Learn Science Marketing from 5 Science Marketing Books
Are you a scientist looking to get into marketing? There is a lot to learn and too many resources to wade through. When I started in the field, I couldn’t find any science marketing books. I began plowing through content at random, which was not a great strategy in retrospect.
You may not know this yet, but the marketing profession is full of a lot of bullshit. This is a profession where we convince others of anything and everything, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, marketers often believe their own bullshit and then go around trying to get others to believe in the same stuff.
Marketers are also decent writers, so almost every marketer of even moderate success has probably written a book. There is also a lot to learn from business, pop psychology, and tech, which means there is a massive volume of writing relevant to your work. If you aren’t careful, you can find yourself reading books that will teach you ideas that are outdated, irrelevant, or just plain wrong.
After pushing through dozens of books related to marketing, I wanted to help out other scientists following the same path. That means putting together a list of books that were not just interesting to read but would help you grow as a marketer. I narrowed it down to five science marketing books I’d recommend to someone starting in the field. I’ve also included a bonus book for each title if you want to dive deeper into a specific topic.
Note: these books are not about science marketing. I don’t think there are five books on science marketing (or at least not on Audible, as only ‘read’ audiobooks). These are chosen for a scientist trying to get into marketing. Experienced marketers wanting to learn how to target scientific audiences might not find these useful.
Alchemy, by Rory Sutherland
Humans are weird. Sometimes we are entirely rational, while other times we act in ways that seem totally unpredictable. But there is a logic to it; you just need to understand humans at a deeper level.
“Alchemy” is about creating marketing, products, and moments that are magical. Increases in human happiness in the developed world are not likely to come from an incremental improvement in efficiency. Instead, we can apply what we already know about human psychology and behavior to make the world feel dramatically better.
I’d recommend science marketers start their education here for three reasons:
1) Don’t treat humans like chemicals in a test tube or numbers on a spreadsheet. Marketing requires you to think like your customer, understanding their thoughts, beliefs, pains, and perceptions. This lesson is essential for scientists, as we default to analytical thought. You need to embrace alternative ways of thinking to succeed as a marketer.
2) “Alchemy” talks about the irrationality of humans in a highly rational way. The book uses a lot of social science and behavioral economics. This should appeal to scientists, as it doesn’t jump to the other extreme of saying “just be creative.”
3) Sutherland’s writing is a joy. The whole book feels as light as a feather. Sutherland is a top dog at one of the most successful marketing agencies in the world, but he doesn’t pull the “I’ve been in ads for a million years, so let me tell you how it is” act. Instead, the book makes clear that he is probably wrong about some of his ideas. Bring that humility to your marketing education.
(Bonus: if you like this, I would also recommend “Contagious” by Jonah Berger, which is a deep dive into the social science of how ideas spread)
Everybody Writes, by Ann Handley
Scientists are not taught how to write. We complete English courses in high school but then write nothing but lab reports and journal articles for the rest of our lives. This education is harmful, teaching you to use run-on sentences, passive-tense, and jargon.
Writing is a fundamental skill in all areas of marketing, so every scientist needs to learn the basics as quickly as possible. Ann Handley’s “Everybody Writes” is the most practical book about writing that I have encountered. As the title suggests, this is for “everybody,” but it has a bias towards business-to-business marketing, which happens to be where most science marketing sits.
Handley’s book covers practices of effective writers, features of strong writing, and tips on improving your work. She isn’t overly precious about writing – it is not a delicate artisan craft that must be protected but a flexible tool that can be adapted to any user or situation. Handley also provides a basic introduction to content marketing, which will be relevant to many science marketers.
Should you read this book if you do not intend to be a science writer? Almost certainly. You will likely write blog posts, ads, or social content as part of your career. Even if you somehow jump into marketing operations, you should be able to write an automated email campaign.
(Bonus: want to learn more about content marketing? No better place than “Content, Inc.” by Joe Pulizzi. While I think his philosophy has some limitations, it provides many valuable insights)
Stories that Stick, Kindra Hall
Now that you have the basics of how to write let’s learn what you should write. Whenever possible, write a story. Humans are predisposed to understanding the world through stories, and we remember information longer when it is shared in the context of a story.
