How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

How Marketers Can Win Scientists’ Trust

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.

Many scientists still distrust marketing and marketers on what seems like a cellular level. The differences, indeed, are tribal — but the tribes can do productive business if they understand each other’s ways and are transparent with each other.

Specifics, Lalasz. What can marketers do in this diplomatic exchange to win over scientists’ trust, given that they’re not trained science communicators?

Here are four principles that have worked for me when I’ve sat on marketing teams and played a hybrid marketing/science communication role:

1. Start Working With and Learning About Your Scientists Before You “Need” Them.

The worst thing to do with a scientist is to parachute in at the last minute in a whirlwind of opportunism, confusion about what they do and impatience with their nuanced ways of expressing it. That’s everything they hate about marketers.

Build your profile of them and their work and expertise before you need it. Reach out and start to build your relationship with them now. Demonstrate that you’re interested in their work and expertise long before you suddenly decide they’d be perfect spokespeople for your year-end campaign or to write a piece of thought leadership pegged to breaking news.

That doesn’t mean “become a domain expert” in their science. It does mean becoming conversant with what they do, the major issues in their fields, and how their expertise typically intersects with the larger world and its issues.

So:

  • Ask what they’re working on and for updates.
  • Listen to them; take notes; ask tons of questions for clarification;
  • Ask questions that begin to tease out of them how their work applies to bigger questions.
  • Send them news links and tweets and ask: is this an example of what we were talking about? What’s your opinion on this?
  • Save their responses as you start to think about how they can contribute to your organization’s thought leadership content strategy — and how you might even help them develop their own plans.
  • Keep up with science trends: subscribe to some of the daily briefings from the big journals like Science, Nature and PNAS as well as specific disciplinary journals.
  • Send your scientists relevant articles and ask if they’ve seen them. Most of the time they have — but they will appreciate the gesture nonetheless.

It’s better to be too interested than not interested enough.

2. Assert Your Domain Authority As Well.

One of the dirty secrets of the friction between scientists and marketers (and, frankly, scientists and science communicators, and more broadly many people in power with their staff communicators and marketers) is that the scientists don’t really take communications and marketing seriously as a discipline, with its own domain knowledge. And because we need the scientists, we often roll over on this. Which only leads to tears.

As a marketer, you are an authority about your organization’s audiences. About where they feed, the messages they’ll respond to and the content that works best for those audiences on each platform and each channel you’re using.

Almost all of the time (Twitter perhaps being the exception), your scientists can’t match your authority regarding audience and channel.

Make this a part of your relationship building. If any of your scientists expresses an interest in marketing trends (usually, how to use Twitter more impactfully), send them links to interesting articles from time to time.

When you’re working together, you may also need to assert your domain authority, gently but firmly. My go-to line when I hear a bad idea from a researcher: “That’s not going to work for this channel,” and then I explain why. Standing up for the data is what they pay you to do — and it usually works, even if the scientist outranks you on the org chart.

3. Be Clear ASAP About What You’re Trying to Accomplish.

Share your goals as soon as possible for any campaign or promotional initiative in which you want them to play a part — ideally, early in the first conversation. Is it science communications, marketing, both? How will this specifically help the organization? Which larger strategic objectives and goals will it help achieve?

Framing the work this way to researchers helps them immediately understand what’s at stake and why they’re needed.

4. Be Respectful of the Risks They See in Working with You.

At the same time, you must understand and respect the culture of science and the potential risks some marketing initiatives might pose to scientists, especially those not protected by tenure. As a friend of the list (who is both a scientist and a science communicator) put it, responding to yesterday’s email:

I would not say that as a scientist communicating, my entire goal is understanding…in fact, for me, that’s hardly ever it. I am a troubler, and am trying to change things, for the long-term. To raise critical questions, to say hey, what about this piece that you’re conveniently ignoring?

And, that leads me to this point: the real rub for me is that marketers have the orientation that you describe about the institution, the brand, organizational message, etc. And for me as a scientist and science communicator, the things I need to bring up in order to accomplish my goal sometimes go against that all-too-sacred brand. This is, in my mind, a HUGE problem around comms/marketing professionals running the show in alliance with administrators (in a constant battle for control) at so many organizations (particularly universities, where academic freedom is key, and where the assumptions of tenure for academics can no longer be seen as a default protection). That parenthetical should probably not be, it’s the key point for me.

I do not want a marketer trying to gain my trust that doesn’t understand the larger institutional culture around public scholarship. In my experience, they are more than willing to conveniently ignore the risk that scientists are taking in being “out there.” And, I get it, their rewards are often different than mine and rely on me both being willing to “make the splash” that they can take the reward for, but will hardly ever bear the risk for.

Friend of the List brings up an especially thorny topic — when science goes against the organizational brand. Not to punt, but that’s a topic for another email series. (I still have scars from those kinds of fights back in my NGO days.)

Practically, however, it’s on marketers to see the big picture and to craft initiatives that can get scientists what they need as well as the organization. That’s why they call us creatives.

Tomorrow: some specific tips on working with scientists to create compelling content.