Selling shows (and cat food)

17 01 2011

A friend who I studied psychology with went on to do a PhD in animal behaviour. She was supervised by a woman who made a famous cat food manufacturer a lot of money by applying a principle that is just as valid for freelance science communicators as it is for pet food companies:

cats eat the food but they don’t buy the food

Previous scientific investigations had focused on the cats. What this woman did differently was to focus on the owners. She asked owners what they thought cats did when they’d had a good meal. Give yourself a moment to imagine a satisfied cat… what is it doing? If you are imagining a cat licking its lips and rubbing its mouth with its paw then you are thinking like most of her respondents.

The only problem with this image is that it has nothing to do with what a cat considers is a good meal. All it means is the cat has got food stuck on his face. So what did the pet food company do with this information? Correct. They made all their food stickier. More importantly they sold a huge amount more cat food to gullible owners in the process.

How does this relate to selling science shows? Well it highlights two principles that can be applied to the marketing of every job you do:

1. the people you have written the show for aren’t the people who are paying for the show


2. the reason you think you’ve been booked to perform the show probably isn’t the reason you’ve actually been booked

Just because your show is going to be seen by children in schools don’t imagine that children are the only people you are going to need to consider. A teacher who has searched out your website is going to want to see evidence that you going to be educationally relevant not just so her class benefits but so she can then sell the idea to the Head who holds the purse strings. Festival organisers might love the idea of your show and they know that if it was performed at their festival it would go down a storm with the paying public but they will never book you if they won’t be able to persuade a sponsor to stump up the cash.

And there are literally hundreds of reasons people book you to perform a science show on top of what you actually perform. For schools it might be to bookend a topic, to tick a box on a planning sheet, because there is budget to spend or because the school can’t afford a trip. For festivals it might be because you are undercharging, it might be because you were first in an alphabetical search return, it might be so that you can wow the press with a staged set piece or because you can keep a hundred children of wildly differing ages quiet for an hour.

I’m not saying what you present isn’t important, of course, it is. But to be successful you should think about a lot more than just what you are presenting and instead of naively assuming the science is all try to exploit the other opportunities that are out there.





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