Your career as a researcher could be very different if you had an audience.
A readymade following can make it much easier to achieve real impact with your work, find people for trials and feedback, as well as carry out (and, of course, demonstrate) genuine public outreach and engagement.
Being visible to a target audience of other researchers and academics can also help grow citations, create opportunities for collaborations (in research, consulting and dissemination) and even help with hiring new staff or students.
An audience can also improve your chances of achieving funding to support your research – whether this is from grant awarders and funding bodies attracted to a track record of work with impact, businesses or institutions interested in working with a popular name, or members of the public keen on supporting specific initiatives through crowdfunding.
Control your research audience, and you take (at least some) control of your career.
This control is no substitute for excellent research of course – and it shouldn’t be treated as such – but it should instead be seen as part of the work needed in order to have the opportunity to carry out excellent research in the first place.
At this point I think I know what you’re thinking – this is all far easier said than done.
And I agree.
Traditional methods of publishing and communicating online are changing fast. Open access, open source and open data initiatives are everywhere. The (unnecessarily alliterative) post-publication peer review and alternative measurement methods and metrics for impact need to be considered, possibly along with more innovative concepts, such as publons and the blockchain to name just two.
In addition, with the enormous volume of websites, content and information being published online every day, and a global audience of over 3 billion constantly consuming it at a faster rate and for longer periods, it is harder than ever before to get your voice heard.
Although it is arguably also more rewarding than ever.
And for the determined researcher these rewards are genuinely there for the taking – more control over the direction and nature of your career can be acquired. It just takes hard work and a clear strategy.
Content marketing for researchers – the strategy
Content marketing is the process of creating and distributing content (text, images, videos, audio clips etc.) in order to achieve a goal online. In business that goal is usually to make a sale, whereas in research your aims may be a bit more complicated.
But the reason why content marketing is so relevant is that it is essentially an extension of one the key practices of researchers – the process of explaining, summarising and presenting your work. This is exactly what you do in the preparation of journal articles, funding proposals, policy briefings, specialist meetings and so on.
It doesn’t take too much effort to go one step further and tell more of a story about your work online, providing important context and using the latest digital tools and techniques to promote your work.
The rest of this post takes you through a process for developing a strategy to achieve this.
For the maximum benefit download our free Content Marketing Strategy Template (no email address required, and please only print if you have to) and use as the basis for your own written strategy. Here are the steps:
State specific goals
Research your target audiences
Define ideal calls to action (CTAs)
Map audiences to relevant channels
Make an online channel map
Implement and improve
State specific goals
Your goals are important, and they are the natural place to start building a strategy.
Your strategic goals are the high level statements of what you really want and need to achieve and they will help guide all of your content marketing efforts.
When you think about your goals, be honest with yourself – if you genuinely want to have the space, time and money to do fundamental research then say so. If you want that Nobel Prize or some other award then go for it. If instead you want to inspire a global social change, then instead make that your stated aim.
If you want, nobody will ever even see your goals, let alone judge them – so be genuine.
To carry out your goal-setting, start by considering what actual change in the world you wish to create. And if you aren’t sure then look at the impact that the top researchers in your field or institution have made.
ACTION #1: write down your over-arching goals as a researcher.
Once you’re clear on your goals it is time to turn your attention to the people who are going to make them possible.
Research your target audiences
Unless you’re rich and well connected, you won’t achieve your goals as a researcher on your own. It takes ongoing communication with specific target audiences.
Don’t think about target audiences just in terms of who you want to read your blog, or which policy-makers you would like to influence – go deeper and figure out who you really need to get your message to in order to meet your goals. For example:
Prof. R. E. Searcher is looking to get a new grant next year in order to purchase an expensive flux capacitor for her lab, and finally test out her temporal cartography hypothesis.
In order to meet the grant conditions she knows the awarding body will want to see a strong track record of high quality research impact in the agriculture industry (don’t ask why, something about making the harvest shorter perhaps?)
Prof. Searcher spends some time looking into the specific people that her work would benefit and figures out that there about 12 agricultural organisations across the country whose combined memberships make up far more people than she would ever need to speak with in order to develop the desired level of impact.
