Does science need marketing?

October 8, 2007

Over the weekend, I attended a thought-provoking talk by journalist/author Chris Mooney and communications expert Matthew Nisbet on Speaking Science.  The Seattle engagement was part of a national speaking tour and apparently they have stirred quite a debate in scientific circles.  I just happened to hear about and attend the talk so it was all new to me. 

The basic argument is this:  (1) the science community inherently believes facts speak for themselves and that we just need to communicate them more clearly and more frequently  (2)  However extensive social science research shows that in reality (quoting Nisbet) “citizens prefer to rely on their social values to pick and choose information sources that confirm what they already believe”.  He says that people don’t even tune into information that doesn’t fit their world view and therefore have no chance of being swayed by it.  (3) Nisbet and Mooney believe that researchers should accept that truth and begin to consciously frame their research conclusions in terms that at minimum don’t alienate the audience and at best emphasize shared values.   They call this “framing science.”  There are tons of posts on the web about it and a quick google search will give you a much more comprehensive list than I could possible include here.

Sounds like good old-fashioned marketing to me.  If you want people to buy your product – in this case knowledge – you have to frame your product in a way that pre-disposes them to accept it.  And in a world where the media-savvy Christian right is seriously peddling the notion that “intelligent design” should be taught alongside evolution (Teach the Controversy!), we have to find a way to avoid rejection of scientific truths.  (Yes, that’s a deliberately polarizing sentence and the talk covered a range of topics from intelligent design, to stem cell research, to global warming)

As Richard Gallagher says in his editorial in The Scientist this month, 

“Surely all researchers would rather provide the framing for their own work than have Fox News do it for them.” 

However, I think the scientists themselves are not the ones to embrace this idea.  For one thing, it feels too much like “spin” to them, which is the polar opposite of the unbiased, objective truth they stand for.  Equally importantly, I don’t think they’ll be very good at it.  This is a very sophisticated communications challenge, for which most people (not just scientists) are ill-equipped. For scientists, a more realistic goal would be to show a little more humility and a little less arrogance towards people who don’t understand the science (Richard Dawkins I mean you). 

As Mark Powell aptly puts it in his post about the “framing science” debate:   

Note to scientists: understanding evolution doesn’t confer superiority any more than a silky smooth jump shot.” 

But as to the basic idea of framing scientific conclusions, I say bring on the pros.  We need messaging people at least as good as those Discovery Institute folks to put the truth in its best light.  We all have a lot riding on it. 


Masterful blogging

August 15, 2007

Martin Eberhard of Tesla Motors really knows how to blog.  His post today on transitioning out of the CEO role at Tesla is one of the best I’ve ever read.  His message provides personal insight into the management change in a way no other medium could capture so well.  He is reassuring, while at the same time acknowledging a difficult moment for himself.  His voice comes through clearly, which is not surprising – Martin is a great writer.  

London-Gatwick Missouri?

July 16, 2007

At SeaTac this morning, awaiting a flight to Atlanta, I was approached by a gentleman — in his 60s I’d guess — who politely inquired “Can you tell me what state London-Gatwick is in?”  “Is this man a complete moron?” I asked myself while quickly responding that London is in England.  It took me a couple of minutes to piece things together.  Apparently my non-stop to Atlanta continues on to London’s Gatwick airport.  Both cities were flashing on the gate’s information display.  Somehow this man had not gronked that this could be an international flight and so he assumed that there was a stop enroute to Atlanta in a place he’d never heard of called London-Gatwick.  Obviously not a world traveler, or even a frequent one.   

While I don’t blame this one on Delta, it reminds me of a communications error I’ve seen companies make again and again.  They speak from their perspective rather than putting themselves in the customers’ shoes and asking “What does this person know and expect coming into this communication?”  In a former life, I co-owned a vintage airplane that barnstormed around the country.  Again and again, I had to remind our flight crew that when we arrived in a new location, neither our hosts nor the welcoming crowd had any idea about our procedures and therefore shouldn’t be treated rudely if their expectations didn’t match our reality. Among my clients, a more frequent sin is to change things on customers without explaining that they’ve changed.  The customers are not in the trenches with us so all they know if what we told them last time we communicated to them.  We may all be with the new “program” but we need to remember to bring them along.  Otherwise we appear arbitrary and worse, untrustworthy.

Ask not what your customers can do for you

July 2, 2007

From an on-line job posting for a Marketing VP:  

“Our client is a start-up that will transform the way we interact with the telephone by turning the phone into a proactive, adaptive and intelligent interface to people and information in remote places.”  

The new hire’s first job should be to come up with a better way to describe the company’s mission.  I’m pretty sure no one is champing at the bit to change how they interact with the telephone.  The company’s target market is small to mid size businesses.  I might conjecture that their prospects wish to get better organized, improve customer service, collaborate more efficiently with co-workers, cut costs, etc.  Companies succeed by helping their customers; changing customer behavior is a by-product and frequently a hurdle to be overcome – not an end in itself.