Engineers solve the world’s most complex and important problems. They should use that expertise in their marketing, says David Lewis, director of Memetic Communications
There is an age-old tension between engineers and their communications teams.
Engineers tend to value robust, detailed, evidence-based information; whilst PR and marketing want to deliver aspirational messages as clearly and simply as possible. Many engineers lament the resulting simplification of science and engineering, driven by an apparent quest to make everything accessible to everyone.
Straightforward mass-market messages sometimes make sense, such as for inspiring young people into engineering, or exciting the public about autonomous vehicles, or selling vacuum cleaners.
But consumer communications should not be the ubiquitous model. Buying a can of Coke is not the same decision-making process as investing in infrastructure or buying a scientific instrument. Of course, all communication needs to be clear, but clarity is relative to different audiences.
The good news is there is a movement in the communications industry away from reducing everything down to simple messages, and towards communicating deep insight. This is driven by a recognition that engineering decision-makers are not consumers, but a small number of experts who want to understand how complex innovations can benefit them.
So, what is this more considered approach? Who is doing it already? And how can engineers and communicators work together to deliver it effectively?
Start with audience decisions
For many buyers, engineering is not about specific products or services, it is about solutions to difficult challenges; from mitigating climate change, to understanding of the world around us, to reshaping cities to meet changing needs.
Exciting as these issues may be to the general public, they will only be tackled if someone puts their hand in their pocket - an investor, buyer or policymaker. In most cases, the meaningful audience is small. And, in terms of their knowledge and drivers, they are very different to the population as a whole.
Start with them. Who are they? What decisions do they need to make? What do they need to know to make those decisions? What is their 1, 5, and 10-year plan? How can you help them achieve the objectives in those plans?
If engineers and communicators start by sitting down together and answering these questions, the resulting communications will be much more effective, and very different to what mostly happens today.
QinetiQ’s recent report on prototype technology in modern warfare provides a good example. Prototype Warfare – an approach to using cutting-edge technologies in defence – has long been of interest but never properly realised. QinetiQ aimed to change this by moving away from simply exploring the benefits, and instead giving practical insight into how to make it work in the real world.
It seems to have worked. A subsequent article by the Head of the British Army incorporated Prototype Warfare as a central tenet of the UK’s developing land defence strategy, followed by an announcement of funding to fast track prototype robotics technologies.
Say something useful
Senior decision-makers don’t want marketing messages wrapped up in clickbait content, they want substantial information and insight. A survey of senior executives by Forbes Insights found feature-length reports and books topped their preferred formats for business insights.
As this report says, good communications content starts with a hypothesis on tackling a thorny problem, then proves or disproves it using case studies and research. It presents relevant ‘data-based insights that…lead to business outcomes’, and actionable takeaways. This is key; people are better placed to take big decisions if they have clear, evidence-based recommendations.
Engineering companies are full of the expertise, data and case studies for this sort of market-shaping content. But they often struggle to draw it out and package it up in an accessible format. There is a need for specialists to bridge this gap to create more strategic pieces of content.
Some engineering companies do this well. Arup is a good example, producing regular reports and insights on areas it sees as key drivers of change. This ensures it has a voice on the big issues in its markets, and material with which to start meaningful commercial conversations with key decision-makers (Memetic recently analysed the value of one of their reports on Rethinking Urban Mobility). But many go no further than a blog or newsfeed where they talk about themselves. With the expertise that exists within their organisations, they could do so much more.
Be known for your expertise, not your brand
There are cautionary tales of getting this wrong. IBM relied on its brand and big publicity stunts to launch IBM Watson, when it should have looked at the deeply complex problems its advanced technology could address. Overpromising undermined trust, and having fallen well short of expectations, Watson is now licking its wounds. IBM is a well-run company and Watson has value, so it will pick itself up again, but for a smaller business, such an oversight could have severely hampered long-term success.
As innovations and global challenges get more complex, there is a much greater need for communications which provide evidence-based insight into addressing that complexity and for content that clearly links the company’s vision to its customers’ challenges and provides actionable insights into solving them.
Engineering organisations are powerhouses of such insight; they should use it to shape their communications content.
Memetic Communications is a content and thought leadership agency specialising in science, technology and engineering.