How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Why Marketers & Scientists Hate Each Other 2: Marketing Isn’t Science Communications

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.

Over the more than 20 years I’ve worked with scientists, I’ve heard a constant refrain from them: marketers are terrible to work with. They dumb down our work; they get things wrong; they want us to do silly things that will embarrass us with our colleagues; they don’t get our priorities, culture and constraints.

Say “science communications,” though, and they relax.

Scientists see huge differences in credibility between marketers and science communicators — first, the difference in credibility that marketers bring to the table vs. science communicators; and second, the difference in credibility scientists will have with their peers after they work with marketers vs. science communicators.

So when you run a research-driven organization and you pair your marketers up with your research staff and expect big results, you’re asking for trouble.

(Idea for experiment: label a group of communicators as “marketers” for one group of scientists, and “science communicators” for another group of scientists. Have the communicators ask each scientist group the same questions as they lead them through constructing a mock campaign for their latest paper. Then have the scientist groups rate their satisfaction in working with the “marketers” or the “science communicators.” Hypothesis: “science communicators” will win hands down.)

But why aren’t scientists more comfortable with marketing? Aren’t more and more scientists engaging in tactical activities that were once the purview of marketers — branded email newsletters on Substack, video for LinkedIn, Twitter and TED and TEDish talks?

They are. The difference is that most of these activities are still focused around promoting new research and discussing new research, which (as I argued yesterday) is less than ideal fuel for marketing your organization.

Marketers promote your organization and institution — its brand, its mission, its work and products and services, with the end goal of converting a potential customer or member or donor to become an actual customer or member or donor. Marketers want to inspire, excite, pique curiosity, nurture identification. And, most of all, get audiences into a funnel that eventually converts them.

Science communicators, on the other hand, aim for clear understanding — traditionally from scientist to audience, now more and more between scientist and audience. That’s it. It’s not about a product (unless we think of a new paper as a product). It’s not about a brand. It’s not about converting anyone to anything. Most scientists would wince if you talked to them about the word “promotion” other than for a new paper.

Here’s the rub: when your scientists are working with your marketers, they’re hoping the marketers will do science communication. Which the marketers will gamely try to do, but aren’t trained for.

Meanwhile, your marketers want your scientists to do marketing things — stay on organizational message, tell entertaining stories, do fun things that promote the organization. Many scientists can and will comply. Many more would rather crawl through ground glass and then eat it.

Neither group is getting what they want. Is there a way for both to get what they need? I’ll get to that Thursday. Tomorrow: some of my tips to marketers for gaining scientists’ trust.