Principal Consultant Carlton Hoyt recently sat down with Chris Conner for the Life Science Marketing Radio podcast to talk about decision engines, how they are transforming purchasing decisions, and what the implications are for life science marketers. The recording and transcript are below.
CHRIS: Hello and welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us again today. Today we’re going to talk about decision engines. These are a way to help ease your customer’s buying process when there are multiple options to consider. So we’re going to talk about why that’s important and the considerations around deploying them. So if you offer lots and lots of products and customers have choices to make about the right ones, you don’t want to miss this episode.
First it was open access, then pure and simple pirating (Sci-Hub), and now preprints, as this recent New York Times article outlines. The business model of the major scientific publishers is under attack.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many of us. For one, it’s been a slow and steady process occurring over the course of many years. Secondly, it’s something that scientists have openly complained about for a long while. The system of publishing in the biomedical sciences is slow, arduous, and by and large hasn’t been improved upon in centuries. The cost to institutions of obtaining subscriptions is huge.
That said, many of the large scientific publishers are some of the most entrenched, disruption-shielded companies in all of the sciences. Not only have they had a near-monopoly on the mass dissemination of scientific information for centuries, they have also been the de facto method by which scientists are evaluated. For any academic and many industry scientists, how many articles you publish and in what journals has the power to define the course – and the fruitfulness – of your career. Almost all generally accepted methods for measuring the impact of a scientist’s contributions are based around citations from publications in scientific journals. Deviating from the system would be a massive professional risk for all but the most respected and recognized scientists.
With such massive forces reinforcing the system of scientific publishing, escaping it would seem intractable. Now, perhaps for the first time, it seems vulnerable.
Understanding the Points of Weakness
The scientific publishing industry is something of a dinosaur, built for a world in which information had to be transmitted through the dissemination of physical objects. While it adapted rapidly to digital distribution in the internet age, it failed to accommodate for a number of other changing realities which altered its value to scientists.
Primarily, scientists no longer had an inherent need for publishers in order to effectively disseminate information. While publishers still helped organize and prioritize information, the dissemination of information has become easy, near-immediate, and free. This both decreased the value of publishers and also decreased barriers to pirating, since the unit-cost of disseminating any given article (or a great many articles) is effectively zero. Sci-Hub may be an unsolvable problem for publishers, and it’s not the only one of its kind. Scientists who don’t want to partake in such blatant piracy can use the #icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter and have an article sent to them by a peer with access. This leads to a downwards spiral effect on the value that publishers add from an information dissemination standpoint – easier access to information leads to more pirating, which in turn provides easier access to information, all the while making publishers roles less as couriers and more as gatekeepers, trying to ensure that information can only be seen by those who pay for the privilege.
Additionally, while digital technologies were being used to make many aspects of life easier and faster, and scientific technologies continued to evolve at a rapid pace, innovations in publishing were extremely limited. Aside from eliminating the need to physically mail manuscripts, the arduous peer review process remains largely unchanged. While there is no immediately obvious replacement for peer review, the overall experience of submitting articles for publication remained very slow in a world that was becoming very fast, making the perception of the process feel slower even though it was no slower than before. This increasingly negative perception also erodes value, as it makes the traditional publishing process seem more flawed.
Costs, however, have not been reduced. Each publisher has, in essence, a monopoly on the information which they own. They do not compete to provide access to any given journal or article, so there is relatively little competitive pressure to decrease prices, aside from the constraints of institutional libraries’ limited budgets. Therefore the present situation is really not at all surprising. The perception of value has decreased – perhaps significantly so – yet prices have not decreased to match. The market believes it is overpaying, and it is revolting against the industry in a search for both a better value, a better experience, and a structure which is more in line with scientists’ own values.
Important Lessons for All Industries
Nothing exists in a vacuum. It was easy for scientific publishers to get comfortable with their seemingly irreplaceable status as the couriers of knowledge, but as the would changed around them they shifted from facilitating the spread of knowledge to inhibiting it. However, big publishers still have yet to substantially alter their business models to adjust to a very different reality. We must learn from this.
- Get what you give. Just because the products or services which you are providing remain unchanged, that doesn’t mean that your value remains unchanged as well. Benefits are relative, and your pricing should adapt to the benefits provided – even if you’re massively entrenched.
