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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 11.22.34 AMThere’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.

What do you think? Do you like telling people about the work you have done, or does it fill you with a feeling of dread?

Related posts

Too posh to promote?

Dear Conference Organiser…

Pat Thomson and I wrote at more length about the issue of the ‘attention economy’ on the LSE impact blog.




26 thoughts on “Niche marketing for academics

  1. therealnatasha says:

    Technical thesis-related question here – I think your fan girl/boy approach sounds good. However, am I getting myself into problem territory if I send my (published or accepted) article to someone who I am contemplating as an examiner? (Australian university).

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      That’s a great question and does not have a clear cut answer. It is a conflict of interest if the examiner is giving you feedback or has a close personal relationship with you. I’m not sure this would fall into either of those territories, but it’s best to keep your supervisor appraised of your correspondance and dealings with potential examiners so they can make an appropriate decision.

  2. Michelle Jeffries says:

    Hi there, I’ve been meaning to send you this pic thst came across my feed, thought you may like it 🙂

    Thanks for all your wonderful posts that keep us going!! 🙂

    Michelle Jeffries | PhD Candidate Student number: n2350921 Faculty of Education | Queensland University of Technology | Kelvin Grove | Room: B337 | Phone: +61 421 842 865 | Email: ORCID ID: 0000-0003-2654-4121 CRICOS No. 00213J


  3. Jackson says:

    An excellent way of looking at it. Thanks, Thesis Whisperer. A question: what’s the most effective way to find out where the specialist email lists are hiding?

  4. Tavaril says:

    I’m not entirely sure the people on my reference list would want to hear from me – my Masters is a systematic review pulling apart their (admittedly not great) research. With that in mind, is there anyone else I could send it to?

  5. jeffollerton says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out that, especially for a British audience, what academics mean by “impact” and what government means by “impact” are not the same thing.

    Academics see impact as citations, news reports, etc., as you say. Government (and in Britain that means the Research Excellence Framework or REF) sees impact as how academic research translates into societal change, though new products, processes, policies, etc.

    It’s an important distinction to make.

    But I totally agree with you regarding promoting your own work to a wider audience, and I have a relevant blog post on this topic from last year which may be of interest:

      • Charles Knight (@Charlesknight) says:

        Again from a UK context – The funny thing is that the (and this might be radically different in other areas and other nations) – impact and citations are largely irrelevant at interview in my experience. I’ve sat on interview panels at three different universities on maybe 40+ interviews and the only ‘metric’ considered is number published, if they are in this REF cycle and in management are they published in ‘THE LIST’. I’ve never had any discussion about metrics.

  6. Nicol says:

    If I can communicate my work effectively to scientists AND the public that’s job done. What is the point of research if it’s never going to be read and/or understood? I remember as a lowly undergrad looking at scientific journals with utmost perplexion. If only the researchers who wrote the things explained it in non-specialist terms first, I might have read on.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I think there’s space for both – now I can read the lingo, I actually find getting through papers quite fast and I know the nuance can be important for accuracy. But I do agree with you in principle: academics should do more blogging and other kinds of writing to circulate the relevant knowledge around our communities.

  7. Weary Dunlop says:

    I completed a PhD a couple of years ago after 20 or more years in the workforce. Honestly, scientific articles are only about self promotion and/or advocacy for some position. That is, they are all about marketing. Whether it is pitching your article at journal editors, pitching for a grant, or pitching at a journalist.I don’t think there is any need to be precious about the process. Both real estate and research operate in markets. For better or worse.

  8. arpadz says:

    Great Article. Good to see social media being thoughtfully promoted to academics. Our younger students have grown used to it. Twitter, ResearchGate and Academia are really just like library shelves, once you start browsing you find all sorts of treasures.
    My observation is that social media is even more useful for teachers. Not having much need to publish it is terrific to watch over the shoulders of those teachers who do. Asking questions about extending their ideas into my particular area is fantastic and saves on going to international conferences.
    Just a reminder that we readers are waiting for your next magical move!!

  9. YouStudy says: offers a free educational consultancy for students where they can communicate with us for the comprehensive advice on course and university selection.

  10. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Also, keep an eye on the relevant articles on Wikipedia (in Inger’s case, this would be ).

    Occasionally, you will find that a section needs to be rewritten to bring in new lines of thought. The references you include should be both up to date and very, very relevant. Please don’t fill Wikipedia with junk references.

  11. thegrailquest says:

    I agree that a little self-promotion is important, I am often surprised myself finding important studies very relevant to my work which are not available by simple search – they are often the kind that are not published as monographs, in edited volumes or in journals, such as congress acts and the like. There is clearly much work to be done here.
    I mostly use Facebook and academia to reach out to my peers, and my blog in communicating ‘lighter’ things. I am not very conversant on Twitter.
    Another source for netwroking would be membership in relevant societies, which often have Facebook or Twitter accounts, as well as keeping bibliographies, and they are very happy to collect relevant references from anyone doing work in the field.

  12. hl says:

    It’s true there is a bit of self-promotion involved. But I would like to think that as part of (multiple) academic communities, we might be interested in what work other people are doing and what they are reading!

  13. A Pulgarita says:

    Thank you so much! I, for one, find Twitter incredibly useful for academics but I don’t pitch myself there much because my main job there is being a blogger and not showcasing my work. I am currently finishing some reviews on a paper and I am a bit frustrated because my papers have very little citations. More frustrating even is that I work with mathematical models and it’s not easy to get my family or friends captivated when I tell what I do because it’s quite technical. However for me as a researcher impact on society is key! I have been thinking of doing some infographics to showcase my work on Linkedin and ResearchGate in an easier way to explain my papers. Any opinions about this approach? =)


    Great, I was just going through this blog and found very useful. The whole article about Academics impact as citations, news reports, etc., as you say. Government (and in Britain that means the Research Excellence Framework or REF) sees impact as how academic research translates into societal change, though new products, processes, policies,

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