I’ll admit it – I’m a recovering academic. I spent a decade in life sciences research, punctuated by a stint working for a biotech SME, pursuing projects that used a wide range of old-school and cutting-edge technologies. During this time, I witnessed an explosion in the equipment and reagents available to help answer some of the most fascinating questions in biology. But why did I choose to use those tools, and how did I feel about the companies who produced and sold them?
In this short guide I will try to describe the landscape of academic research, and how (in my opinion) marketing professionals working in a scientific organisation can maximise their interactions with potential academic customers. Be gentle – I’m still nursing my h-index.
How does academia differ from industry?
As anyone who has transitioned from university-based research into the biotech industry will tell you, there are significant differences in culture and working practices. University research can be a meandering, knowledge-driven pursuit, with many false starts and dead ends. Industry is generally target-driven, with specific, marketable product-development aims.
Academic researchers at the PhD, and especially the post-doctoral stages of their career, experience some of the same pressures as self-employed sole traders; often working alone on individual, highly specific projects that require particular techniques and tools. Some of these they must develop themselves; building and expanding on pre-existing methods and sometimes developing custom techniques. This is all whilst under the pressure of limited budgets, erratic (and sometimes isolating) working hours, repeated failure, and often a huge degree of imposter syndrome. Sounds like a picnic, doesn’t it? More senior academics (junior group-leaders, mid-career lecturers, professors) have different pressures and focus, and may spend a great deal of their time just searching for the next source of funding, writing papers and grant proposals, or preparing for and delivering teaching responsibilities.
However, it’s not all bad! Compared to industry, academic research is more forgiving to changes in direction and focus and it permits a level of intellectual freedom not always available to those working in industry. If you are marketing to academia it’s worth understanding a bit about the purchasing power and influence of each group and adjusting your marketing approach accordingly.
Who are your audiences?
|Audience / career stage||Experience and understanding of reagents, technology and products||Purchasing power and influence on decision-makers|
|Undergraduate / Masters degree-level project students||Very low to low – might not fully appreciate the uses and application of your product||Probably zero.|
|PhD students||Moderate – will probably understand the tools specific to their work and be enthusiastic about new technology||Low to moderate. Some students are able to lobby their supervisor to try different consumables, but most must follow the conventions of the lab.|
|Post-docs and fellows||Moderate to high – probably have experience using a range of products and technologies and in general understand the benefits of each||Moderate. May have control over their own independent funding or the ability to recommend trialling something new.|
|Lab managers (a rare and valuable beast)||Variable – some lab managers are administrative assistants and PAs to the group leader and have little or no scientific experience. However, others have worked in industry and academia, and understand scientific products and technologies very well.||High. Lab managers are often the gatekeepers to the lab budget and interact with companies and reps on a daily basis to procure the best services and deals. Don’t try to be too cute with your marketing and get straight to the point. Cross them at your peril!|
|Junior group leaders||Moderate to high – depending on previous experience and preference||High. Usually very limited budget, but keen to explore new products and technologies that will help them publish faster and establish themselves in their field.|
|Established mid-career group leaders||Moderate to high – understand the best context for using particular products but may not be up-to-date with latest technology||High, but have limited time to consider new/alternative products. Often rely on their post-docs to suggest new products and make purchasing decisions.|
|Senior group-leaders and professors||Moderate to high. Case-by-case. Sometimes world-leaders in developing and implementing new technology, but often sceptical of new products and evangelise the techniques they used all those years ago.||High, but very difficult to reach (see below).|
Challenges in marketing to academia
Reaching the gatekeepers
As mentioned above, in an academic setting very few researchers will have the power to direct funding as they wish. Often, they are cross-funded from a variety of sources – this has to be carefully managed and is usually administered through a university or departmental accounting department. It’s crucial to identify who can make purchasing decisions, and not waste your time and budget marketing to individuals with little or no purchasing influence. Post-docs, junior group leaders, and particularly lab managers are the ideal audience, as they have best balance of technical knowledge and purchasing power.
Trialling and implementing new products and technologies takes time. Meeting with reps takes time. Understand that most researchers are extremely time-poor, so keep your messages straightforward and direct. Long, technical emails and video content just won’t be engaged with fully, so make sure key benefits are succinct and relevant.