- Fighting your customers’ values is a losing battle. Scientists largely believe in sharing information. Once technology evolved to allow instant sharing of information at any scale, publishers became inhibitors to the flow of information. Not only were they inhibitors, but they were profiting from limiting access to knowledge. This made them a big target for scientists’ discontent.
- Customer experience always matters. Even if there are no alternatives, consistently poor customer experience will drive customers to seek alternatives. It creates an environment which is ripe for disruption.
- Anyone can be unseated, no matter how entrenched. The traditional scientific publishers haven’t been dug out yet, and they still have some time to adapt, but they are in desperate need of business model innovation. If they cannot adapt their business model, they will eventually fail.
No company, no matter how large it is, how much market share it has, how long and storied its history, or how entrenched it has become, is invulnerable. Eventually, everyone must adapt. It has become increasingly clear that one of the pillars of maintaining a successful company in today’s dynamic environments is agility. Time will tell whether publishers have the necessary agility to survive.
There’s a lot of noise coming from some fairly reputable sources extolling the virtues of publishing as the next generation of content marketing (I’m sure you’ll be very familiar with this if you follow the Content Marketing Institute at all). For instance, let’s take a look at a recent article from the Harvard Business Review website – “Content Is Crap, and Other Rules for Marketers” – which makes some great points, but misses some equally if not more important points.
To begin, let’s summarize his 4 rules, which are all extremely valid points…
Rule 1 – Recognize that content is crap. This is best highlighted by the author: “We never call anything that’s good ‘content.’ Nobody walks out of a movie they loved and says, ‘Wow! What great content!’ Nobody listens to ‘content’ on their way to work in the morning. Do you think anybody ever called Ernest Hemingway a ‘content creator’? If they did, I bet he would punch ‘em in the nose.” He goes on to state that marketers need to be more like publishers.
A bit of a side note before we move on. The author is appealing to emotion a bit and is forgetting that content is a somewhat technical term – no one says they drink “dihydrogen monoxide” either. What this is more illustrative of is the mentality of many content marketers. What’s important isn’t, for example, that the people who watch great movies don’t refer to it as “content” but that the producers, writers, directors, and actors who set out to make a great movie don’t refer to it as content. It’s the mentality of content – making “stuff” that begs for attention – which gets people stuck in a losing paradigm and it’s a paradigm that needs to be dropped.
Rule 2 – Hold attention, don’t just grab it. “Marketers need to build an ongoing relationship with consumers and that means holding attention, not just grabbing it. To get people to subscribe to a blog, YouTube channel, or social media feed, you need to offer more than a catchy slogan or a clever stunt. You need to offer real value, and offer it consistently.” The author argues that publishing solves this problem.
Rule 3 – Don’t over-optimize metrics. It’s too easy to confuse measurement with meaning. He uses the example of Buzzfeed, who no longer uses clickbait titles as they’ve realized that they optimize for pageviews, which are just clicks, but betray the reader’s trust. By under-promising and over-delivering, you create more engagement with the content and make it more likely that the reader will return to read another article later. It’s the long game vs. short game conundrum. You can make the numbers look good if you pretend not to care about your numbers a year from now.
Rule 4 – Understand that publishing is a product, not a campaign. In brief, the author makes the point that one of the keys to being successful in being more like a publisher is to treat it with more permanence and seriousness.
There are some great points here… Content is not enough. You can’t simply interrupt your way to success; you need a way to build an audience. Ensure your metrics are effectively measuring value creation. And publishing has serious merits, but the answer is bigger than publishing.
The Inherent Problems With Publishing
Yes, publishing is often superior to more basic forms of content marketing, but it’s not for everyone. Not every company has some amazing, inherently compelling story to tell, and not every company has the resources to continually deliver pieces of that story through carefully crafted content consistently over a long period of time. That’s a massive effort. Assuming publishing is a magic bullet ignores reality and ultimately falls victim to the same problems plaguing other iterations of content marketing: if it becomes well adopted, it’s very quickly going to become much more difficult to do effectively.