“Stories that Stick” goes beyond writing, though. Almost any form of media can include a story, including print ads, webinars, podcasts, or social media posts. Even journal articles and technical posters can take inspiration from this book. While the book isn’t specifically about marketing, the author includes several marketing-specific observations.
The book is also filled with delightful stories. The writing is bubbly and uplifting, which will help you feel the author’s passion.
Scientists are never taught storytelling. We dump buckets of facts on the readers’ heads and hope they find something of value in the experience. This is both less persuasive and more unpleasant than you think. This book will help you break out of this rut.
(Bonus: check out “On Writing” by Stephen King. It blends many of the great things about “Stories that Stick” and “Everybody Writes” while adding the experience of one of the most commercially successful authors of all time.)
Obviously Awesome, by April Dunford
Positioning is one of the essential concepts in marketing, though it is poorly understood. Products and services do not exist in a vacuum; they need to be positioned relative to things that already exist. You need to think through questions like the following:
- Who is this product for?
- What are they using your product for?
- What value does it bring to their lives?
- What would they be doing if they didn’t have your solution?
Only once you have answers to these questions can you effectively sell your product or service. Positioning is about explaining your product in a manner that attracts the attention of your consumer.
April Dunford is one of the foremost experts on positioning in the world. Her book, “Obviously Awesome,” is a tight 202 pages. While the book is an easy read, it is not short on insight. You will leave with a thorough introduction to the subject, including a practical framework to position any product or service.
One of the advantages of understanding positioning is getting a broader view of a business. Marketing isn’t just about communications. It’s also about understanding your customer and the structure of the industry. Learning about positioning is the gateway to this expanded set of questions.
Scientists selling to other scientists sometimes misunderstand positioning. The seller understands and cares about the technical specs and assumes the buyer also understands and cares about them. This is rarely true. Intentional positioning is essential for scientists to understand and buy your product.
(Bonus: “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt is a fantastic read if you want to deepen your understanding of strategy, which is closely related to positioning.)
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
Steve Jobs is arguably the greatest marketer ever. The hit rate of Apple’s ads under his leadership is unparalleled. “1984,” “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC,” “Think Different,” and “1,000 Songs in Your Pocket” could each fit into the top 10 best ad campaigns of all time.
Some tech nerds are snobby about Jobs’ accomplishments, suggesting that his contributions to technology are overrated. That misses the point. Jobs led the design of cool, creative, and approachable technology products. Marketing is built into the DNA of Apple products. There is a lot to learn.
Apple’s success also has a strange gravity-distorting effect. Some treat Jobs as the Jesus of business, ignoring that he made many mistakes. Jobs was also an asshole and had many problematic views. People also make up stories about Jobs and Apple to circulate on social media. To understand modern marketing, you really should understand the real Jobs and the real Apple, and there is no better way to do this than reading this book.
While I love this book, it should be the last one to read from this list. It isn’t really a marketing book, plus it is long and dense, which means the “bang for your buck” in educational value isn’t spectacular compared to the other titles on this list. That being said, I think it is a must-read for anyone in marketing.
(Bonus: read “Code Breaker,” also by Walter Isaacson, which is about Jennifer Doudna and the discovery of CRISPR. There is a lot to like about this book, but one of the themes is the importance of messaging in being a successful scientist)
Science Marketing Books Versus Science Marketing Practice
As you might be able to tell, this list was hard to select. While science generally rewards hyper-specialization, marketing requires you to have a fundamental grasp of a wide range of topics. This list of books will give you a solid grounding in many areas of marketing theory.
It’s worth noting that this list is light on lessons in marketing practice. How do you create a strong print ad? How do you write a science blog? What is SEO? That is intentional. Books are not the best place to learn these skills. You should instead seek the most relevant resources for the specific skills you want to develop.
But there is still so much more to learn. Branding, strategy, copywriting, user experience, MarTech… we are just scratching the surface. Effective marketers devote themselves to perfecting their technical skills while understanding the theory and history. Hopefully, these five science marketing books will provide a foundation for building that knowledge.