How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Positioning is Not More Cowbell

We message in research communications. Foundationally.

We message everything. Message our findings, our talks, our interviews, our videos, even our podcasts (if they’re bad).

We have to message because the way researchers talk with each other (through papers, in conferences) can’t be understood by the rest of the world. Messaging helps them say what they want to say to non-specialists, and also helps them not to say what they don’t want to say to non-specialists.

Tactics for tactics.

But in the rush to message, very few of us talk about what lies beneath: our positioning.

Positioning is who we are — a declaration of identity in a very particular way:

  • Whom we serve, 
  • The need or problem we can meet or solve for those we serve, and 
  • The unique way in which we meet or solve it that keeps them coming back to us. 

Messaging is necessary. Positioning is essential.

Positioning is your strategy, your DNA. Messaging expresses, in some way, that DNA.

One of the common bad habits of research-driven organizations is that they develop positioning once every couple of years — usually in a group exercise, usually expressed in a vision and mission statement — and then those statements molder, forgettable and forgotten, on their About page as they get back to the busy business of messaging everything.

Everyone with the organization continues to describe and explain the organization in their own language, usually made up on the spot.

Every new opportunity for the organization — from a grant proposal to an op-ed invite — becomes an opportunity to reinvent the organization, in small and big ways, for the new observer.

The result is a collection of projects with no coherence. I’m betting you’ve seen that movie, and maybe even starred in it.

Positioning frightens most organizations because it’s an act of radical exclusion as well as inclusion. It’s the ultimate strategic act — we are this, not this; we serve these people, not those people; we serve them in these unique ways, not those. Doesn’t the exclusion kill off opportunity?

Actually, the opposite: If I can’t tell what your organizations’ positioning is within the first minute of any touch point, you’re either too big to fail or lost in a sea of undifferentiation where everyone looks the same and the winners know the most people.

If you’re reading this, you’re not too big to fail.

The most successful small research-driven organizations choose their focus, stick to it andmake sure it’s present in everything they do. That’s why, when I work with a client, I want to detect a strong signal of their positioning coming through in all their content. It doesn’t have to be front and center. But it’s like the white balance of a photo — if it’s off, nothing in the photo looks right.

Takeaway: Right now, take a look at what you’re working on communicating. Can you see your positioning in it — i.e., your identity?

If you can’t, how will we?