How researchers get heard

Doing Just Science Communications? That’s Bringing a Knife to a Firefight

Every research-driven organization should be investing in improving their research staff’s communications skills — that’s a no-brainer. But doing science communications alone is isn’t enough — like bringing a knife to the gunfight of the attention economy.

Credit: Jess C/Flickr CC


Every research-driven organization should be investing in improving their research staff’s communications skills — that’s a no-brainer. 

But science communications alone can’t make your staff or your organization a thought leader.

On its own, it can’t gain traction at scale for an idea, solution or paradigm. 

That’s because science communications is a collection of small-bore tools and tactics — knives to the firefight of the attention economy.

It won’t build brand. It isn’t a growth strategy. 

Many researchers (as well as their communications partners) are confused about this, and that’s understandable for two reasons. 

First: Researchers often see marketing as a discipline grounded in distortion and simplification and selling. “Science communications” promises to be cleaner, more honest — let’s present our findings clearly, understand the audience, engage them in a little dialogue… and then we can get back to more research.   

Second: Science communications has been fetishized as the answer to the perceived growing decline in public scientific literacy.  

So science communications has exploded as an industry, and its benefits oversold. 

To be clear: Sci comm tools (such as message boxes, storytelling workshops and best practices for Powerpoint slides) should be SOP for any researcher who wants public impact. 

But for research-driven organizations that want to grow their impact, these tools are table stakes. They will lose to groups sophisticated in ideas marketing every time. 

On its own, science communications falls short in four ways: 

1) It doesn’t position your ideas, solutions or organization — because it’s primarily concerned with making research products clear and compelling. Competitive differentiation isn’t in the sci comm lexicon.  

2) It doesn’t scale — because it uses the researcher as the vector of communication, instead of taking advantage of marketing tools and network effects. It’s an inefficient way to build a critical mass of ambassadors for a paradigm.

3) It’s tactical, not strategic — again, best fitted to individual research products and honest broker situations. Science communications doesn’t address your development, sales, marketing or HR needs.    

4) Finally, sci comm is also rarely audience-centric, despite the best efforts of some science communications and storytelling professionals. Anyone who’s worked with researchers knows that — if they’re not already specialists in audience analysis — they won’t suddenly be able to properly analyze the language that will resonate with their audience. 

So what else does a research-driven organization need to invest in besides science communications? 

First, a strategic narrative — one that positions the organization clearly and nests it inside a vision of outcomes for the world that resonates with its key audiences. 

Second: A thought leadership program — a systematic effort to build profiles for its researchers and the organization as authoritative on questions decision makers want answered. 

At the core of this program: ramping up to frequently publishing and disseminating high-value insights and analysis content — at least 2,500 indexable words per month of content per vertical, and ideally per SME.

Third: Connecting that output to the tools and paradigms of contemporary marketing— such as thinking in 9-12 month campaigns instead of promoting single pieces of research; segmented email marketing and list building; marketing automation and CRM combinations that identifies the key audience members who are engaging with your content (and that you could start relationships with); integration into the organization’s marketing partnerships; application of behavioral economics insights; and more. 

Thought leadership is more than just being credentialed as an expert — i.e., publishing research. It means being identified as an expert by an audience that you build for that expertise — for instance, the decision-makers your organization needs paying attention to its research, who are turning to your expertise because it makes them better at their jobs or their lives. 

Science communications skills are necessary for building those audiences — but not sufficient. 

So if your organization has already invested in training your staff in those skills, congratulations. 

But don’t assume you’re on a glide path toward real impact for your research and ideas. You’re just getting started.