The audience’s attention is inherently limited, and while publishing tries to occupy more of that attention, it doesn’t solve the attention problem and it falls into the same trap as more “generic” forms of content marketing. It’s actually a natural response to the lack of supply of customer attention which follows basic economic principles: If the supply of something is limited and demand increases the result is an increasing cost. As more and more content competes for limited attention the “cost” of the customers’ attention increases, meaning you need higher quality content to obtain it. Treating content marketing more like publishing doesn’t change that fact, it simply throws more resources at the problem so higher quality content can be produced – a necessity to continue to compete for customers’ attention in an environment where it is in ever-increasing demand. It’s not like audiences couldn’t do things such as subscribe to blogs almost two decades ago, it’s simply that it takes a better content effort to grab and hold attention than it used to.
Should You Be a Publisher?
Publishing cannot be the answer for everyone. It is literally impossible for 100% of brands to be successful publishers because the audience does not have enough attention to go around. How can you tell if you should be a publisher? Answer these two questions:
- How interesting are you? Take a good honest look at your brand and figure out how interesting you are. Some have great stories to tell. Some do amazing things. Some would make highly impactful thought leaders. Others simply aren’t so captivating. If your brand simply isn’t all that interesting compared to others in your space, you might want to consider something else.
- Can you – and will you – sufficiently resource the effort? Putting out top-quality content on a regular basis is no easy job by itself, and publishing requires more than that. The amount of time and resources that will need to go into planning, editing, graphic design, etc., will be significantly greater. At the same time, publishing still won’t provide a short-term payoff. Do you have the resources and the necessary leadership buy-in to be a publisher?
The Real Focus
If you’re not in the upper echelon of brands with regards to your ability and willingness to be a publisher, all is not lost. After all, being a publisher is not the goal. The reason that taking on the role of publisher is being touted as superior to content marketing is because it’s more effective at delivering meaningful value to customers. That’s also the underlying reason why it better holds the audience’s attention. At the end of the day customers gravitate to value, and there’s a lot more ways to provide value than just being a publisher.
Shift your paradigm from thinking about content to developing actual resources that solve genuine customer problems. Ask yourself what problems customers are having that they might not pay for a solution to, but are readily solvable with a bit of time and effort. Analyze them, prioritize them, and solve the most critical ones that provide the best opportunity for long-term value creation and evolving the customer relationship beyond a transactional one.
Double down on customer experience. Make it easier, faster, and simpler for customers to obtain value from you. Look at some of the juggernauts of tech – Google, Facebook, Uber, Amazon – they didn’t get to where they are because of content marketing. Most of their content marketing efforts aren’t even on people’s radar. What they do is solve problems quickly and simply. You know what’s a great experience? When you can type a question and an answer appears, when you press a button and a cab simply shows up, or when you can instantly be connected to any of your friends. There’s are myriad examples out there, and while it may be easier to do in tech than in the life sciences, it’s certainly not impossible in any industry.
If you’re existing content marketing efforts are becoming less effective, one option is certainly to hunker down, take it more seriously, and spend the resources to become a highly effective publisher. But that’s expensive, difficult, and only delays the onset of many of the underlying problems plaguing content marketing. Publishing treats the symptoms, not the disease. Rid yourself of all paradigms but the one which relies on this one fundamental truth: customers will favor those brands which contribute the most value to their lives. Let that reality guide your actions and you’ll soon find your audiences flocking to you.
The most precious and limited resource that life science marketers and salespeople must fight for is undoubtedly money. Everyone is trying to get a piece of those often set-in-stone lab budgets. However, before that battle is an equally important one; one involving a resource that is almost as scarce and becoming scarcer. That battle is for the attention of your audience.
Attention is a resource that is inherently limited. Each person only has so many hours in the day. As more companies (and other distractions) vie for their attention, it behaves like any limited resource under increasing demand – the cost goes up.
Most marketing campaigns ignore this fact. They’re built under the assumption that the audience will care about what you have to say, but that’s a very poor assumption to make in most circumstances. Perhaps in a world of unlimited time and attention that would be the case, but will the audience care more about what you have to say than all the other things that are vying for their attention at that point in time? Put in that perspective, the answer is often a clear “no.”
