Writing Good Web Copy For Life Sciences

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Biotech Marketing Word Cloud

At some point during graduate school, I had an epiphany about communication.  Who were the most successful scientists in my field?  Often they were those who communicated best – both in speaking and in writing.  After all, everyone in the field has a high aptitude for scientific concepts, principles and even math and statistics.  But what made the best of scientists stand out was ability to show the importance of their research to others, to explain complex ideas in common terms.

I had the privilege of doing research for two of the best communicators in the field of enzyme kinetics – Dr.’s Paul Cook (retired) and Frank Raushel.  I had written many essays and research papers in high school and college, but while writing graduate research papers for both of these scientists, I realized they had developed a knack for headlines and conclusions far beyond my skills at the time.

With the exception of review articles, where the goal is to survey the historical research to date for a given topic, a research article’s headline should focus on a sound conclusion and other brief aspects of the research.  My first publication in 1996 was titled, “Isotope Partitioning with ascaris suum phosphofructokinase is consistent with an ordered kinetic mechanism.”  Boring, right?  Not for the ~1,000 enzymologists studying kinetic mechanisms or the parasitic worm ascaris suum as an animal model for glucose metabolism.  The headline even stated the key method – isotope partitioning – that supported the conclusions made. 

Rather than getting maybe 1% of the 10,000 biochemistry labs in the world (i.e., only 100 labs) to stumble across my first research article, my graduate advisor’s headline ensured that perhaps a majority of the 1,000 relevant enzymologists read our article.  My second article was titled, “Optimum activity of the phosphofructokinase from ascaris suum requires more than one metal ion.” Again, targeted messaging and conclusions to connect with the relevant audience.

Since graduate school, I found myself in several roles where I was the default ‘technical writer’ on the team, and I’ve taken it upon myself over the years to understand what works and what doesn’t.  Most of the tried and true rules come from the field of journalism, but for some reason it is easy to get off track when writing about your own company or product.  And in the era of information overload with emails, texts and websites, the rules not only haven’t changed; they’ve become more important than ever.

Given that web content is often the heart of a marketer’s messaging, what follows are some guiding principles for Good Web Copy For Life Sciences.

Write for your audience, not for yourself

“We’re a life science company, so we should focus on detailed features that interest our audience… right?”  Yes and No.  The mistake many companies make is to presume that, since your company is scientific in nature, if you write about what excites the company then your scientific audience will be excited, too.

Understand that there are more differences between you and your audience than you might think.  You are a company focused on sales, not an academic lab focused on discovery and research.  The PI has her own ‘brand’ to protect through peer-reviewed publications and organizations, and her research – not your product - is the source of her success.  Make the customer the hero, and you will reap benefits as well.

To write for your life science audience, determine the main reasons why a life scientist is typing a query into Google.  Is a lab manager looking for pricing on a common item such as a basic test kit, glassware, or gloves?  Is the primary investigator of an academic laboratory seeking out other scientists already using your technology?  Or perhaps a purchasing agent needs to determine whether you are the sole provider of a particular product?  The content on your home page and product pages should be laser-focused on answering those questions.

Other website visitors might not be life scientists at all, but business partners, investors or potential employees.  Your web messaging should address common interests for all these groups, while primarily focusing on moving potential buyers toward a decision.

Having a great product or technology is important, but understanding your audience’s interests and needs allows you to communicate benefits much more effectively and to close sales faster.

Write for Google

If you expect your website to drive business and sales, then you must realize the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  Search engine marketing means that you intend to score high on search results for the pages in your site.  Web crawlers that archive content for rapid searching must therefore be able to find the content on those pages.  This is not as complex as it may sound.  Think about each page as a valuable piece of real estate with its own keywords to define it. Then optimize your web page content just for the specific information on that page, including headings, titles and Meta tag descriptions with that keyword.

Google is incredibly effective at scoring relevant content, and SEO is not something that should be an after-thought once your website is already live.  When creating original content, taking a pyramid approach (like a journalist) is a good idea both for SEO and for basic readability.   Create an outline with a main idea and then 3-5 bullets to support that point.  If you have more ‘main ideas’ or supporting points, then consider how you might move extra content to a sub-page, with “Learn More>,” or “Request a brochure.”  Your main idea is then very useful when you write the page's Title Tag or Meta description.

Write from the top down – use headlines

If you scroll through this blog article, you can easily see the main idea and key points from the headlines alone.  This doesn’t over-simplify or bypass the rest of the content – quite the contrary.  The headlines help to map out the content in the reader’s brain and to draw him into the supporting points.  This is also helpful to Google results, since some of the algorithms used in search results measure headlines (H1 tags) as more important than other content.

Again, print journalists have established good rules for decades that apply to good web content.  Often print articles start on page 1 of a section, with the biggest news appearing ‘above the fold.’  The story is then ‘Continued on A6,’ for example.  Your Home page content should focus in on the 3-5 most important topics you wish to communicate on your website, and continue to other pages for the details.  Standard Home page info such as Contact, About Us, or News should be visible but not space-hogging.

