How to run a successful citizen science project

Posted on October 26, 2021

Our top three guiding principles

Over the past decade, Natural Apptitude has produced projects for, and advised, many different organisations on running successful, large-scale citizen science projects, so we understand what it takes to make one a success. 

For this post we’ve teamed up with Adam Hart, Professor of Science Communication and citizen science expert from Gloucestershire University, to give you our combined top tips to get your citizen science project off the ground and flying.

Tip 1 – Simple

Keep it simple. Perhaps the single most important factor in a successful citizen science project is simplicity.   Most citizen science projects are open to everyone, and aim to engage the highest number of people possible.  For this to happen, the project needs to be easy for people to understand and quick to complete. 

The Kitchen Sink Syndrome

It’s often tempting to think about all the possible information you might want to collect on your subject, and to start designing it with the idea that certain information might be useful in the future – we call that the ‘kitchen sink syndrome’. “Hey, whilst people are collecting data on ‘x’ for us we should also just ask them to collect data on ‘y’ and ‘z’ (and the rest of the alphabet) too.”  If this sounds familiar you’re not alone. However, unless critical to your project you’re probably better off avoiding this trap.  Be ruthless when it comes to considering what the project’s key requirements are.  In most cases there will be an inverse relationship between the number and the complexity of questions you ask, and the number of people that take up and stick with your project.

Data Quality

Another factor to consider is data quality.  One of the criticisms most often levelled at citizen science projects is that the data collected is inherently unreliable. However, that depends on many factors such as how you set up your project, your ability to check and clean the data and the data you ask people to collect in the first place. Keeping it simple not only helps boost your engagement but should mean that the data you receive is more reliable too.

Tip 2 – Sexy

This one’s a bit more of a challenge.  Not all subjects are born equally interesting to the general population.  Regardless how interesting you find your topic it’s always worth being as impartial about your idea as possible. Check with some friends and family what they think of the topic. Will other people find it appealing, interesting or care about it enough to take part? Is it practical? If not, how will you encourage people to take part and remain engaged?

The Big Butterfly Count is a good example of a ‘sexy’ project that wins in three key ways:  

  1. Butterflies are beautiful, relatively conspicuous subjects that people love to watch.  
  2. It’s easy to take part using a user friendly app and/or website.  
  3. There is a compelling story behind the project – butterflies are in trouble and we need your help to see what’s happening. 

These factors have led to the Big Butterfly Count being the largest citizen science project of its kind in the world.  And year on year the number of participants and records is increasing.

Importantly, the Big Butterfly Count is a project that uses butterfly records to assess the health of the environment. However, the public’s role is simply to sit in the sun for 15 minutes and count the butterflies they see (sexy and simple). The scientists at Butterfly Conservation do the hard bit behind the scenes.

So ask yourself, is your project sexy enough? What is the most fun part? Then give that bit to your audience to do.

Big butterfly count app
The Big Butterfly Count used an engaging app to make their project sexy

Tip 3 – Sell

Selling and marketing your idea are critical. These two disciplines are a science and an art in themselves, and therefore not always something you’ll be highly skilled at. However, they’re vital to the success of your project. Key questions you need to determine are:

  • Who your key audience is (age, interests, etc)
  • How will you encourage people to give up their time for this project
  • How will you keep them engaged with your project once you’ve found them

One important point is that ‘build it and they will come’ simply does not apply to citizen science projects – unless you’re very lucky. 

To be successful you need a strong hook (or several) and you will need to work hard at marketing and selling your project to your audience, just like you would any other product. And it’s not a case of getting featured in the local or national press once and your job is done. People need to know that the project is alive and kicking over the life of the project, else they’ll assume it’s dead and a waste of time. That means you need to communicate with your audience regularly.  You don’t have to write reports, or long blog posts – just drip feed news and information into the appropriate channels.  You can also use automated feedback, such as ‘thank you’ emails to boost engagement and retention.

But how do you get their attention in the first place? One of the best ways is to elicit an emotional response. In a similar vein to the Big Butterfly Count, another project, BugsMatter provides a good example. Their pitch is essentially that “insect populations are crashing around the globe and we need your help to monitor them”. This succinctly demonstrates both the critical issue and highlights that you can do your bit to help.

Once you have your key message, you can use it capture your audience’s attention across a variety of different channels such as: 

  • Social media 
  • Mainstream media 
  • Face to face e.g. at related conferences
  • Special interest groups

Remember – make sure you target the audience you want when choosing how to advertise to avoid wasting precious time and energy. Find out where your audience communicates and join in the conversation.  If in doubt, Facebook is often a good place to start, by seeking out groups that focus on your subject area.

Social media icons showing the scope of advertising citizen science

We hope our top 3 principles for running a successful citizen science project have been helpful. Next month we’ll continue the series, exploring some of the other key areas to focus on to maximise your chances of success.

In the meantime, if you want some more advice on how to build your citizen science projects, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at

Or, take a look at our projects here for some inspiration.