How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Five Tips for Marketers Working with Scientists

Note from Bob: This week, I’m writing a shaggy little series on marketers and scientists, and how to make that unpromising but all too common pairing work better. See all the emails.

I’ve owned dogs for more than 20 years. While people aren’t dogs, the clarity and quick feedback of dog-training principles (reward success lavishly; ignore or quickly and gently correct missteps; and set frameworks and conditions that maximize your charge’s chances of success and minimize their chances of failure) has led me to apply those principles to lots of non-dog situations.

It’s an uncommon scientist that has marketing instincts. For the rest, I recommend to marketers that they treat them like dogs. It works, especially for the narcissistic ones.

That isn’t condescending or disrespectful. In working with dogs (as in much of life), you’re training yourself as much or more as you are working with you “subject.” Also, we’re working off-leash: so to get what we both want, we have to be patient, listen intently, assert our authority for our domains and signal our intentions and responses clearly. Here are a few specific tips from my career:

  1. Have Clear Metrics of Success

Scientists want to know why they’ll be doing something and what will show us the experiment was successful. That doesn’t mean “lots of media hits.” It means a target that’s directly traceable to the strategic goals of the organization. Without it, your ask will be greeted with skepticism, and your work together will inevitably produce their indelible cynicism.

2. Create Simple Systems That Make It Easy for Scientists

Your scientists are busy, and I’ve been writing this series because your marketers are not their first priority. To succeed in working with them, you might have to drop your expectations about process and finished product.

  • Instead of expecting them to engage with you through multiple iterations on a piece of writing, text them a Google doc link and let them send you a voice mail with their comments.
  • Instead of mandating that they RT the organization’s tweets, manage their accounts through Buffer and load those tweets yourself, or assign it to an intern.
  • Instead of expecting them to produce a version of their important figure that’s friendly for your audiences and lands the point of the story, contract with a vendor to do that conversion.
  • Instead of expecting them to find time for a polished video, let them shoot it with their phone and frame the results as authentic (as long as the sound is decent).
  • Instead of expecting them to understand what an op-ed is, share with them a template that explains the form.

Marketers should make it as easy for scientists as they want the scientists’ research to be for your audiences.

3. Get Them Media Training

Media training combines a) the importance of crisp messaging with b) the recognition that conversations are always a dance between people with potentially misaligned objectives and c) sound dance steps and patterns that allow you (and, one hopes, your dance partner) to emerge from those conversations profitably. I’ve lost count of the scientists who have told me years later that they keep on applying the lessons they’ve learned from firms such as Intermedia Communications Training to all manner of marketing and communications activities. Anyone who is planning on podcast guesting must take media training first.

4. Constrain Them

Marketers often complain about scientists for using jargon and being long-winded and just generally impossible to work with. Again, because of my experience with dogs, I take the opposite approach: it’s my responsibility to first set up conditions in which my clients a) will not fail and b) have the best chance of succeeding. To do so, I need to constrain them:

  • If they’re going to give a talk, I tell them to assume they only have five minutes and a choice: a) explain what they do? or b) change their audience’s minds about something really important? If your audience is going to remember only one thing (a good cardinal rule for any talk), let’s make sure it’s the most transformative thing possible.
  • Talk-to-write sessions: I almost never let a scientist write the first draft of anything for non-specialists, unless they have a history of publishing success. It takes hours and hours of work to get the draft to where it needs to be. You waste a lot of time battling their initial groove you need it.
    • Instead, talk to them about the topic and record the conversation. Get it transcribed by a service like Rev, which is very cheap and does fast turn arounds. Then draft a detailed outline that I send to them for approval. Once they approve it, you write it up. (This last step should be a quick one if the outline is detailed enough.)
    • Get their words — their expertise — and then shape it into the narrative and form that will work for your target audiences and platforms.
  • If your marketers must slip into the science communicator role, they should start with a really restrictive format — ask them to give you one or two sentences on these four questions:
    • What’s the Big Takeaway?
    • What’s New?
    • Who Benefits? and
    • What are the Next Steps to a Solution?
    • You can publish this as a feature and repurpose it for media.

5. Get Away from the Paper, Move Toward What They See and What They Do

If papers are the main fodder for your marketers’ work with your scientists, you’re hostage to an often opaque peer-review publishing process that either gets delayed for months or suddenly happens before you’re ready.

You’re also leaving their best marketing assets on the table.

Your scientists have evidence-based solutions, insights, and new ways of seeing problems. They also see problems on the horizon that no one else sees but everyone should know about. That intellectual capital is a huge marketing asset that can deeply differentiate your organization from every other one in your space.

Again, marketers should be asking your scientists that Magic Question: if you had five minutes to teach our audiences something that’s going to change their minds about something important, what would that something be?

Moving from paper to expertise requires organizations to also own the answers to their audiences’ questions. If you’re a marketer for a conservation organization, for instance, work with your scientists to create digital assets that are the one-stop shop for what the literature says on questions such as:

  • How will climate change impact birds in our state?
  • Should we keep recycling now that China has stopped importing it?
  • What would an insect apocalypse mean for where I live?

The best way to get this content is to start thinking in terms of these big questions and create mechanisms that can get the answers from the scientist.

If you’re a marketer, let me know what’s worked for you in working with scientists — and scientists as well for working for marketers. If you agree, I’ll share it with the list.