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Audience Expectations blog

Flipping the Script to Meet Audience Expectations

By Josh Belzman / July 11, 2018

“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” – Donald Rumsfeld

Rummy’s wartime riff still makes me cringe. But I was reminded of it when thinking about the dilemma faced by resource-strapped social marketers tasked with sharing content that serves a brand aim but doesn’t fit audience expectations.

As the 2018 Sprout Social Index points out, mismatched expectations – and the bind they put social marketers in – can be a problem. Nearly half of social marketers expect (or do) post company announcements. But only 40% of audiences are looking for them; even less (13%) are looking for news about employees, but anywhere from a quarter to 45% of marketers are banking on employee news to humanize their brand.

You might say company announcements and employee stories are the army we have. I’d even argue that are the army we want. But we need to strategically deploy them to best serve our audiences and our own objectives.

At Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, our researchers do amazing, life-saving science. It’s a long slog from experiment to breakthrough with big wins few and far between. The slog is funded through tax dollars, foundation grants, industry partnerships and private donations. Each funding story is really a story about belief in a scientist and the work they’re doing, and just as importantly, a story about how bold science and big bets are advancing the fight against cancer and other diseases.

Great stuff, right? But what’s it have to do with social marketing and armies?

A lot, it turns out.

Stories about grants and accolades comprise a big part of our content arsenal. Blockbuster research findings are rare gems, but funding and award stories are a reliable source of content. Promoting them is often a requirement for garnering further support for research and helps attract top talent.

But posts about grants, pictures of checks, and headshots of scientists don’t resonate all that well on Facebook and Twitter. How do we know this? Because the numbers told us – and because we asked.

We set up campaign-based reporting and our analysis showed that posts focused on grant amounts received about 30% less engagement than other science-focused content and human interest stories. We also ran a user engagement survey to understand why our social audiences follow us and what topics they’re most interested in. Research advances and patient-focused information were winners. Grant and award announcements, not so much.

It makes sense. An audience of patients, donors and biotech buffs wants to see how science is advancing to help them and their loved ones, not see us patting ourselves on the back.

Our presentation of achievements was a case of misaligned expectations – and missed opportunity. We’ve got great stories to tell, but were focusing on the wrong part of the story, at least as far as our social audience was concerned.

The solution: Flip the script.

Then: Lead with funding

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Now: Lead with science

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To reframe award stories as science stories we replaced headshots in our posts with science and lab shots from our own archive and public sources and tweak headlines. We increasingly frame good news about employees as good news about their science. The result: a better understanding of what resonates and about a 25% increase in per-post engagement on achievement pieces at the same time organic reach has fallen due to Facebook Newsfeed changes.

Josh Belzman

And we’re not done. We’re thinking about more visually engaging and digestible formats for this content beyond link posts – formats that better allow us to feature both the science and the scientists at once, such as GIFs and short web videos.

Reframing content to match audience interests and consumption habits doesn’t mean sacrificing our identity and values. We still share employee stories and their portraits – when it makes sense. Our scientists’ motivations for working toward cancer cures are remarkable, whether they’ve lost someone to the disease or are themselves a cancer survivor. We’ll keep telling those stories, but finding the sweet spot between what we want (and need) to say about ourselves and what our strongest advocates want to hear about means rethinking our battle plan.

Josh Belzman

Josh Belzman

Josh serves as social media manager at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, responsible for engagement strategies serving a range of clients and audiences, from scientists to donors. Previously, Josh served in editorial and digital engagement roles at MSNBC, NBC News and the Seattle Mayor's Office. When not digging into reach stats and creating GIFs, Josh enjoys tennis, droning and playing with his made-for-Instagram cats Mazzy and Milos.
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