Many universities will have lists of preferred suppliers, particularly for more general items such as IT hardware, stationary, and other everyday use items. Be aware that only in exceptional cases will the department permit purchase of these types of item from non-preferred sources, even if significantly cheaper!
There’s never enough money. Most research groups will be exceedingly careful with their resources and unwilling to consider new products unless there is a clear cost/efficiency benefit. Even if you can clearly articulate benefits, you’re likely to encounter…
…Resistance to change
This is probably the greatest challenge to companies selling into the scientific sector. There are very good reasons why researchers will be reluctant to try a new or alternative product:
- Scientific endeavour relies upon the reproducibility of results. Researchers can spend months (and sometimes years) getting an assay to work efficiently, optimising the reagents and methods to be as reliable as possible. Switching tools halfway through their project can have a dramatic effect on their experiment, produce significantly different results, and generally confound their efforts. For this reason, most tend to stick to their tried-and-tested tools.
- “We’ve always done it like this!” No matter how amazing your product or service, many scientists will be reluctant to change, simply because of how things have always been done in their lab. This is often accompanied by a ‘black magic’ effect, where one solution works better than a competitor, but no one has the time to figure out why.
- The magic bullet. You may have lots of beautiful marketing material with fantastic results generated by the product manufacturer, showing how fantastically well their product outperforms the competition. Scientists won’t believe it. Necessarily, they’re a sceptical lot, and will only trust the outcomes generated by their hands, in the context of their own work.
Know your products
Not an easy one. If you are a marketing professional working in a scientific organisation, no one can reasonably expect you to completely understand all the technical details of your products and their applications. However, it’s important to have some idea of what the product is for, who will use it, and why they might benefit from buying it. Unfortunately, there are plenty of stories of products that simply didn’t live up to their claims or didn’t function to spec. I personally have experience working with a £250,000 instrument produced by a huge global company that did not deliver the functionality as marketed to us, and was also constantly breaking down, requiring expensive service contracts and extensive (costly) downtime. Furthermore, controlled engineering tests showed that the instrument failed to operate to published specifications. There’s not much you can do about this unless you’re in-house and can liaise with the engineering / R&D team, but otherwise good communication with the client and a willingness to understand a bit about their product should help you to avoid ‘over-promising’.
What works well…
- Keep it short. Get straight to the point with marketing messages and reduce technical jargon…that stuff can be reserved for a landing page or product brochure.
- Keep it honest. Researchers will appreciate a simple, accurate message that doesn’t try to over-hype a product.
- Include some indication of cost. Product cost is one of the first considerations made, after relevance to a researcher’s work. So much further engagement is lost when it’s not immediately obvious how a product financially stacks up to a current solution.
- Free trials. If the client is offering a free trial or sample, push this and make it simple to obtain. Consider this approach particularly for products that require no technical support or setup; free trials are ideal for basic consumables or for kits that help common research tasks.
What doesn’t work so well…
- Too much flash. No, not the multimedia content player. Remember, we’re (hopefully) marketing practical, effective scientific tools here, not a lifestyle or aspirational brand. It’s unlikely that your client is Apple, so aim for balanced, professional-looking branding and content; polished but without gimmicks. Researchers will be suspicious of anything trying to be too ‘cool’ and will recognise if you’re prioritising brand over product.
- The irrelevant email. Researchers receive countless spammy marketing emails every week, few of which have anything to do with their work. Yes, it’s almost impossible to segment audiences perfectly by research topic, but it’s a waste of time to market an analytical chemistry platform to zebrafish geneticists. Make some effort to categorise email campaign lists by research field.
- The Shutterstock scientist. Marketing images of thoughtful, good-looking model-types in white coats is just irritating. Keep it real – you’ve seen the Big Bang Theory, right?
- Cold calls. Unlikely to be part of your marketing efforts, especially as most companies have dedicated sales teams for this kind of thing but bear in mind that cold calling in this context never, ever works.
Hopefully this has given you some insight into the challenges of marketing to research scientists in an academic setting, as well as the activities that will be more likely to hold their attention. I think it’s useful to reinforce these messages in the context of marketing professionals working in a scientific organisation. Straightforward, honest, accurate, and relevant are the key principals for marketing content in this sector. Good luck!