Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Advertising in the academy? Maximising research impact in the humanities


What do advertising executives have in common with academics in the humanities? 
They both work in highly competitive environments. They both sell ideas.

As a former advertising executive (turned history PhD student) I have been thinking about this a lot recently.  How do academics sell their research? For many scholars, the pursuit of knowledge and promotion of that knowledge is mutually exclusive. This can be particularly acute in the humanities where it is often challenging to apply conventional understandings of commercial value and intellectual property to research outcomes.

While I’ve spent around ten years working in advertising and marketing, I’m relatively new to the academic world - and am always interested in opportunities to gain insights into the research landscape.  It’s for this reason that I attended a thought-provoking workshop today hosted by the UWA Institute of Advanced Studies and Graduate Research School -  ‘Research with Impact in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences’. During the session, Jennifer Chubb, Research and Innovation Officer at The University of York, shared learnings from the UK where changes to research council grant funding applications are forcing academics to think differently about how they define and measure research impact.

With return on public investment under ever increasing scrutiny, 'research impact' is a defined as the 'demonstrable' contribution that good research makes to society and the economy.  UK grant applications must include a pathway to impact which not only includes a description of who benefits from research and details of how they will benefit but a specific plans to ensure they have the opportunity to benefit. It’s essentially a communications and outreach programme that prioritises non-academic audiences.

The Australian Research Council have similar requirements but there are subtle differences. Scholars must outline the ‘potential innovative benefits’ of proposed research and provide information regarding strategies to disseminate and promote research outcomes ‘if appropriate’ but grants do not require a formal communications plan (yet).

There is no doubt that the trend towards research accountability and measurement in the humanities is a contentious issue. My objective is not to engage directly in these debates, but rather to offer a few  thoughts as to how academics could apply learnings from the world of advertising to create compelling communications and engage public audiences.

So, what can academics learn from advertising executives?

1.    Define your target audience/s.
It’s not enough to want to communicate with the ‘general public’. Effective communications result when you tailor specific messages to specific audiences. Who will value your research and how can you communicate the benefits in a way that is most relevant for them?

2.    Sell the benefits of your research, not the features. 
Make a case as to why your research is relevant right now. How can insights add value to target audiences?

3.    Think about communication objectives before you think about communication tools.
Do you want to raise awareness, engage a local community, start a debate, collate stories or generate media coverage? Once you know what you want to achieve you can select the specific tools that will work hardest for you. I love your enthusiasm but I don’t care how excited you are about building a website or running a social media campaign if it's not the best use of your limited time and money.

4.    Don’t underestimate costs.
Websites are not cheap but a well designed website is worth every penny. Costs for (good) design, printing and distribution of promotional collateral (posters, brochures and teaching materials), travel and events soon add up. And it’s not just financial costs you need to think about. While blogging platforms and social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, are technically 'free' to set up they are not low cost options. Getting the most out of these kind of platforms requires careful planning and strategy. Once launched they are time consuming and require the commitment of long-term resources.

5.    Be realistic about the time and money required to achieve your objectives.
If you don’t know the answers – ask someone who does. There is little benefit in including a list of exciting things you are going to do, then not having the resources to achieve them.

6.    Avoid retrospectively assessing research impact at all costs.  

Factor in measurement from the very beginning and brief your team so they know what to look out for. This could include mentions in the media, numbers of phone calls to your office, or requests for information. If you have a website make sure it contains tracking so you can include web analytics such as visits, page views and time spent on the site. There are several simple free tools you can use to 'listen' to conversations online. For example, you can set up Google Alerts to track mentions of your project on blogs or monitor conversations on Twitter. Research impact in the humanities is often not linear so be creative and keep an open mind.

7.    Your project is not finished until you have assessed your communications objectives against actual outcomes. 
Success establishes a track record that demonstrates results and can be used as evidence for a spin-off project or even a brand new grant application. In addition, research impact often extends far beyond the initial time period. Keep listening. Keep recording.

8.    Ask for help when you need it. 
No one is expected to be a jack-of-all-trades and assistance can take the form of specialist advice (ie: building websites, social media campaigns) or training. The university press office can help with media releases however, if academics are increasingly required to engage with public audiences, it will become increasingly important for universities to develop support and training in these areas.

Two things occur to me about a shift towards community engagement and communication in the humanities. The first is how exciting it is. I've written before about how technology has changed the way we tell stories about the past and eroded the authority and influence of 'experts'. For these reasons, I believe public engagement should be an important part of academic life.  The second thing that occurs to me is just how much planning and management this kind of activity involves. Academics in the humanities are already under enormous pressures. For a meaningful and sustainable cultural shift to take place in the academy, there needs to be structural changes to institutions so that support is provided to scholars fulfill these new requirements from funding bodies. Otherwise we risk compromising both research and communications.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! I was in media relations for several years before going back to study and research. Academia is no different to any other industry. Effective communication to those outside the industry as well as inside the industry is vital. It is more important than ever that academics engage with those outside the academy. It is the taxpayer after all, who funds academic research. They have a right to know how their funds are being spent.

    I agree about the need to think of specific groups who would particularly gain from the research. But I would go one step further and also consider how those groups might engage and possibly contribute to the research. I have been involved in research into the history of the teaching of reading in Australian schools. Family historians have made some interesting contributions to our work. Of course not every research project would be open to contributions from the public, but at the very least, as you point out, the benefit of the research can be shown by how much conversation it stimulates outside the university.

    You are right, academics should not be expected to have all these skills. But the first step is realising that this type of communication is essential. I wonder how many academics have got to this first step? How do they gain this realisation? How can they be assisted to gain this understanding?

  2. Thank you for writing such a fantastic post. I couldn't agree more. Would you be able to recommend some books about marketing/advertising that historians should read? Cheers!