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The Evolution of Influence in the Life Sciences: How Public Relations Became Social Relations

September 15, 2013

Tweeter_Birds_2Research has shown that the general population doesn't trust advertising1,2 and overt marketing communications, yet our lives are filled with an endless clamor of voices vying for our attention. The life science researcher is an even more skeptical audience and has an equally challenging selling cycle.3

Every new technological advance dramatically changes the realm of public relations and marketing communications, with "new approaches" such as social media, mobile, local SEO(search engine optimization), and content and inbound marketing expanding the "must do list" for the marketing communications professional almost daily.

To understand why the business of influence has become so much more complicated, we need to take a quick look at how it has evolved.

In the beginning

Once upon a time, a company's success or failure was determined by people gathering and talking amongst themselves about product quality, reputation, and prices—word-of-mouth advertising at its best.

With the advent of newspapers, journals, magazines, and television, companies suddenly had a way to promote their products without relying on word of mouth. This had the advantage that reputation could be bought with advertising and product placements. The phenomenon of the brand was born.

Specialist agencies grew up to manage the media-client relationship and provide creative services that those clients may not have access to in house. Over time the voices of large corporations overpowered the voices of customers and corporations had almost a free hand to create the brand conversations that they desired.

In the scientific arena, scientists stopped relying solely on the peer-reviewed literature to identify equipment and techniques as various laboratory magazines started to provide hints and tips about techniques, cover new research, and showcase (often for a price) new laboratory equipment.

How much those advertisements, product pages, and placements influence purchasing behaviour is open to debate, but according to Hamid Ghanadan3, the efficacy will not be high. Ghanadan hypothesizes that the attributes that make researchers excel at the discovery process also make them more challenging to market to.

While Ghanadan's theory states that pushing products (including features and benefits) at scientists is likely to merely engage their skeptical nature, they are far less skeptical about information received from a trusted peer. This makes word of mouth increasingly important in the scientific world, yet even here there is a problem especially for purveyors of expensive niche capital equipment—most universities and research parks are not co-located, so word-of-mouth has limited spread.

Back to the social future

Back in 1999, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto asserted that the Internet allows markets to once more revert to the days where markets are defined by people gathering in groups to discuss them. The rise of public discussion forums, blogs, and social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have given the public back the power to shout as loud as large corporations, and one has to look no further than the United Breaks Guitars PR disaster to see the effect that one man, a guitar, and a social media profile can have.

However, these same networks (along with targeted platforms such as Scientist Solutions and Biocompare) also provide a way for companies to target those groups that appear to be a relevant audience. But what is interesting is that even in targeted groups, the majority of the discussions are about the research that scientists are undertaking and the methods they are using to generate results, rather than the tools they use to achieve it. When people do talk about products, they are likely to be those whom the Net Promoter System would consider a promoter or a detractor—not the merely 'satisfied' customer.

Even then, in the grand scheme of things, only a tiny percentage of social media posts rave about new products or great service, especially in the B2B arena.

Cutting through the social noise

One way many brands are going is to encourage influencers and advocates to openly discuss and praise products. But in the scientific arena, unlike the consumer world, these influencers are few and far between—and influential bloggers do not tend to talk about capital equipment. It is perhaps notable that Thermo Fisher Scientific has some 6,000 likes on Facebook and 21,000 Twitter followers, compared with IFLS (I F---ing Love Science), which has more than 6.7 million Facebook likes.

Of course, with people tweeting and blogging about cool science and what they had for lunch, cutting through a swarm of endless updates can be hard. Posts about product updates from commercial sources can be quickly lost (or intentionally ignored) amid the social noise, which makes getting your message heard harder and harder.

So how with this surplus of noise in the online and print media can you break through and grab the attention of the poor scientists whose lives would be better if only they knew how much time, effort, and frustration your latest innovations would save them?

The key is telling a different, more compelling story. A story that resonates with people, that inspires them and gives them something to believe in.

Start with why

Simon Sinek believes it is not what we do, nor how we do it that captures people's imagination, inspires them, and captures their loyalty.

It's why we do it that matters.

In his book Start with Why, Sinek talks about people's needs to believe in something and how the most important message is why you do what you do. By telling people why you are in business, you give those people that are going to care about your products and services a cause to rally behind.

By clearly articulating the why, you give your audience a reason to care about it, and if they feel that you care about the same things as they do, the audience is likely to trust you to solve their problems. A why then needs to be followed by a how and awhat, but it is the why that is the center of the belief.

Few life science companies explicitly state a why, but Thermo Fisher's tagline of the "world leader in serving science" hints at one. For Thermo, a why could be, "We believe in helping scientists make the world a healthier, cleaner and safer place. We do this by serving laboratories all over the world. By the way, we happen to make and sell laboratory equipment and reagents—want to buy some?"

But how do you get heard?

The first challenge is to identify where your audience congregates, where they discuss items of interest, and on what terms. This may be a physical location such as trade shows, online locations such as Scientist Solutions, Biocompare, LinkedIn groups, Twitter, blogs, forums or the avid readership of a research journal.

The next challenge is to then raise awareness of your why within those congregations of your audience. You wouldn't preach to an empty room, so why broadcast your message to one?

The message has to be clear and compelling, but most importantly it has to resonate with your audience and inspire their creativity to think about the implications of your message.

All too often, people become accustomed to "the way things are done around here," and even if a new solution presents itself, they are so used to working in a certain way they tend to overlook the needs they have—or they create work-arounds.

One way to break through our reluctance to change is to identify and focus on hidden needs, which often have an emotional component to them.

Thought-leadership articles can provide a great way to discuss issues of importance to your audience. These pieces should uphold your why and provide the pillar upon which everything else sits. If the audience aligns with your point of view, your brand will resonate with them and become more meaningful to them.

Closing the loop

A critical common thread that runs through the evolution of influence via social media is relationship building, which requires a committed communication between you and your audience. Like any cell culture, new connections wither in the absence of consistent care and nurturing.

By linking the outbound marketing communications and public relations efforts described above with a content marketing program that enables you to deliver educational content to your audience and nurture their interest in your why, they will soon be asking to purchase your what.

For more insight on how to cut through the media noise, please contact Pinnacle Marketing Communications.

References:

  1. Catteneo T. HubSpot Web site. http://blog.hubspot.com/interruptive-marketing-example-free-money-im-fun. Accessed September 15, 2013.
  2. Global Trust in Advertising and Brand Messages. Nielsen Web site. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/reports/2012/global-trust-in-advertising-and-brand-messages.html. Accessed September 15, 2013.
  3. Ghanadan H. Persuading Scientists: Marketing to the World's Most Skeptical Audience. Nashville, TN: Rockbench Publishing; 2012.

Matt Wilkinson

Matt Wilkinson is an account director at Pinnacle Marketing Communications Ltd. He started his professional life as a research chemist before winding his way through science and business journalism. His passion for storytelling ultimately led him to the world of public relations and strategic marketing. He holds a PhD from Bristol University and an MBA from the Cranfield School of Management.

Website: plus.google.com/+MattWilkinson007/

SAMPS, Sales And Marketing Professionals in Scientific research, is the first and only organization dedicated to sales and marketing professionals within the life sciences.

The association’s goal is to serve its members who work in commercial roles for life science products and services companies and associated businesses, globally.
 
SAMPS was previously named ACP-LS. We feel that SAMPS more clearly describes the membership, and will form a better foundation from which to expand this membership globally. 
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