The blog of the Urban Institute
June 9, 2014

The importance of selling research

June 9, 2014

A quick story: A few months ago, I was chatting with one of my former graduate school professors. I was telling him about a client who was concerned that his organization wasn’t selling their work enough; that their reports weren’t being as widely read as they had hoped. “See, that’s what’s great about being an academic,” he said, “I don’t have to worry about selling my stuff.”

I sighed, having heard this sentiment many times. What’s ironic is that so many researchers want their work to be widely read and, importantly, to be used by people in the policymaking process. Yet, many researchers (especially, academics it seems) don’t yet value the importance of “selling” their work. By that I mean thinking strategically about trying to get people—other than their colleagues and other researchers—to understand and use their analyses.

Changes in, and the evolution of, such fields as data visualization, presentation design, and data-driven journalism ventures are teaching us that people are willing to read data-rich writing and research. That a market exists for analysis that extends beyond traditional journalistic storytelling means researchers and academics potentially have a wider audience for their work.

One of researchers’ main advantages, then, is their ability to work deeply with data, understand its challenges, and conduct thorough statistic and econometric tests. Moving from the research stage to the communication stage requires some understanding of—and at the very least, some appreciation for—the needs of a wider audience. Does the audience want visuals (such as infographics) to accompany the work? Do they want stories to help them relate to the analysis? How can interactive data tools, interactive visualizations, videos, or podcasts help aid in the wider dissemination of that research?

For example, the Urban Institute’s “27 Weeks and Counting” feature brought greater visibility to four research reports on long-term unemployment (mostly literature reviews) that likely would not have had much reach on their own. By combining strong storytelling, interviews, videos, and graphics, we made the subject accessible to a wider audience.

Researchers do not need to “sell” their work in the traditional sense of the word. It’s not about being Don Draper. Instead, in order to have their work more widely read and to have a greater impact on policy, researchers need to start thinking carefully about the needs of the audience and how that audience will access the research.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


This is such a thoughtful and germane argument and I wish that more academics took this perspective! I finished a PhD and had these same qualms about the relationship between academic research and the public sphere, which is why I went into nonprofit. I worried that academics were not only neglectful about making sure their ideas reached broader markets, but were often hostile toward the idea. Academic research is so rich and has so much to offer--and we need more "translators" like those at the UI to help academic work speak to broader audiences. It's part of why I follow this blog, of course!