Research “consumers”, know your rights!

I’m not claiming to be the first person to spot some problems with applying models of supply and demand, and consumption and production to research. But I wonder if I’m the most obsessed?

I’ll admit, part of it is personal. I’m a Chartered Marketer working in development and I’ve observed (and experienced) some quite aggressive reactions to suggestions of applying marketing theories or business thinking to encouraging development research to be used more. The unethical marketing behaviour of certain large companies is no doubt partly to blame for this. But I’m a bit bemused to see how avidly the language of manufacturing and selling has been adopted by people working in research communication, without any interrogation.

I love a good metaphor as much as the next woman, especially if it helps me make sense of something intangible. But in this case, it doesn’t work. Using the notions of “research consumers” and “research producers”, of a research supply chain complete with intermediaries, and of stimulating research demand, creates many more problems than it solves. Here’s just a few:

1) the words already mean something and these meanings are different to the way they’re often used in the context of research. For example, a consumer is an individual who gives to the seller something the seller values, in exchange for a product or service for their own personal use, or as a gift to someone else. And it stops there. Strictly speaking, this means if I’m a research consumer, I’m someone who commissions someone to do (produce) some research for me. It doesn’t mean I read anything they write. “Organisational customer of research” would be a closer approximation to what I think is the intent behind the phrase “research consumer” but I don’t think that’s going to catch on.

2) the notion of research producers and research consumers suggests two different types of people – often consumers are seen as policymakers, and producers as researchers. But really these are behaviours which the same person can display or roles they can take up and drop as needed. Based on the way the term is used in research communication, aren’t researchers, research consumers? (I just made myself dizzy thinking about academics subscribed to the Journal of Consumer Research; are they consumer research consumer research producers?!).

3) the language of demand, supply, intermediaries, push, pull and products (linear) is often used within writing about complexity, systems, non-linear thinking and all things wiggly and swirly. The two sets of ideas are at loggerheads.

I sense some more posts in the pipeline – on intermediaries, for example. But for now, I’d like to propose (with only half my tongue in cheek) that research consumers be given the same legal protection that consumers in the UK enjoy. This means that anyone “selling” research has to follow the same rules as other producers and sellers, such as:

  • not using a shocking claim or image merely to attract attention (CAP Codes).
  • not providing material information “in a manner which is unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely” i.e. writing in Plain English (Unfair Trading Regulations, 2008).
  • only providing research that is of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose (Sale of Goods Act, 1979).
  • making consumers aware of how much it will cost them to “purchase” the research over the internet (e.g. downloading).
  • not promoting research by email to people who haven’t said they want to hear about it.

Research consumers, stand up for your rights!

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What is it I do again? How to talk to strangers about our work.

As Charlie used to say, you should “never go anywhere with men and ladies that you don’t know” and that’s good advice. But sometimes we do have to talk to strangers about our work, often at short notice and even answer the dreaded question “so what’s your project all about?”. What’s the wise thing to do in those situations?

I recently ran a workshop with some of the lovely folk at the British Library for Development Studies where we shared our experiences of talking about what we do or want to do, to people who we want to get to know better (donors, potential partners, people who might be able to help us with our work).

We quickly ditched the idea of developing an “elevator pitch”, those short speeches we’re meant to deliver to a captive audience. Of course it’s handy to have a standard statement or two and there’s lots of advice out there on how to develop them. But it’s not very considerate of the person riding in the elevator with you (or stuck in the queue for the coffee or loo). We were looking for some good advice on how to get conversations going with people, who we don’t know well, and get them interested in our work while still being ourselves.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Learning a pitch parrot-fashion is not going to make you any friends.

Turns out that between us we had quite a few ideas including:

Ask questions – the anti-elevator pitch approach is to get to know the person as quickly as possible, and then explain your idea or project or odd-sounding job title in a way that speaks to what you’ve found out about them.

Have something in common – look for a connection between the two of you, where you are, who you know, what you’re wearing.

Use examples and stories – especially if your work involves a lot of jargon or theory, remember to bring in real people and situations to make it accessible.

Be rigorous – you don’t need a prepared speech, but it is worth learning some facts that support what you’re saying; maybe something an expert has said in a recent publication, or some firm numbers from evaluations that back up your case.

Be a lovely person – you’re talking to another person, who might be tired, away from home, fed up with being pitched at. If it’s your style, by all means be charming, or cheeky, or funny, but try to make them feel better for having spent time talking to you.

Have no more than three messages – those core points to get across which could be your values, objectives, what you’re doing that’s different. If you work in a team then you need to establish these together. They’re the things you’d like the other person to go away associating with you and your work but how you communicate them is up to you.

Make sure you can contact them – ask for their card, or their email and send them something useful and relevant afterwards (maybe a link to that expert’s paper you were talking about or the name of a great B&B in NYC).

Knowing all this is great, and pinning down the facts and messages in advance is better, but best of all is practising it. For which I have two recommendations: get into the habit of practising scenarios with your colleagues (with another team member around to give feedback and support if needed), and go speed-dating.