So what can we do to obtain and keep scientists’ attention such that our messages even have a chance of getting through? How do we ensure that we have enough attention to effectively educate and persuade them that our viewpoints are correct and they should purchase from us? In addition to creating the standard campaign elements, you need to build in a mechanism to ensure you’re doing the following…
Step 1: Captivate
Interruptions can be easily ignored. We’re all trained to do it. Think about it… How many banner advertisements do you see in a day? How many email promotions? How many TV commercials or magazine ads or billboards? Now how many do you actually pay attention to? How many can you remember?
The lesson here is that interruptions are very ineffective. However, unless you’ve already built a large audience or community, you’re pretty much limited to interruption tactics. Those tactics will get the audience’s attention infrequently, so you have to make it matter. The first thing you need to do when you get that scarce bit of attention is ensure you’ll get it for more than a fleeting moment. You need to captivate your audience.
The worst thing that you can do – which most marketers do anyway – is start by expressing a “what” statement. In general, your audience does not care about what you are or what you’re selling (yet). You need to lead off with a statement of belief – a “why” statement – that will be both emotionally compelling to the audience and subject to agreement by them.
Step 2: Hold
That first interaction won’t last forever, so you need to ensure that you’ll be able to reclaim their attention when you next need it. That first interaction must create recognition of need. The need doesn’t have to be for your product or service, but rather for the information to follow. They need to understand that there is more to learn and future information will benefit them.
The most common way for a campaign to execute this is with an email signup followed by drip marketing. This runs into the problem of requiring their attention at a specific point in time. Once an email gets put aside for later, it becomes far less likely to be read. Support your continued communications with other means of reminding the audience, such as automatically triggered reminder emails or display remarketing ads.
(Quick side note: people are more likely to respond to loss than to gain. If you’re having trouble crafting messages that keep the audience’s attention, play off this loss aversion. Tell the audience what they are currently or losing rather than what they might gain.)
Step 3: Build
There will always be people who would likely buy from you at some point in time, but cannot or will not buy now. You want to be able to retain their attention to make purchase at a later date more likely. Even for those that do buy, you want to ensure you utilize your command of their current attention to make it easier to regain their attention later.
As interruption marketing becomes less effective, you need to ensure you have a pool of people who have given you permission to get their attention. This can be done by creating valuable resources for your market which are likely to be repeatedly referenced and revisited. It can be done through community-building efforts. It can be done through regular distribution of high-quality content. Whatever you’re doing, it needs to be something that makes your audience want to come back for more. Ideally, your continuous re-engagement efforts should also be on a channel that you control to ensure that you won’t have any trouble getting promotional messages across when you need to and you can exert control over the channel to ensure it remains of high value for the audience.
You can’t convey a message unless you have your audience’s attention. The next time you’re creating a campaign, be sure that you build in a capacity to captivate the audience and retain their attention.
The image below is of a Target which is near me. It shows what you would see if you just walked in the exterior doors of the Target. Can you think of any problem with this?
You could walk in that Target looking for a sweater, I could be looking for toothpaste, and someone else could be looking for an end table. Regardless of our very different reasons for being there, however, we’re presented with the same initial experience. That’s not helpful.
Now Target is a little bit limited by the fact that they have physical stores. It’s not particularly easy – in fact it’s downright impractical if not impossible – to personalize a physical experience for every customer who walks into your store. You can’t exactly modify the physical store for every customer. However, you can readily personalize the experience in the digital realm. Despite this, even the largest life science tools and services companies fail to do so.
The world’s best e-commerce sites, such as Amazon or eBay, don’t have that problem. They use what they know about you, and also what they know about the products they’re selling, to try to get you from where you are to where you’re going as fast as possible. (Note this doesn’t only apply to personalization, although personalization is an important part.) However, you don’t need to be a billion-dollar company to personalize digital experiences. There are many tools that make website personalization accessible to mid-sized companies and even which make financial sense for small companies with a strong e-commerce focus.
As we’ve discussed in a previous report, research from the Corporate Executive Board has shown that increasing the simplicity of the buying journey can lead to an 86% increase in initial purchases of a product and a greater than 100% increase in the likelihood that a product or brand will be recommended. Helping customers solve their problems has been shown to elicit a more positive reaction than any other brand experience. Help your customers solve their problems in a simple, streamlined manner, and they’ll reward you with their business. Personalization is an important part of doing so.
