili is ready to profit. “People began following me because they wanted to see more of my content.”  In the end, he attracts  Al-Ghaili 29.500 Follower an.

800,000 fans on first Facebook page

In 2012, he completed his bachelor’s degree in Yemen and then applied to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), receiving a scholarship. In September 2013, he began his Master’s at Jacobs University in Bremen. While in Germany, he continued his career as a social media publisher during his studies. In addition to his private profile, he created his first Facebook page called “Sci-Tech,” which lands some 800,000 fans.

Al-Ghailis "Sci-Tech"-Facebook-Seite in ihren Anfängen

The “Sci-Tech” Facebook page in its infancy

But after a few months, he puts his Facebook activities on the back burner to to concentrate on getting his degree. He hands over “Sci-Tech” to an acquaintance and greatly reduces his activity on his personal profile. In 2015, he finishes his Master’s and is even asked to give a keynote address in front of the graduating class; his native country of Yemen is already in the grips of a bloody civil war.

A career as a “Science Communicator”

After graduating it’s decision time: should he embark on a career in science or PR as an ambassador of science on social media or should he further his studies and pursue a doctorate? Initially, he chooses the latter and even spends a few months conducting research. Then he does an about face, because “as a scientist [he] would be locked away in a lab, unable to impact people’s lives the way [he] can now.”

So in the summer of 2015 he exchanges the lab for a laptop. While many inactive followers had been automatically deleted by Facebook, he still has 27,000 followers. He transforms his personal profile into a public page and focuses on video content. “Videos,” he says, “are a fantastic medium to bring content to a large audience and to boost growth on Facebook.” His timing couldn’t have been better, as Facebook began to prioritize video content. To put it in simplistic terms, other content was increasingly outpipped by video content in Newsfeed thus making it difficult to reach users without resorting to paid ads. And because Facebook prefers to display videos in Newsfeed, such content is essentially granted free reach.

Science videos more popular than football

But with a dearth of science-themed video content available, where exactly does Al-Ghaili get his video content when production costs are typically sky high? “Generally speaking, I have two sources,” he told us, “scientific publications, which tend to use video licensed by Creative Commons and university Youtube channels, which oftentimes just contain videos haphazardly thrown together.” A small, randomized sample of his videos is enough to see that Al-Ghaili places a great deal of value on quality. Excerpts of his most popular video, the aforementioned airplane safety concept, stem from the Youtube channel of inventor Vladimir Tatarenko, who has amassed 1.6 million views. For a second video, one that’s already been viewed over 65 million times on Facebook about a dive in Iceland between two continents, Al-Ghaili stitched together various videos posted by divers on Vimeo. Not one to claim other’s laurels as his own, he always names his sources at the end of his videos, and if the video introduces a new scientific concept, he provides links to the corresponding academic publication.

By December 2015, Al-Ghaili has gradually built up his fan base to 64,000. Then out of no where, the figures fly through the roof. Within 2 weeks, he has his first million fans and for a time even outpaces soccer giants Bayern Munich.

“Put the most engaging content at the beginning”

When we asked him what was a key factor in the success of his science videos, he didn’t hesitate: “The first three seconds. I want to get users to watch the entire video within that time, which is why I pay added attention to the beginning and make sure that the most engaging content appears at the beginning.” Furthermore, he says a consistent production style and music also aid in a video’s success. Al-Ghaili usually cuts the material himself to produce his videos, which clock in at around 90 seconds. He keeps the language to a minimum, because “the visual aspects are more important. Not everyone will understand the language, but everyone gets a good story.”

An additional growth lever is a content exchange with other Facebook pages. “I share their videos and they share mine.” Most recently, Al-Ghaili has shared science videos from”Rockets are cool.” “It’s good content, and it nets me roughly 30,000 reactions.”

Yes, he Cannes

His success has garnered him attention, above and beyond. This past June, he was invited to the prestigious advertising festival in Cannes, where he spoke about how to make marketing in the health sector more engaging for its target audience.

Eine von der Agentur Ogilvy erstellte Infografik über Hashem Al-Ghailis Empfehlungen für interaktionsstarken Content (Quelle)

Infographic by Ogilvy on Hashem Al-Ghaili’s quick wins for effective content (Source)

All the while, his fan base keeps growing. Just a few days ago he cracked the 6-million mark and now has fans from all corners of the globe: 20% from the USA, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, Mexico and Brazil. Al-Ghaili is constantly experimenting with new formats to retain and gain. “To be successful, you have to change in step with Facebook otherwise, you’ll get left behind.” He most recently gave Facebook live a test run, streaming interviews with astrophysicist Stefan Gillessen from the Max-Planck-Institute and several former professors from Jacobs University.

Not selling the farm just yet

One thing Al-Ghaili has not yet begun doing with his Facebook is make money. While he says he has received many offers to sell the site or to at the very least run promoted content, he has declined all such offers thus far. “I am interested in maintaining my credibility. Once you turn it into a business model, it will turn people off,” citing “I Fucking Love Science” as an example. He says they had too much paid content on their page and began resorting to click bait headlines to drive traffic from Facebook to a given website, which aggravated users, which, in turn, was responsible for the declining interaction rates.

Friends suggested getting financial support for his community from Patreon. “If I am going to seek external funding for a project, then for something big.” For example, a three-part documentary series on science and future technologies with crowdfunding.

He’s not in any hurry and is fortunate enough not to be forced into making any rash financial decisions. US publisher “Futurism,” whose core area of focus shares significant overlap with Al-Ghaili’s page, hired Al-Ghaili to develop the Arabic version of his page after meeting on Reddit. The agreement sees to it that Al-Ghaili heads the development of Futurism Arabia from his home in Germany; the Facebook page already has four million fans.

A couple hours of work a day

Al-Ghaili doesn’t get around to his own site, until he is finished with his duties for the Futurism page, but still spends anywhere from one to four hours each day on “Science Nature Page,” and recently expanded to Instagram, where he can reach a much younger target group.

“The Internet made me who I am today,” Al-Ghaili said recently in an interview with Positivists.org. “Before I was introduced to the Internet, I only knew my local community. Thanks to the Internet, I got a chance to explore the world and realized that we are only a small fraction of a big world. A world waiting for me to learn more about it and inspire others about what I learned.”

 

 
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