Headlines should truly conclude something about a paragraph whenever possible.  Remember my graduate research article headlines?  The two I mentioned are actually full sentences, complete with a subject and a verb.

Use plain language and don’t explain everything

When you are communicating scientific information, there will be no shortage of long words and sentences.  Adding unnecessary syllables, words and sentences to this already complex content doesn’t help the matter.  These not only don’t help your message, but also compete with the time and bandwidth of your reader.  Do yourself a favor and simplify your words and sentences. 

Instead of: 

“We utilize an array of analytical algorithms and data processing in order to optimize your pharmacogenomic data for visualization of results by inspection.” 

Just say:

“Our software makes understanding your results easier.”

And then follow that headline with a simple sentence or two describing how your software makes this easier.

Science is a complex language and so abbreviations and clever acronyms often move a conversation forward much faster than re-explaining basic concepts each time.  Consider how quickly “PCR” replaced “polymerase chain reaction,” reducing the entire genomics industry’s conversation time and written space by a significant amount.  However, be careful using too much jargon, unless you provide enough context to make your meaning clear.  Even educated biochemists at one point disputed the usage of PCR derivatives such as qPCR, rtPCR, real-time PCR, or the difference between pharmacogenomics and pharmacogenetics.  (A scientist once explained the difference in these last two words as a “2 letter mutation.”)

 A common law used in scientific theory is Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation should be used unless it fails to explain a phenomenon.  More science only ensures longer paragraphs, not necessarily deeper understanding.

Focus on conversion

In optimizing your web content, don’t sacrifice simplicity or clarity.  Getting people to your site is only the first step.  If you use advertising, direct mail or other web linking to drive visitors to your website, then search engines aren’t involved.  Once a visitor arrives from any incoming channel, your site should be focused on its conversion rate.  This typically involves simplifying content and reducing the number of clicks to either a lead capture form or an outright sale.

Conversion rates can be defined differently, but in general it means the number of visitors reaching your website’s final goal (email capture, request demo, or outright purchase) divided by the number of visitors reaching the initial page (home page or linked page from a web ad).  In short, you are converting Visitors into Leads, Leads into Prospects, Prospects into Customers.

Experts at selling understand it’s not about ‘going for the close,’ but breaking up the process into several manageable steps, such as Introduction >> Info Exchange >> Demonstration >> Proposal >> Objection/Response >> Buy.  Helping a prospect to complete each step is all that is needed, not a quantum leap forward to the close.  Again, the pyramid approach can facilitate website conversion.  Hook them with effective headlines on the Home page, leading them to ‘Learn More’ on the Product Benefits page, and closing your web communication cycle by drawing them to ‘Request Quote,’ where the visitor provides name, email and phone number.

On the contrary, a brain dump of all information on the Home page isn’t likely to compel your reader to seek more information, and certainly gives him little reason to receive a phone call or visit from a sales person.  Like in show biz, always leave ‘em wanting more…providing ground cover for a sales rep to call or visit a receptive audience.

'Spin' just makes people dizzy

Since I moved out of the laboratory and into sales, I’ve received some sage advice from a couple of different bosses over the years.  My first sales manager at Integrated DNA Technologies, Mike Pettit, wisely told me that, “Tellin’ ain’t sellin’.“  I can’t resist adding to this “…you must be compellin’. “  Even though I had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, talking about how much science I know is not the best strategy.  I learned that first establishing a relationship and speaking in benefit headlines to a customer still left me with room for the ‘hard close’ when the conversation turned technical.  This rule works both in sales conversations and in content for your website.

My Vice President of Marketing at Luminex Corporation, Greg Gosch, taught me, “Demonstrate. Don’t Assert.”  That’s about as simple as it gets for a guiding principle in marketing.  Assertions such as “we are the best” are simply advertising in disguise and do nothing to establish your credibility.  Demonstrating results using data or testimonials, on the other hand, is far more compelling to the life scientist.  You build both your personal credibility and your brand’s credibility with each new demonstration.

As you can see, all of the rules above are based on removing yourself from the equation.  Focus only on the interests of your audience.  Write so that Google understands your content.  Use headlines and plain language that respect for your audience's time.  Make your website simple so that your audience doesn't have to work too hard to get the information they need.  Try to develop a relationship with your audience, not brow beat them with how great your company is.  And simply share data with them without spin, as a friend might share a new product or website on Facebook.  They will likely see the benefits of your message if you have conveyed honesty and credibility.

We scientists tend to over-think many things, when simplicity is often the best strategy.  Like Forrest Gump armed with a few simple rules for life (‘stupid is as stupid does,’ ‘life is a box of chocolates,’ etc.), you can become a more effective communicator to life scientists with the above rules of thumb.

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Biotech Marketing Word Cloud
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