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Collette King
November 10, 2017

Want more customer engagement? Pitch to the alpha-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor antagonist.

I recently interviewed Michaela, a PhD candidate at Tufts University, about how she makes purchasing decisions for the products she needs for her thesis. Find my key takeways below:


Some Key Takeaways:

  1. Product aggregation sites (e.g. Biocompare) are good resources (for researchers and vendors)
  2. Technical AND application expertise are an expectation, not a perk
  3. Hallwalking might have good ROI, but it doesn't build credibility for long-term relationships

Collette: Could you introduce yourself and give me a little bit of your research background?

Michaela: I caught the neuroscience bug when I was doing more independent research in college at Wesleyan University. I was studying stem cells, so we did a lot of cell cultures, a little work with mice and injecting those stem cells to see if we could treat temporal lobe epilepsy.

Right after undergrad, I came to Tufts for my PhD. Now, I’m working in Phil Haydon’s lab, where we look at the role of astrocytes in Schizophrenia and Alzheimer's. My work for my PhD thesis mainly involves HPLC to measure D-serine from the brain. We do a lot of microdialysis, immunohistochemistry, electrophysiology, a lot of behavior, some Western blotting, just a lot of your standard lab techniques. We definitely require a lot of equipment around that and then a few more specialized techniques.


Collette: So when you’re doing your online research, what are you thinking about to figure out which product is right for you?

Michaela: What I’m generally looking for is that someone else has used it in as close to the conditions as I’m using or will be using and that it worked.


Collette: That seems pretty important! Where are you looking to see if it worked? Are you looking at publications or third party review sites? Where are you going to find that information?

Michaela: Mostly I’ll start with papers because they’re usually the most detailed with the methods. And that’s where I can find, you know, it was at 25 Celsius and we used it with this buffer at this pH. Then, I backtrack to the company and see where they bought it. And if a lot of papers have used that same product, then I have a pretty high confidence that it should also work for me.


Collette: Have you ever noticed on company websites, when they list all of the publications where their products have been cited?

Michaela: Antibody companies have done the best with that, that I’ve seen, they have a lot of reviews and even images and links to references, which is really helpful.


Collette: Is that something you would want to see other companies doing?

Michaela: Usually it's just a pdf product sheet, but maybe it could be more interactive, with a little blurb from the researchers. If I’ve used a product successfully for a new indication, I’m happy to write it up if the company asks, other researchers can even contact me. Seeing that it has actually worked for somebody is really helpful.


Collette: So you’re saying that you, as a researcher, would be willing to contribute your experiences with products if everyone contributed theirs because you’d all benefit?

Michaela: Well, in most cases, it often results in some free product or discount, but I’d definitely be willing to do that.


Collette: You mentioned that you might call companies up, if you’re calling someone what does the ideal call look like?

Michaela: Usually, I either have no idea what I need or I’m troubleshooting. If I have no idea what I need, then it's really helpful to talk to somebody who understands the type of experiment I’m trying to do. I understand this is a lot to ask but usually, you’ve got pretty good sales reps and technicians. I’m looking for them to understand the pros and cons of different options, recommend something that they think will work well for me, and offer support after I’ve started using it.

If it's a product that I’ve purchased that doesn’t work well, I’m definitely looking for different options I can try. The ideal is that they would refund or send me another one, if it’s just a bad lot.


Collette: Do you ever have salespeople stop by your lab? Do you like that or is it an interruption?

Michaela: I’ve never purchased or gotten good advice from someone who just happened to be walking through.

Collette: Do you see ads online or get emails? Do any of these attract your attention?

Michaela: I see them a lot because that’s what I’m searching for. The only times I’ll click an amil is when the title is really specific to what I’m doing.  Again, the general “20% off cell culture” but I’m not doing cell culture, that happens a lot and I’m just not interested. Thank you Sigma, but no thanks.


Collette: Do any of the online ads stick out to you as something you’ve remembered?
Michaela: Again, really if it’s saying we have new alpha-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor antagonists, then yeah that stands out. I’ve clicked on those because that’s actually what I’m doing, but otherwise they’re not very catchy. I don’t find them very effective.

Collette: So are you on social media during the day while you’re doing research? If companies offered content on their Facebook and Linkedin pages would you want to follow them?

Michaela: I’m not on social media for research, but personally, I’m most active on Facebook and LinkedIn.

It is a very low barrier to like a Facebook page and follow what they’re up to, let me know when they’re at a conference or doing an event in Boston. It would be something that I’m looking at anyway and I don’t have to click on it to see the content.

Collette: Would you read a blog post shared by the company through social media? Would you trust it?

Michaela: Usually I would only read a blog post if it is really specific and I’m already looking for the information, not if it just pops up. I probably wouldn’t trust it if it’s coming from the company. I would be more likely to trust someone who has a Sigma product or a Thermo product and they’re chatting back and forth about it or they’re writing about their experience using it, rather than I would be the company saying that this is a great product.

Collette: Is there a company that really stands out to you with their sales and marketing efforts?

Michaela: Zageno is a company that came through a while ago who had advertised themselves as the Amazon of the lab world. They’d act as an in-between for all the companies we order from to make things easier.

They had a really good pitch, but they were still at such an early stage that they didn’t have everything I might want when you went on their website. If it was up and running I could see that being very appealing. A lot of grad students do their own ordering, so if I just went to one website and could order everything, that would be great.

They left a lot of magnets and posters when they came through, almost everyone had seen their logo. I don’t know how their follow-through went.

The only other one that sticks out is this one is ThorLabs. They send and they send snacks with their products, which is very effective. It’s great.   

Collette: If you were to go onto the Amazon-like marketplace, would you look around or would you know what you want and go straight for that one product? How could companies stand out?

Michaela: It’s not very often that you’re starting from scratch. We’ve done Western blots in the lab for 30 years, we know which product we want and we just go grab it. If we’re looking for something new or there’s a better way to do something, then a company could stand out with prominent advertising or discounts. If they had customer reviews, though, such as “100 different labs used it and loved it,” that would be very compelling.

Collette: Everyone knows Thermo or Qiagen, if a smaller company would approach you with a product, what is the threshold for change? What would it take to convince you to switch to something new?

Michaela: Switching is very unlikely, because I’ve got a very limited amount of time and science doesn’t usually work anyway so if something is working, it would have to be pretty amazing for me to switch. I would need to see expertise and hear how they perform better than this mainstream company in this way and we have better customer service, etc. Maybe then I would switch, but you need to keep conditions constant once you’ve started an experiment.



You can download the whole interview here.

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