Over the next 6 months Prof. Searcher produces and distributes content for those 12 organisations who in turn get her message to hundreds of farmers, dozens of who implement her advice. She collates evidence of her impact, is successful with her grant, gets the flux capacitor and the rest is history. Or was history. Or will be history…
Learning about your audience never really stops so don’t go overboard with the research before moving on. But blindly publishing content intended to achieve something and benefit your career is not the best idea either – find the middle ground.
In particular try to find out the following about your target audiences (and yes, you will likely have more than one) in the context of your work:
- A few common beliefs or values (if you know what is important to them, you can speak about your work in that context).
- The shared vocabulary used when discussing your field (if you know what words and phrases they use, you can do the same to make communication easier).
- Where they interact or share information online (if you know these places, you might be able to use them to access your target audience).
- Some of the people who influence them (again, perhaps these people can help you access your target audience, or maybe add legitimacy and relevancy to your communication if you can make them a part of it).
Now it’s your turn!
Action #2: write down who your target audiences are and any useful information about them.
Once you know who they are you can decide what you want them to do.
Define ideal calls to action (CTA)
If you’re clear about both your goals and the people who will help you achieve them, then it should be easier to write down exactly what you want those people to do.
At least in theory.
For the purposes of developing a content marketing strategy for research, you need to focus on metrics that can be tracked and affected online. In order to be able to present your activity as evidence of successful impact (whether in an academic or commercial context) these metrics should be chosen by reverse engineering what said impact actually looks like when achieved.
It is beyond the scope of this article to succinctly encapsulate all elements of impact. What it actually means to make a real difference in the world through research is a huge, and ongoing topic of discussion – and it is important one.
However, starting from as clear a vision of success as possible will help you to pinpoint the actions that you want your target audiences to take, for example:
A researcher desiring a greater academic reputation might identify citations of published papers by their peers as a good target call to action. They can then choose online metrics to track and attempt to boost that are more likely to lead to an increase in citations – such as paper reads/downloads, coverage on websites and social media accounts that their target audience follows, and the number of engagements they have with their peers about the research.
A team whose research has significant implications for policy may identify a change in a proposed Bill as evidence of successful impact. They may instead focus on measuring the number of engagements they have specifically with people involved in drafting the bill, and build a content marketing strategy around this metric.
These are simplistic examples, but they demonstrate how important it is to be clear. Take the time to figure out exactly what you would like people to do (in an ideal world of course) and it will be far easier to develop plans that will encourage them to do it.
It is important to note that target CTAs aren’t something you can directly control, there’s no button you can press that instantly results in all of your peers downloading your latest article. It is all about targeted and cumulative actions that are designed to get results – and are adapted when they seem to be failing.
Action #3: for each target audience write down what you would ideally like them to do.
Once you know what you want your audiences to do, you can then pick the channels that you can use to communicate to them in order to try and get them to do it.
Map audiences to relevant channels
Content marketing channels are the individual platforms, sets of approaches or media that you can use to communicate to a specific target audience.
By deciding which channels are the most relevant places on which to publish content for a target audience, you can develop a more balanced, focussed approach to promoting your research.
As you already know who your target audiences are, let’s look at some possible content marketing channels and to see if they can be used to communicate to them:
- Blog – your main site, and a place over which you probably have the most control. A blog can potentially be used to communicate to any target audience.
- Institutional website – your organisation’s main website likely has a specific editorial focus and defined target audiences. Find out how your work can be discussed and defined in this context (an article about what it is like working at your university for example).
- Research group/project website – these channels are likely to be focussed on a specific range of topics, but the potential audiences for that information will be as diverse as the research objectives. Think about how you can access some of your target audiences by producing content for these sites.
- Social media accounts – again, these are likely to have a diverse readership, whether they are your personal account or represent a group, department, team etc. Focus on the audiences that can be realistically reached and compelled to take your target CTA on these media (e.g. you have a reasonable chance of encouraging members of the public to download a report on Twitter, it is less likely you’ll compel a Member of Parliament to do the same).
- Grant funder websites – it is in the interest of the bodies that have funded your work to promote the results. Make it easy for them, and more beneficial for you, by offering to create content that they can publish on this topic, and that also helps you achieve your target CTA in an audience likely to pay attention to the grant awarding body’s content.
