How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Five Reasons to Pivot to Explainers

I argued yesterday that researchers and research-driven organizations are now in the explainer business — providing content that contextualizes what’s happening in the world, so that audiences can understand and respond intelligently to those events and trends.

Explainers are a business because they solve a problem and fill a gap, as Emily Gaudette put it a few months ago for Contently.

The problem: Something just happened (or is about to happen) and we don’t understand why. We need context and guidance.

The gap:

  • Neither news (with a metabolism that moves too quickly to provide expert context, and which doesn’t build easily searchable libraries of relevant reference content)
  • nor Wikipedia (which provides too much information, presented too densely)

offer the background or guidance we need in a convenient format.

Researchers, research communicators, and leaders of research-driven organizations need to jump into this gap, for at least these five reasons:

  1. The old research-to-journalism pipeline is evaporating and you need a new model for reaching audiences. We’ve got too many papers chasing fewer and fewer journalists, who more and more reside in just a handful of urban markets and write for the same handful of outlets.
  2. So much digital content is already morphing into the explainer. Videos, podcasts, newsletters, infographics and interactives — not to mention plenary features like The New York Times’ The Upshot and whole websites such as Vox and FiveThirtyEight. We can argue whether any instance of these genres is opinion or true explanation — but in an increasingly complex world, people are seeking them out for insight. The market is responding explosively. There is a market for the real deal.
  3. Explainers give advantage to what researchers and research-driven organizations can do best: evidence-based perspective. As opposed to punditry, which can sneak by on rhetorical force, the explainer is a data- and evidence-hungry genre. That’s the researcher’s turf.
  4. The explainer also positions the author as the authority — your ideal positioning, and much easier to do when the author is already a researcher and thus an expert.
  5. Finally, another advantage for research-driven orgs: Your content library approach makes an explainer focus even more powerful. Example: when Gaudette searched for “Brexit” on the Times’ site, she got a series of seemingly disconnected hits. But her search for “Brexit” on Vox came up with six explainers on various aspects of the crisis, including an omnibus one that’s updated regularly. That’s an appealing approach a research-driven org can more reasonably pull off for the issues in which it specializes.

Gaudette quotes Vox founder Ezra Klein on why he made explainers the DNA of that property:

“When I would get e-mails from readers, and when I would talk to people, their question was never, ‘What happened today in Obamacare?’ or ‘What’s going on today?’” he said. Instead, he’d get emails from readers drilling down into specific sub-topics. They’d ask, “how do premiums work in the new health care act?” or “What is the individual mandate?”

He grew frustrated without any useful resources to send his readers.

“I would think, ‘We do such good coverage of this. Why don’t we have anything for this person? Why is it on them to know that six and a half months ago, we broke one article explaining the foundational questions about what we’re doing?” He searched around, discovering there was a huge gulf between news and encyclopedic information. “What, they could go to Wikipedia? That’s it? That’s what the entire news industry had for them?”

I don’t mean to hold Vox up as a paragon — its biases and failings have been well documented.

But Klein’s analysis still holds: There is a huge gulf between news and encyclopedic information.

But Klein’s analysis still holds: There is a huge gulf between news and encyclopedic information.

Explainers fill that gulf and solves a problem for audiences.

Research-driven orgs could fill that gulf for their focus issues, on their own terms.

It doesn’t require $40 million, the sum it took to launch Vox.

But it does require strategy — both for content generation and content marketing. More on that in upcoming posts.