A lot of focus goes into optimizing marketing activities. That focus is important and very helpful in numerous ways, but all the A/B testing and conversion optimization in the world gets flushed down the drain as soon as a customer actually contacts your company. Not nearly as much effort goes into improving customer contacts. Perhaps this is because person-to-person interaction inherently has some degree of variability, or because sales and support staff are expected to be highly competent at customer interactions, or because people don’t realize that customer interactions can be optimized. Regardless of the reason, life science companies need to realize that customer communications can be improved, and there are a number of definite (and often relatively easy) ways to do so. We discuss some below.
Improve Response Times
There have been many studies which have shown that lead qualification rates drop off massively over time. Even a matter of seconds has been shown to have a significant impact in qualification rates. A study of lead response behavior found that 36% of inquiries were not responded to at all within a two-week time frame. Yet response times are something which companies have direct control over.
Technology can be used to assist to some extent. Automated lead distribution – and in particular automated lead distribution to multiple agents simultaneously – has been shown to have the greatest impacts on conversion rates, with rates over twice as high as when there is no automation to assist in lead distribution.
If it really comes down to it, hire more people. Considering that leads which are contacted within an hour are 7 times more likely to be qualified as those which are contacted even one hour later, the cost / benefit ratio seems to be well worth it. Seven times more qualified leads not only means about 7 times as much business (or at least something in that ballpark) but it also means that your sales staff’s time is seven times more efficient when contacting leads.
It’s not only about sales, however. Support inquiries are equally as important, as they contribute significantly to overall customer experience which in turn affects customer loyalty. This should not come as a surprise.
Arm Your Customer-Facing Employees with Information
Too often, the quality of a customer interaction is most directly related to the experience of the person the customer is interacting with. Newer employees are often less knowledgeable and therefore are often not as well suited to assist the customer. Training can only help so much.
To combat this problem, ensure that you maintain a well-curated body of knowledge for your sales and support teams. Having ready access to information, such as past issues and their solutions, will your customer-facing employees more efficient, reduce the time it takes the customer to get a good answer, and improve the customers’ experiences when interacting with your company.
Provide Consistent Experiences
Although not as important in terms of short-term demand generation, the consistency of customer experiences plays strongly on brand perception. Inconsistent experiences, even if they are largely positive, can have a disruptive effect which conflict with each other rather than building on each other. To some extent, customer interactions should reflect a degree of branding.
I’m not recommending that life science companies take it to this much of an extreme, but a great example of branded customer interactions comes from Mailchimp, which has voice & tone guidelines for customer interactions. While I find the Mailchimp example to be a bit much – certainly far more defined than what many life science companies would need – it’s both reasonable and practical to set general voice and tone guidelines while also ensuring consistency in finer details such as email fonts.
When thinking about optimizing your marketing, think beyond the standard channels and consider improvements in actual customer interactions. While these activities may traditionally be the sole responsibility of the sales and support business areas, they may not often take as structured an approach to improvement as marketing commonly does, especially when considering aspects such as customer experience and branding. By making improvements to actual customer interactions, customer satisfaction, customer retention, and opportunity conversion will all increase while delivering positive brand value as well.
Take a look around – at the marketing efforts of your company, your competitors, and others in similar life science markets. I’m sure you’ll still find a lot of marketing efforts centered on building awareness. Quite frankly, efforts to simply build awareness are a waste of your audience’s attention. Awareness only imparts one very basic form of knowledge: the knowledge that something exists. You can do so much more with your audience’s attention.
Awareness campaigns are almost inherently neutral. Sure, you may be offering a solution that someone needs, but aside from the facts contained within the communication there is nothing positive or negative about it. Instead of focusing on building awareness, focus on creating experiences. Experiences can be used not only to impart knowledge, but also to build confidence. They leave a positive feeling with your prospective customers that translates into positive brand value for your company.
Experiences can be simple. Focusing on experiences does not necessitate any additional complexity in your communications. To upgrade an awareness communication to an experience, give some thought to the emotion you want to invoke within your scientist-customers and craft your communications with that emotion in mind. Don’t simply focus on what you are doing, but why you are doing it.
