Awkward Cousins: Scholarship and Marketing as Related Disciplines

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Most scholars I know grimace when they think about promoting their ideas outside academia. Indeed, that used to be my reaction until I recognized that publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals is a lot like positioning a new product or service in the marketplace.

On the surface, scholarship and marketing seem like radically different activities—but only on the surface. Once you acknowledge, with author Daniel Pink, that selling ideas is a fundamentally human endeavor, then the similarities become obvious.

Researchers and marketers may consider themselves as two different species, operating on two different planets. But their professional practices share so much in common that their DNA profiles are more closely aligned than you’d think. Both disciplines make persuasion their central focus, and that makes them unacknowledged, if rather awkward, cousins.

Overcoming the bias against marketing

In To Sell is Human, Pink writes, “Selling, I’ve come to understand, is more urgent, more important, and, in its own sweet way, more beautiful than we realize.”[1]

Pink’s book is a must-read for any researcher who feels a bit queasy when they think about sharing their theories and findings outside of an academic conference. Drawing on findings from various disciplines, Pink shows how “sales” is a human art form practiced across professional and personal contexts. Without salespeople, the economy would falter, and so would social change. Every brilliant idea needs a spokesperson, or it dies on the drawing board (or in the notebook, or in the pages of a respected but obscure academic journal).

If you want your research to make an impact, then the first step is to overcome stereotypes you may be holding about sales and marketing. One way to test for such bias is to play a bit of word association. What’s the first word that comes up when you think of “marketing”? If, like me, you spent your formative professional years in the Ivory Tower, then words like these might pop into your mind: manipulative, exaggerated, fear-mongering, dishonest.

However, as a discipline, there’s nothing about marketing that makes it inherently greasy. In fact, a growing number of marketers are embracing the new movement toward “ethical marketing.”[2] A pioneer thinker in this field, Lynn Serafinn, defines “marketing” in aspirational terms. In her view, “marketing performs a vital role in our society: the communication of our values.”

From this perspective, adopting a marketing mindset simply means connecting your values with the values of the people who can move your research forward, out into the wider world. It’s not about compromising your principles; it’s about sharing them in ways that bring other people on board with your agenda for change.

The Four P’s for Impact-Minded Researchers

In classic marketing theory, four P’s guide marketing decisions:

  • Product—The product should deliver unique value to the intended audience. Customer-centered product design lays the foundation for persuasive marketing.
  • Place—The product should appear in venues (physical and online places) where it will easily attract the attention of the intended audience.
  • Price—The price should make the product desirable to the target audience. (Cheaper is not always better since price affects the value customers ascribe to the product.)
  • Promotion—Various promotional activities (e.g., advertising, social media, networking, email campaigns) should make customers aware of the product and the value it provides.

If you’ve already started to turn your research into a commercial product or service, then these four pillars will serve you well.[3] But if your concern right now is marketing an idea—such as a new way to design a smart grid or solve the housing crisis—then you need a modified framework, the Four P’s for Impact-Minded Academics.

This new set of categories helps you build on skills you’ve already developed as an academic so you can raise awareness about your research and connect with collaborators outside the university environment.

  • Positioning—Your idea must make sense within the frame of reference through which your intended audience views the world. It must also stand out as distinct and valuable in comparison to rival concepts or approaches.

The good news: As a researcher, you are already adept in the art of positioning your ideas within the context of the scholarship on your topic. When you develop a conference paper or article, you make a case for a scholarly concept by comparing it with ideas put forth by others.

When you want to communicate the value of your research outside the academy (i.e., market it), then you do the same thing. You assert its value relative to other ideas, approaches, or products. Presenting your research in a comparative context enables non-experts to quickly understand it and appreciate its significance.

  • Persona—Just as you’ve developed a professional voice and personality within the academy, you must develop a credible, likeable persona to interact with the world beyond the Ivory Tower.

The good news: As a novice researcher, you learned how to present yourself as a scholar by copying models of scholarship. For example, as an undergraduate, I devoured classic essays by well-known figures such as the Chaucer scholar E.T. Donaldson and the critic of Romantic poetry Jerome McGann. They, more than my professors, taught me how to develop and defend a thesis that would stand up to the rigors of scholarly debate.

  • Plain Language—While Plain Language does not, on its own, a knowledge translation strategy make, it’s impossible to market your ideas outside the academy without using everyday words. In most situations, it also helps to adopt a conversational style (a far cry from the impersonal style on which we cut our teeth as academic lecturers and writers).

The good news: Writing and talking like an academic is a learned skill, which means that you can unlearn certain behaviours to communicate effectively outside academia. Plain Language also happens through the practice of a handful of basic principles, which anyone can learn to recognize and apply. If you’ve mastered the conventions of punctuation, you can master Plain Language (and tools such as Grammarly can also help).

  • Persistence—In the academic world, placing an article in an academic journal is the equivalent of making a sale. In some cases, you may have to submit your article to several journals before you land the sale, but it’s also possible to achieve that outcome on the first attempt. In contrast, in the world outside academia, the marketing and sales processes often require more interactions with your intended audience. Once you’ve made initial contact with your audience, you then need to nurture their interest and develop your relationship with them. Only after multiple exposures to your idea, through multiple venues and forms, is your audience likely to buy into your concept and start engaging with you in a productive way.

The good news: As a researcher, persistence is your middle name. But the real secret to your success is your passion for your research. As you embrace a marketing mindset, the key is to tap into that passion so you can find creative, compelling ways to share it with others. As I frequently remind clients, if you want your research to make an impact, it’s not enough to inform your audience about it. You need to get them excited about it, and that means infusing your communication with the energy and enthusiasm that fuels your academic work.

As someone who has “marketed” ideas as an academic and as a businessperson, I’ve found that this new version of the Four P’s makes the difference between frustration and the fast-track to impact. If you’re finding that your attempts to communicate with non-experts are falling flat, chances are that you’re not paying close enough attention to one of the P’s (and I’d start by checking your positioning).

Crossing the marketing bridge

Marketing doesn’t have to be a dirty word. When you consider your expertise and experience as an academic, it’s just a short distance from crafting a scholarly argument to writing a blog or delivering a presentation to a policymaker.

Serafinn, who sees ethical marketing as a tool for combating consumerism, says, “We are not consumers of products. We are consumers of ideas.” What great news for researchers who want to translate their findings into practical outcomes!

As an academic, you’ve spent years training in and practicing the art of marketing ideas. Now, as you envision a broader scope for your research, your task is simply to transfer your skills to a broader context and different audience. Crossing the bridge from scholarship to marketing is a shorter and easier journey than you might think.

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[1] Pink, D. (2012). To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. Introduction. Riverhead Books. 

[2] Serafin, L. (2013). The Seven Graces of Marketing: How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell. 3rd ed. Prologue.

[3] In recent years, marketing theorists have added three new P’s to the classic list: people, positioning, and packaging. For a succinct overview of the seven P’s, check out this article from BDC:


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