These are just a few ideas, once you spend a bit of time thinking about it (or even just paying attention to where you consume information about your field), other potential channels will reveal themselves to you.
Channels can be found wherever people in your target audience are spending time and whatever they are paying attention to online. Some audiences can be reached through multiple channels and your messaging will need to be adapted for this.
But prioritise, be selective and be realistic – you only have so much time and attention to deploy so make sure you focus on the channels that will bring you the best results. And adapt your approach based on the levels of success you achieve.
Action #4: map each target audience to the channels that you believe will be good places to communicate with them.
Now you know who to communicate to, what you want them to do and what channel you will use (e.g. how) to communicate to them – you can next make a plan for each channel that shows what you actually want to say.
Make an online channel map
The final step in developing a content marketing strategy is to put all of your thinking and research together in an online channel map.
This will guide and remind you exactly how to approach creating content for all of the different channels that you have identified as a relevant way of communicating with a specific target audience. It should cover:
- Who you will target on that channel (which will be multiple target audiences on some channels),
- What sort of topics to cover (based on your audience research and target CTAs),
- How the channel works (e.g. who exactly you need to send a document to in order to get it published on the channel), and
- What sort of content is suitable for the channel (based on your knowledge of how it works).
Armed with this information, you can create a high level description of how to approach your content marketing that gives you all of the vital details in one place.
Most of the information will be easy to fill in. You may need to ask around in order to find out exactly how some of the channels work, but I’m sure that those involved will be happy to help.
In addition, deciding on the topic of new pieces content can be tricky. To help, try using this handy mnemonic – whenever you need to decide on a topic, think about CHOMP:
- C = Context: What is the context of your field, your research or your specialism? Where does it fit in with the wider progress and work underway?
- H = History: Are any of the details about the history of your field, team, department, or even yourself, relevant to the reader? What notable events or discoveries have resulted in your research?
- O = Objectives: What are your research goals? What is it that you are trying to achieve personally, at a group, team or consortium level, or even at the level of the field as a whole? How will the world look different due to your work and what does this mean for the reader?
- M = Misconceptions: What pieces of common knowledge about your research are wrong? If you can help clearly explain why this is the case then you will make a great contribution to public debate.
- P = Personal: Who are the people behind the research? Talking about the nuts and bolts of how research gets done in the real world can be very interesting to certain audiences, and gives a more human face to cutting edge work.
Here’s an example section from an online channel map:
Our Research Group’s blog
On our blog I will contribute posts discussing the context and objectives of my research. The aim is to attract early career scientists and PhD students for our funding and collaboration opportunities. The target CTA is to get them to apply for a role on our postgraduate employment pages. I know that my target audience is informed about the field and will be more interested in the personal side of our work – how we do things and what we are trying to become. I can describe and link to my work in this context; as an example of what our team achieves. To publish on the blog I just need to send a formatted Word document to Ian Thomas Guy at the IT department (I.T.Guy@itdept.uni.edu) and he should publish it 2-5 days after receiving it.
This simple paragraph can make it much easier to sit down and get writing. When it’s time to get to work, simply get out your online channel map, decide what sort of content you want to work on (balancing your efforts across different channels and audiences depending on your goals), use the information about your audience and target CTA to ensure the content does a good job, and get cracking!
Action #5: make an online channel map by writing for each channel; who you want to communicate to using it, what topics you want to cover and how to publish on it.
Now you have your plans in place for each channel – you just need to implement them!
Implement and improve
With your strategy complete, there’s nothing left to do but implement it.
First you may want to write up a more detailed copy of your completed actions, or turn our Content Marketing Strategy Template into a more complete strategy document.
You may also find it useful to have a version of this strategy that you can update and improve as you move forwards – once you get started with your own content marketing efforts new ideas, insights, opportunities and lessons will crop up, and it helps to have a place to capture and use them in context.
We’ll dive deeper into how content marketing can help you grow an audience for your work and career in future emails, guides and articles – but for now, best of luck introducing more strategic content marketing into your promotional work!
Thanks for reading.
FREE DOWNLOAD: How to Build an Online Audience for Research
Get a free guide to help you promote your research online; featuring exclusive advice, tips, techniques and tool recommendations from nine experts in the field. Download your free copy by joining the Growresa email list below.