Contently CMO Stories: How Elsevier’s Sumita Singh Reaches the World’s Most Skeptical Audience

At the intersection of content, science, and technology sits Elsevier.

The 135-year-old institution has evolved from a science publisher to a information solutions company that leverages technology to help science, health, and technology professionals make groundbreaking discoveries through a suite of products. That makes marketing a company like Elsevier exciting, but also difficult: Its target audience of scientists is skeptical by trade. And that puts an onus on great, original storytelling.

Recently, I caught up with Elsevier R&D Solutions CMO Sumita Singh on a sunny afternoon in Contently’s New York headquarters. We discussed how crucial is it so provide value to your customers, the different ways to measure ROI, and what it takes to promote a company whose origin story goes back 435 years to Galileo.

Watch the video, or read an edited and condensed transcript of the interview below.

Elsevier’s primary product is digital information, correct?

We’re transitioning. We’ve been around a long time. Just to give you a sense of Elsevier history, the first research article that Galileo published, Galileo’s Galilei, we published that.

Most currently, our organization is going through a transformation from being a traditional scientific publisher to becoming more of an information technology provider. We believe in content. We believe in comprehensive content—good, quality content. But what we do with the content is where we add value for our customers.

Talk to me a little bit about what you do with the content. It’s the foundation, but how does it live within Elsevier?

Within our business unit, we take content and apply meta-tagging and enrich it, and then we develop scientific solutions for our customers. Customers we market to are R&D professionals, chemists, biologists—people who are solving big, difficult problems. We give content to them through software solutions.

We love the content we have. There’s tremendous heritage, but what we do with it on top of it, the ontologies, the taxonomies, and then meta-tagging to make it valuable for users is really the value we provide.

Beyond that for marketing, there’s a lot more we try to do to tell a story to our customers that is not about products and features. Our story’s about the value we can provide—finding that unmet need and helping them discover that.

That’s a tough audience. You’re reaching scientists and chemists. How do you break through?

The way we try to engage with these folks is by understanding their needs. They’re human beings. They are tackling big problems, and a big thing for us is innovation and discovery—trying to find what’s next. We try to understand what’s worrying them, what keeps them up at night. If you’re a chemist or a biologist in a pharmaceutical company, it’s finding that compound that will lead to a drug the FDA will approve and is going to solve cancer. Or it’s developing a 3D device that’s going to help find the next part in a jet engine. The world’s changing.

What is it that we can tell them? We talk about themes and issues. We don’t talk about products. We have a framework on content marketing. Our framework is to start with the user and the customer.

How did you initially get these scientists on board with marketing and publishing? Was that new to them?

It’s interesting. Whether they’re scientists, biologists, chemists—in our organization or external—they’re problem solvers. They want to find the next big discovery. In fact, I think they’re artists. If you go and talk to them about the idea they’re passionate about, they want to communicate.

We play on two paradigms. We address their need of responding to an issue, and we also talk about addressing community. Chemists want to talk to other chemists. Biologists want to talk to other biologists. They have something to say; they have value to add.

Got it. How do you get a team like sales on board?

It’s really the hero approach. We have an ambassador program. We have about 20 people in our social media ambassador program who take the content that we produce. They’ll promote it to their networks, to the communities that we can’t get to. Sometimes we don’t even know those communities exist. They’re seeing results. They’re seeing responses, quite frankly, for a sales person—it’s driving leads. Nothing like it.

We started off with the social media ambassador program with five people. We’re now up to 20. That’s pure mathematics. I love my numbers. It’s a 300 percent increase, and now I’m looking to scale that.

Earlier, you talked a little bit about leads being an important marker or KPI to show how content’s doing. What are some of the other measurements that are important to Elsevier to show that you’re getting ROI with content?

It’s a really good question. I think the way we approach it is very much a funnel approach. In B2B marketing and certainly B2C, you have to work the funnel. Leads only come once you’ve done the right awareness, the right messaging. You connect with someone and they talk to people. I think there’s a statistic out there that 67 percent of the buyer’s journey happens before they submit a lead form. We’re in the business of influence, influencing that 67 percent of mind share.

What I care about and what I get measured on is revenue, and I love that and we can measure it. From a pure content perspective, what we measure is how many bylines we get published. Are we getting awareness in the right trade magazines? Quite quantitatively, we want to see if our reach has increased in social media or not. There are lots of little tactics that drive into awareness, but quite frankly it’s hard to measure. It’s hard to put a quantitative number on content marketing, on effective content marketing.

Got it. So, big picture: We’ve talked about a lot of pain points, but what are you excited about? What are some of your 2016 goals that you’re looking forward to hitting?

We’re in the August/September time frame. We’re getting into planning for next year. We now have results of what we have done this year and numbers look very good. Social media ambassadors is one facet that has improved. One of the big objectives that we had was to increase land coverage of our content. We publish original content in target trade media.

It’s creating demand not for the proposition, but for the idea that Elsevier addresses. It’s creating demand for our thought leadership, for telling people something other organizations are not telling them.

For me, the most exciting thing over the next three years is going to be how content and community come together.

What advice would you give people that are just starting out in their careers? Whether it’s information sciences or content marketing, how can they get a head start?

If you are a young researcher, if you are a young engineer, if you are a young biologist, quite frankly, if you’re a young artist: Talk about your perspective, have an opinion, and write about it. There’s some great brands who are doing some very sophisticated marketing. Follow them, understand what they’re doing, but have a perspective. Make sure it goes through the filter and is recognized. Have an opinion and try things out.

Do your homework. Have the data. Back it up. Talk to people, and once you’re solid, people want to listen to you.

Image by Shutterstock

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