Ideally, customer experience will be something which is defined and shaped across all your customer touch points. Any experience is more effective when it is in harmony with the other experiences that your company provides. Considering that your brand is, in effect, the sum of all the experiences that it provides to others, those experiences need to be planned and defined to ensure that they build on each other rather than conflict with each other. In the race to win customers’ hearts and minds, the brand which consistently provides the best experiences will win. The next time you need to create awareness for your company or its products and services, think about how you could instead create an experience for your potential customers. The result will be more effective communications.
Many life science companies have problems converting website traffic to qualified leads. There are two common causes for this; either the quality of your traffic is poor (in other words, you’re attracting an audience that is either irrelevant or has no need and no intent to make a purchase) or your marketing is poor. With regards to the issue of poor website-based marketing, an extremely common cause is that the life science company’s website is company-centric or product/service-centric. The overall gist of the message on these website is: “This is who we are,” or “This is what we sell.” Unless a customer is ready to make a purchasing decision then and there (few are, in general) then these styles of messages will most often fail to resonate with the potential customer and simply fall short, failing to get the customer to engage further with your company and marketing as they progress through their buying journey.
To illustrate my point, let’s look at a generic website design. Most website designs are something like this:
The logo is on the upper left and the nav bar consists of an “about” selection, “products” and / or “services”, perhaps something akin to “industries”, and “contact”. The homepage content consists of an overview of the company and / or its major products and services.
Before we get into what should be on your website, it is worth explaining why your website content doesn’t need to simply be a summary of what you do. Your website is not a brochure or flier that you may distribute to people who have no prior knowledge of your company and lack sufficient context to figure it out what it does. In order for someone to get to your website they must do one of a handful of things, and in all situations you can assume that they either have an idea of what you do or have sufficient context that you don’t need to introduce yourself as you would to a stranger. They either 1) heard about it somewhere and went to it directly, 2) searched for a term in a search engine and clicked it, 3) clicked on an ad, or 4) clicked on a link on another website. All of these things either provide context or require that the person has a degree of knowledge beforehand. Therefore, the “brochure” style homepage isn’t necessary.
Instead, life science websites should be designed to be customer-centric. Instead of putting the company and the products first, you should adopt the customer’s perspective and show them that you understand their problems and needs. By focusing on the product or service, you’re effectively beginning the engagement with what the product is before they have a reason to care. By focusing on their needs you’re relating with them and getting their attention, setting yourself up to show how your products fulfill those needs.
But how can marketers create life science websites that are more customer-centric? A good place to start is with user stories. User stories help you escape the mind-frame of thinking about the customer and begin to think like the customer. In user stories, the marketer attempts to understand the motivations behind the customers actions and desires in order to fill the gap between the need and the solution. A typical user story is structured like this:
User Story FormatAs a [role] who is [situation], I want [need / desire] such that [benefit].
The use of user stories certainly do not guarantee that marketers adopt the customer’s perspective, so care should be taken to ensure that the situation is not defined simply to provide the intended benefit of the product. The situation should, however, be defined to create the need that your product is looking to solve. Starting with your target markets, consider all of the situations that could arise which would create the need that you are looking to solve. Then try to view the problem through the customer’s eyes and see what their desires are. If you find that your are simply defining the desire as your product or service, then you are not adopting the customers viewpoint.
Let’s illustrate this with some examples. The following would be a good user story:
User Story Good ExampleAs a biologist who is working with small model systems and imaging many 3-dimensional, fluorescently labelled samples, I want a faster, hands-off method of imaging my slides such that I can image more slides in less time and with less effort.
The next user story tells the same story, but is poor because it fails to elaborate the customer motivation and ends up framing the need in a product-centric manner:
User Story Bad ExampleAs a microscopist who has too many samples to image, I want an automated system for slide handling and imaging such that I can process slides more quickly.
User stories can be created for a number of situations and customer types. Once the user stories are written and compiled, you will have a much better understanding of what the customer is looking for from their own vantage point. You can then use this information to target content to groups of similar customers, create or optimize your website’s user flow and navigation, and improve the value propositions you present to the prospects.