How researchers get heard

Objectivity is a Terrible Marketing Plan

Most researchers can’t stand marketing — that is, until they need it.

To distribute a vaccine quickly to 80% or more or the U.S. population, we’re going to need some kick-ass marketing. Not just a campaign with celebrities and Anthony Fauci doing PSAs, but customized approaches that target the obstacles specific audiences face and put up to vaccination.

But why is marketing just for planetary emergencies?

So much research and so many research-based ideas could use tailored marketing to help their promotion as well — research-based intelligence about how to be persuasive. Otherwise, as I once put it: You’re otherwise bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Researchers and research communicators often like to float haughtily above marketing, pretending that their work is simply about neutrally conveying information and the best available evidence. (In fact, they hope that their work will be all the more persuasive the more neutral and objective — i.e., the less overtly persuading — it appears to be.)

Research holds tight to a thoroughgoing faith in objectivity and the power of data to change minds. After all, it works in their discipline! (Doesn’t it?)

This insistent belief is increasingly self-sabotaging. In a low-trust environment such as exists in the United States right now, being snobby about marketing or relying on objectivity (and communication) alone is a terrible communications strategy. That’s because, for an increasing number of issues, there’s very little space where objectivity itself isn’t called into question.

Weirdly, in a low-trust environment, everything becomes about trust. As Stacy Wood and Kevin Schulman put it in their new New England Journal of Medicine article, “Beyond Politics — Promoting Covid-19 Vaccination in the United States”:

As with many disruptive trends and the innovations they spawn, Americans’ attitudes toward Covid-19 and related health behaviors have been shaped by a complex combination of information, relative benefits, and social identity. Consider that although the use of face masks was promoted on the basis of strong relative benefits (high efficacy of slowing viral spread and low cost), what predominated in many peoples’ decisions about masking was its symbolic relationship to political identity.

When trust is low, you need more than objectivity to change behavior; you need to draw on lessons and intelligence from marketing. Marketing, which seeks to understand audiences deeply through research and segmentation and behavioral economics.

The frank reliance on marketing of the thinking in “Beyond Politics,” which I linked to at the end of last Thursday’s essay, make it an exciting resource for creative research communications. It’s not just that Wood and Schulman’s 12 strategies for effective vaccine promotion effort all come out of consumer research and behavior economics. It’s that, as the science communicator Jaq Lugg tweeted last week, the 12 strategies “could apply to just about any kind of effective #scicomm.”

For instance, to communicate research well, you should be able to segment messaging for your research and ideas by the specific resistance specific audiences will have to your findings. You don’t want to label “vaccine hesitant people as ‘conservative’ or ‘Covid-hoaxers’” because it “tells political conservatives that vaccines are a liberal concept and open to skepticism,” write Wood and Schulman.

But how many of us have gamed out the reactions of all our audiences to the language — not just in our research, but on social media — and whether it’s strategic to advancing our ideas?

Not many hands going up.

Some of the other strategies in “Beyond Politics” that I see having much wider application to research communications:

  • Find a common enemy. Not the thing you want to change that your opponents won’t, but a third thing (a stalled economy, for instance) that you both want to get back up and running.
  • Use analogy. Reassure people by putting numbers, ratios and percentages in terms that motivate behavior — the likelihood of the vaccine not working is “about the same as being killed in a car crash,” for instance.
  • Prompt anticipated regret. Put the terms of your conclusions in a way that forces your audience to confront specific regrets they fear or dread having — for instance, that a loved one will die, or that an iconic habitat will be despoiled.
  • Promote compromise options. Instead of giving decision makers or citizens only two options (“yes” or “no”; “act” or “don’t act”), offer them three specific policy or action proposals, with the middle one being the “compromise” option that you are nudging them towards. (For instance, say Wood and Schulman, vaccine proponents could offer a) getting the shot now and donating plasma, b) just getting the shot now, or c) getting the shot later.)
  • Neutralize the case versus base-rate heuristic. The one case in which someone goes into anaphylaxis from a vaccine will mean more to many people than 1 million vaccinations with mild or no side effects because, as Wood and Schulman write, “people often underweight base-rate statistics and overweight anecdotal cases — stories — in judging probability, a decision heuristic known as the base-rate fallacy or case versus base-rate effect.” So researchers and research communicators, they say, need to be prepared to tell stories of individual success regarding the findings rather than big aggregate numbers.

There are a lot of other examples in what I keep telling you is a wonderful, must-read article.

Final note: Research is, at its heart, innovation. Which means it needs marketing help, not just communication. As Wood and Schulman put it:

The slow adoption of even the most beneficial new product is unsurprising to researchers who study the diffusion of innovation. From electrifying homes to developing personal computers, history has shown that “if you build it, they will come” makes a terrible marketing plan.

You’re in the persuasion business. Admit it and go beyond objectivity in your communications planning.