Sunday, June 12, 2011

Marketing a paper

As I am reading the book "Influence" about marketing and manipulation, I am wondering if that's of any relevance to writing papers.

One of the first points is the efficiency of trying to push onto the client, first, something that he will probably refuse, then, something more acceptable. Compared to starting right off with the final suggestion without the preliminary phase, this is much, much more successful (for some experiements the success rate goes from 20% to 50% or so). Can we imagine something similar for marketing a paper?

For example, in the introduction, to present the results it might be a good strategy to first expose the weaker results. The reviewer, reading that, thinks: "Well, this paper is not good enough to be accepted" -- but then, at the end of the introduction, suddenly, here come significantly stronger results. Then the reviewer might think: "Wow. This paper is actually much stronger than I thought at first!" Is this a better marketing strategy than starting right off with one's main result?

I must say that it goes against the way in which I write, the way in which my coauthors write, and the way in which I teach my students to write. I always try to go for the straightforward statement, going to the main point as quickly and with as much clarity as possible. But if I believe this book, it is possible that papers that put more thought into the marketing perspective are much more successful at selling themselves, independently of the results themselves and of how well the paper is written from terms of readability, clarity, etc. That's a disturbing thought!


  1. There is another way to apply the marketing strategy that you describe, that I saw being used.

    1) Describe an impossibly strong result, that the referee *should* reject (e.g. an algorithm so good that is it optimal in comparison with any other algorithm, for any instance).

    2) Proceed to prove a much more reasonable result, yet worthy of publication (e.g. optimal in comparison with algorithms from a restricted family, on instances with some restriction), discussing the difficulty or impossibility of the original problem.

    I do think that this "trick" of presentation helps the paper to be accepted, in comparison to the same results presented in a more straightforward manner (e.g. "we prove optimality among a restricted class of algorithms, on a restricted class of instances").

    Furthermore, I think that this corresponds more closely to the marketing technique to which you refer: offer to the client something that he cannot afford, then something much cheaper, and the chances of selling the second item increase.
    The marketing equivalent of giving the weaker results first would be to show some crappy items, and then the reasonable ones, I doubt it would work better in marketing products than in marketing results ;)

  2. Maybe.

    But note that in marketing if the original suggestion is outrageous then the speaker loses credibility and therefore the potential customer refuses to listen to him any further, so, according to the book I'm reading, the original suggestion has to be excessive but not by much (and if a minority accept the excessive offer, then that's great for the seller.)

  3. I think you'd loose credibility with theorists by stating a bunch of weak results.

    The reviewer is likely to think, "weak result",
    "weak result", "weak result", "sounds like a good result, but I'm probably missing why it's weak", etc.

  4. Here's something that worked for me when I was an unknown grad student: I wrote up result A, submitted it single-authored to a second-tier conference. It was rejected because it was using "standard techniques". I then discussed it with a well-known professor, and together we added result B and sent it to a tier 1 conference. This time it was accepted while one review said that result B is not very interesting but result A is.

    So it seems that brand names matter as much (if not more) than sales techniques when marketing your papers.

  5. Actually, I think the technique you described can work quite well (depending on the results), without any deceitfulness. Imagine you prove a theorem and then a generalization; or show a simple algorithm with a slight improvement in running time followed by a complicated variant with a better running time. In each case, you are better off building to the main result, rather than stating the main result and then presenting the weaker result as an "afterthought".


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