Niche marketing for academics



A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian article “I’m a serious academic, not a professional instagrammer” caused a bit of a stir in my online community.

The basic thrust of the piece was that those who engage in social media are just showing off. Tseen Khoo on the Research Whisperer correctly identified the humble bragging and Sophie Lewis responded with a nice blog on blogging while academic, so there doesn’t seem to be much more to add.

However the article, and the reactions to it, did get me thinking (again) about the discomfort many academics feel with the idea of self promotion.

There’s a lot of bitching about social media, but it’s only a new communications technology. The basic game hasn’t changed. Academia has always been a noisy marketplace of ideas. Getting people to pay attention to you and your work is a necessary part of finding that next job, building collaborations, landing that next grant – whatever is next on the horizon. If social media helps, well I say use it.

Let’s take publishing and that nebulous idea of ‘impact’ as the most concrete example of this ideas market place in action.

Governments around the world are obsessed with making sure they get value for money from academics, so they put in a range of measures to see if we are doing our job of disseminating research. These measures translate from the government, via your department as a pressure to publish – but not just publish anywhere. Now the message is to publish so that you create some kind of ‘impact’, which can be assessed and measured. One of the easiest ways to measure academic impact is through citations – who mentions your paper in their paper.

There’s a lot of valid arguments about the problems with measuring research output and productivity. However, where there is a number, it will be used in promotion rounds and hiring decisions, so you can’t afford to completely ignore citation measures.

I try not to focus on the numbers too much – my strategy is to be useful. I focus my own research on the problems I think are the most urgent or difficult to solve (at the moment it’s PhD graduate employability). When you do research on the truly important problems there is always a potential audience who want to read your work. Everyone needs to write literature reviews and generally people will be grateful if you make it easy for them to know about and access your work.

Really, your problem is not so much self promotion, as  communicating with your niche audience that you have something new to share.

My view is that many academics are bad at this kind of ‘niche marketing’. Evidence shows that many papers that are published are not widely read and a startlingly large number of articles are never cited (although this is a complex area in which discipline plays a big role). I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to put all that effort in and not have someone read my peer reviewed papers. At the end of my workshop “Write that journal article in 7 days” I make the point that getting through the peer review process is not the end of the publishing adventure, but a mid point where the writing finishes and the promoting begins.

In that workshop I offer a few easy niche marketing communication strategies – here’s a couple of them:

Email it to some people on your reference list

The people you cite are the people most likely to be interested in how their research has been used. Your list of references is bound to contain a few notables in your field, so summon up your courage and send them a copy of your paper. Of course, check they are alive first (unfortunately Foucault will never be able to return my calls). Write a nice cover letter with an apporpriate fangirl/fanboy greeting and press send. I’ve done this a few times in the past and never had to wait more than 24 hours for a response. The person is usually self effacingly humble that you have read their work and interested in what you have to share. You never know – they might even cite it in their next paper and give you an ‘uplift’. Or they might ask you if you are going to be visiting their town or attending the next big conference in the field. Write back and make a date for coffee.

Networking? Handled.

Share it on Twitter

Obviously social media is only an effective promotion channel if you have spent some time building a network of followers. If you haven’t put in this work, do a bit of a hunt for people or hashtags in your area of research so you can target them in your tweets. #Phdchat is an amazing resource to help you find this kind of information. Craft a polite tweet asking people on #phdchat what they know and you will be surprised by the deluge of helpful information that can result. I could bore for Australia on social media tactics, so I wont labour the point here. If you are a student at ANU keep an eye out for the next time we are running our social media short course.

What about research gate and I hear you asking? Well, it’s complicated.

I might save that for another post.

Work the specialist email lists

There’s an email list in my area that is quite difficult to get onto, but when you do – oh my! Everyone who is ANYONE is on that list. It took me three years to get someone to recommend me to be accepted, but now I have a connection to just about everyone in the world who does research on research education (an admittedly small, but vibrant area of research). Sometimes the old fashioned ways are the best.

People on that list will post a link to a paper when they publish one and I compose most of my new reading list from this feed. Ask everyone around you what lists they are on and how they got access. There’s likely to be a whole network just below your feet. Be careful! Each list has an unwritten protocol about how to behave and you don’t want to crash the party by posting too often, or about the ‘wrong’ things. Watch. Lurk. Spend at least a couple of months observing how people behave, then blend.

When I finish presenting my full list of strategies I often find I am talking to a room full of shell shocked looking students. Many candidates have been so focussed on getting that paper written, they haven’t stopped to think what the next bit is. I get a variety of responses, some of which boil down to “do I really HAVE to do this? It’s not what I signed up for!!”.

Some people are upset by my enthusiastic approach to academic niche marketing. I must seriously ask those people whether academia is the career they really want. Successful academics will always have promoted themselves and their work. If you have something good to sell, I see no problem with any of what I suggested above. Self promotion, when your ‘product’ is good and what people want is not odious, pushy or obnoxious – it’s just extra work.