Recently, I had the opportunity to work with The Spark Mill on a project for the Parkinson's and Movement Disorder Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. After conducting research and presenting them with a Message Playbook™, we discovered that one of the places this organization needed more training was in translating their research papers into white papers. These are some of the most brilliant minds in science, and they have quite a following of people who like to read their research. The challenge is that the way they’re presenting it (peer reviewed articles) isn’t the best fit for the general public.
Science literacy is important, but it’s also important for scientists to understand how to translate their work so it’s fit for the general public to consume it. As Alan Alda, put it “After interviewing at least 700 scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, I realized that for most of us science is a foreign language.”
I’d put myself in this category. I love reading about the latest scientific discoveries and I tend to snuggle up to a good documentary about cuttlefish as opposed to a stereotypical chick flick. But I get really intimidated when I see a peer reviewed article. It takes me a lot of time to warm up to it. I can’t scan it. I have to go slowly so I can parse sentences and truly understand what’s going on. And often, I don’t have enough context to understand why a particular article is significant.
This is why science journalism is important. And as companies embrace the tenants of brand journalism, it’s easier for scientists to enter the marketing world without feeling like a used car salesperson. So, how do we know when to use which? Here are four situations to help you decide which type of paper is best for your organization.
Quality Control vs. Grounding Assertions
The main purpose of the peer review process is quality control. We want to make sure that our results can be replicated and tested. Often, this is the biggest difference between “real science” and “pseudo-science.” In order to do this, we keep our style minimal and let the results stand on their own. Too much of a personal touch leads to mistrust. But that’s not the case when we’re speaking to the general public. In marketing, we realize that our audience is busy. They may only have time to read a short sentence — maybe, if we’re lucky, we can get them to read a short paragraph. But getting them to read a whole document is exceedingly difficult.
That’s where white papers come in. They ground our assumptions and help validate our claims. As my friend Leslie O’Flahavan of E-WRITE teaches, content (especially on the web) is comprised of bites (headlines), snacks (short paragraphs) and meals (longer form content). Using this metaphor, we can think of white papers as your typical weekday dinner, and peer reviewed articles as a full twelve-course meal.
Formal vs. Informal Announcements
Peer reviewed articles tend to have more formal language because their main purpose is to make an official announcement. Think about what someone wears when they accept the Nobel Prize. A tux or a gorgeous gown, right? That’s the image a scientist has in their head when they are writing for peer review. They want to make sure that their content lives up to that level of prestige, because often, that’s the document that will gain them access into that precious inner circle.
White papers don’t have this pressure. They’re much more relaxed. Think about what you’d wear if you were going to meet a friend for coffee on a Saturday afternoon. It’s about being comfortable and conversational. When you use language that’s too formal in your marketing content, it can feel like you’ve walked into a coffee shop wearing a tuxedo and your friend is wearing jeans and a t-shirt. This pairing isn’t likely to facilitate a long and comfortable conversation.
Permanent Record vs. Increasing Awareness
We write papers, both peer-reviewed and marketing, so that we can attract something. But that something is very different for each type of paper. For peer-reviewed papers, the goal is to attract future funding and associate the author’s name in the permanent record (so the Nobel Prize people need to know who to call). We write in a way that demonstrates that our topic is worth investigating further.
For marketing, we’re not going for funders, we’re going for eyeballs. The goal is to spread the message about our findings and as a result increase awareness at the top of the sales funnel. In this situation, using a peer-reviewed article for marketing purposes would be like using your resume on your online dating profile, which isn’t an effective way of attracting a mate.
Objectivity vs. Persuasion
The biggest difference between peer-reviewed papers and white papers comes down to their purpose. The former is meant to inform, the latter to influence. With a white paper, the goal is to demonstrate to others why your proposed solution is better than everything else out there. You want to move someone into action after reading it. You want them to walk away having felt something to the point where they’re willing to change their behavior.
White Paper Template
After scouring the web for a good white paper template, the best one I found was at Demand Metric. The general outline is as follows, but it’s worth downloading the template because it gives a lot of good pointers on how to write your white paper.
- Executive Summary
- Call to Action
- About Organization
At the end of the day, both peer-reviewed articles and marketing articles are good tools. They just solve different problems; one is like a screwdriver, the other like a hammer. Sure, they look similar, but it’s important to recognize that they both do very different jobs, and neither is very good at solving the other’s problems.