Twitter and Facebook were once considered a frivolous pursuit for biotech companies. Those days are long gone. Social media, marketing and science are all exceptionally fast-paced industries that converge daily throughout cyberspace; seeding thought leadership campaigns, extending the scope of content marketing, launching new technologies and more.

To harness the reach of social networks we typically turn to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+. However these all combine many diverse audiences and a mixture of leisure and business. Tweeting, linking and posting can easily get lost in the noise — and it’s a long game building followers.

Introducing ResearchGate

ResearchGate, on the other hand, is fully scientific. The company first emerged in 2008, founded by a team of Berlin-based researchers who saw a need for enhanced online collaboration. As stated on the website:

“Our mission is to connect researchers and make it easy for them to share and access scientific output, knowledge, and expertise. On ResearchGate they find what they need to advance their research.”

On paper that sounds great, which is why many forms of so-called “Facebook for scientists” have emerged – and failed – over the last ten years. Past examples include Scientist Solutions, SciLinks, Epernicus, 2collab and Nature Network (created by the company that publishes Nature). None of these achieved the critical mass of engagement required to survive.

RG stands apart from its predecessors primarily through its subscription base, which it claims is now greater than 7 million. It has also secured millions in venture capital funds, allowing the business to scale up and achieve global relevance. The company closed its latest funding round, a series C, in June 2013. An additional $35 million was raised from investors – including Bill Gates.

ResearchGate clearly warrants some exploring. Scientists are signed up, asking questions and talking about their research. So is it an underutilized tool for modern science marketing?

Are scientists engaged?

For every positive feature of the site there are many drawbacks. Common criticisms include:
• The interface is unattractive and difficult to navigate
• Users are not highly active
• The algorithms determining the ‘impact points’ of users are very poor, to the extent that the rankings lack real meaning

ResearchGate is the best of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean it’s great, or that its success will last. Scientists value collaboration; but they are also time-poor, skeptical, and many are reluctant to adopt new technology. It’s a tough crowd to win over.

Despite all this, RG appears to be doing well. A 2014 report, written and published by the journal Nature, compiled survey results from some 3,000 scientists and engineers on the topic of social media:
• More than 88% of scientists were aware of ResearchGate
• Just under 50% said they visited the site regularly, a larger percentage than those who visited Twitter, Google+, Facebook and the like
• Almost 29% reported they had signed up within the last year

The only networking site that gained more scientist traffic was Google Scholar, the large journal database. Researchers can build profiles on Scholar that highlight their various publications, but there’s no option for collaboration or discussion. It’s therefore of little use to marketers.

Is it a tool for your science marketing?

Wherever scientists meet, communicate, share ideas and think out loud, there is an opportunity for companies who sell to them to better understand the business. Many benefits are on the table:
• Listening: understanding scientist/customer perspectives, needs and issues
• Education: providing information about new technologies, products, solutions
• Thought Leadership: establishing key opinion leaders
• Website Traffic: linking to your website for more information/articles/white papers
• Brand awareness: strengthening your commercial presence
• Collaboration: identifying and partnering with other experts in your field

Part 2: How can you access those benefits?

Challenges and solutions

Subscription Restrictions: RG requires an academic email in order to open an account. Exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis for scientists (perhaps in the for-profit sector) who have examples of published work. Marketers typically don’t fit either criterion; we’re not invited to the party.

Restrictions like this can be viewed as a positive. If every marketer and their dog were swarming the site, scientists would be forced to clamp down and stop sharing their honest views. If you can’t get in, your competitors can’t either. A different approach is needed.

One way to do tap into this resource is to encourage and support your company’s scientists to participate as individuals. Most biotechnology companies have at least one PhD on staff. They can sign up through a previous “dot edu” email address, or use past publications to get in. It may take time, but coaching your scientists to talk about the work your company does is far more authentic than marketing it yourself.

Another option is to join one of ResearchGate’s competitors. Academia.edu allows anyone to sign up and, although it hasn’t raised as much venture funding, its subscription base is expanding rapidly. Many of the same opportunities exist.

A slightly different channel to embrace is the intense scientific debate on Reddit, a social networking and news site that covers all topics, including very niche scientific fields. Be warned however; Reddit fiercely protects its non-promotional stance. Strategize ahead about how you will engage, i.e., through an Ask Me Anything (AMA) thread with one of your lead scientists.

Negative Connotations: How fondly do you consider the company that just interrupted your web browsing with an obnoxious ad? The same rules apply on RG: Scientists don’t like having their forums hi-jacked with blatantly promotional and self-serving marketing posts.

Leveraging the site requires much more finesse, which – again – can be looked on as a good thing. If your scientists have created an account, their participation alone will be improving your brand status. Every time they contribute or ask a question, their title as Lead Scientist Joe Blog and XYZ Biotech is on display. Your company becomes part of the discussion and is viewed as an expert in the field.

The next level of boldness is to link to further information on your site. This should be done tactfully – do not force it. Content should be highly specific. You can’t link broadly to your website, you must link to a white paper, article or blog post that specifically addresses the topic in play. Avoid linking to marketing materials that sell the product overtly. You’re already in naughty territory.

Finally, a lot can be achieved through reaching out to scientists behind the scenes. Connect with researchers who have worthwhile things to say and excellent scientific clout. Industry-academic partnerships can be very worthwhile; contacts can evolve to be future consultants, colleagues, or partners for projects such as beta-testing new technologies.

Demographics: While it’s impressive that ResearchGate has amassed 7 million users, not every researcher on the site is part of your target audience – even those in the relevant science space. A genomics company for example, may end up engaging with a master’s candidate in genetics, from a rural university in India. He might be a cool guy, but he’s not about to write a check for a suite of next-gen sequencing equipment.

Often, those frequenting the site are students needing help and advice. Marketers need to persuade those higher up in the food chain, such as specialized product managers. There are also various regional limitations, depending on the size of your business. RG membership is not spread evenly. A lot of scientists in Brazil are signed up, while membership in other countries lags behind. Do your best to contribute to a range of discussions on the site, but keep your eye on the prize – targeting the people you want to influence.

Conclusion

ResearchGate is less a marketing forum and more of a science resource. You don’t need to introduce marketing material to benefit from the site. Ask questions: What’s the most annoying thing about undertaking ELISAs? The answers might help you promote a new ELISA kit that appeals much more directly to researchers. Meanwhile, your scientists can be contributing their knowledge, creating a halo effect for your brand. It’s a community and a discussion that you can be a part of.

Whether or not ResearchGate will make a lasting impact remains to be seen. Others, such as Academia.edu, could potentially eclipse their presence. However the cards play out, these tips for maximizing scientists’ social networks hold true: don’t be promotional, be patient and improvise. Maintain the spirit of collaboration.

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