Tooling Up: Guerrilla Marketing Yourself

I have a library full of business books on marketing. It's one of my favorite subjects. As a business owner, I've had to strategize the successful marketing of my company's services for many years. Although I've never had formal training in marketing, I can trace my love for this science back to a book that I first read in 1983: Guerrilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson.

Fourteen million copies of this book and its sequels have been sold in the years since its publication, and Levinson's term "guerrilla marketing" has become part of our popular language. But it wasn't until 2005 that Levinson applied his marketing concepts to job-hunting in his latest book, Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters, co-written with executive recruiter David E. Perry and published by Wiley.

In this month's column, I'll take the best of Levinson and Perry's concepts from this excellent book and adapt them to the world of the sciences. Some adaptation is required because, despite its great value, the book suffers from the same problem as most generic job-seeking advice: Not every career tip you'd recommend to a widget salesperson makes sense for a scientist.

Marketing Yourself on the Cheap

I read an interview with Levinson many years ago in which he was asked why his innovative marketing approach was targeted only to small businesses. The author responded with a term that I remember to this day. He writes for firms, he said, that "suffer from resource poverty," so his guerrilla marketing methods are cheap. That's what I like about this approach. Postdocs and grad students suffer from resource poverty as well.

One of the major concepts in the Guerrilla series is that you need to avoid doing what everyone else is doing. Thousands of scientists--your competitors--read the local newspaper ads every Sunday and scan the back sections of journals. Their job-search time is consumed by filling out Internet forms and mailing letters that start with that polite, old address, "Dear Sir or Madam."

Make no mistake: Levinson and Perry don't believe that you need to walk away from all the usual elements of the job search, such as writing applications and sending CVs. But if you want to catch the really big fish, they argue, you need to play in a smaller pond.

Moving to the Smaller Pond

One of the first things that these authors recommend is to set up what they call "the war room," a place where you can be sheltered from all distraction. This is your private space, where you go specifically for job-seeking efforts. This distraction-free zone--which needs to have a desk, a chair, a computer, and a telephone--will help you focus, even if it is just the corner of an apartment. Think of it as a radio announcer's cubicle, with an "On the Air" sign on the door (even if it there really isn't a door). It is critical that you do not try to run a project like a job search from that small desk across from your lab bench. Too many distractions.

Once you've established your war room, turn your sights to what the crowd isn't doing. I've written about networking many times in this monthly column, so we won't go deeply into the subject this month; more information on networking can be found in a search of the "Tooling Up" archive. But it's hard to talk about guerrilla marketing without touching on networking because most people don't like to network, so they neglect it. Guerrilla marketers recognize that if other people are neglecting it, that makes it a fine, small pond to play in!

The war room is where you go to make e-mail and phone contact with an ever-broadening list of networking contacts. It's also the place to plan your own public relations (PR) campaign. PR has gotten a bad rap in the last couple of decades. We hear about "spin doctors" who represent the oily side of PR, putting a positive, dishonest gloss on even the most negative stories and situations. But that's just one small side of PR; PR can also mean putting across a positive message that happens to be true. In a job search, PR is important because getting your name out there is half the battle. PR is really about trying to put yourself in the right place at the right time by means of a publicity campaign and some creative prowess. I'd call it "networking on steroids."

Here are three ways to go about getting your name and capabilities in front of others:

1) Anyone can have a business card, not just those who have "real" jobs. In industry, exchanging cards is much more common than handing over a CV or résumé. Your card should have the logo of your university or institution and possibly even a few comments about your area of expertise on the reverse side. Have you ever seen business cards from employees of Apple Computer? Some of them read "Software Wizard," or "Business Development Guru" in place of a stuffy title. With a little humor, you can sometimes get across a short "who am I" statement with more punch than a 3-minute verbal introduction.

2) Participate in local meetings of associations and trade groups in your field of interest. Get on their committees and volunteer for jobs that no one else wants to do. You'll gain a reputation as a person to count on, and it will benefit you with increased visibility. It always surprises me how a savvy postdoc can find a spot on a committee filled with "insiders," those few people every association must have to succeed. Even desirable committees such as the "social committee" have jobs that no one readily volunteers for (clean up after events, keep the e-mail database, etc.). No matter what your role is, you will have gotten your foot in the door and a chance to work with these insiders.

3) Write (and publish) an article on a topic that has nothing to do with your project. Get your name out there by writing about career issues for a site like this one, or write for your local paper on what it is like to be a scientist in today's job market. You would be surprised what can come back to you in the form of job leads from just getting exposure-- any exposure. (Although for movie stars it's sometimes said that even bad publicity is good, in the case of a job seeker, your creative guerilla marketing approaches have to be credible and reflect well on the real you.)

A Company Called "Me Inc."

According to the authors of Guerrilla Marketing for Job-Hunters, many technical professionals, scientists, and engineers have difficulty seeing themselves as anything more than a commodity. If you think of yourself as "a" Ph.D. biochemist with a background in enzyme kinetics, say, you are a commodity for sale in a crowded market. Getting paid top dollar is very difficult when you are something that the employer can find anywhere.

You need to present yourself to the world as much more than a list of lab techniques. This involves what marketing people such as Levinson call "branding." The best way to think about branding is to imagine yourself as a company offering a variety of services. (See my earlier article, "The Concept of Me Inc.")

"Personal branding is not about presenting a false image," Levinson and Perry say. "It is about understanding what is unique about you--your accomplishments, experience, attitude--and then using that to differentiate yourself from other job hunters. Your brand is your edge in the job market."

What's the best brand for a young scientist or engineer? Certainly, you want to have a brand that speaks specifically to your area of technical expertise, but it is critical to add a personal spin to what you bring to the table. I can tell you from experience that one strong bonus to add to the marketing focus of any highly competent scientist is to become known as a problem solver.

Moving From a Commodity to a Brand

Think about your skills and abilities using the "Challenge-Approach-Results" format. With paper and pencil, sketch out all the major problems you've solved in your time in the lab, starting with the most current and working backward--these are the "challenges"--on a page that has three vertical columns. The center column, "Approach," gets you thinking about the specific action that you took to solve the problem highlighted on its left. Finally, in the right column, list the result. Write succinctly, with just a couple of sentences in each section.

Now sit back and look at this document. You will be impressed by your problem-solving ability. Do you think that a person who has developed their critical-thinking and deductive-reasoning skills in this way is only of value to people who put them to work in the lab? No way! As a professional problem solver, an entirely new world will open up to you in the job-seeking process.

After many years of reading the Guerrilla Marketing series of books, I can tell you that moving from commodity to brand is something that can increase your short-term and lifetime income by a significant percentage. I know, because guerilla marketing worked for me. Without placing a single advertisement, my small company begun in my garage became an entity with a recognized name that, 10 years later, attracted the interest of a $4 billion company. Thinking back upon the reasons for this, I can come to no other conclusion than that Jay Conrad Levinson's methods work well.

Reference: Jay Conrad Levinson with David E. Perry, Guerrilla Marketing for Job-Hunters (Wiley, 2005). ISBN 0-471-71484-4.

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David G. Jensen, a writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, is the founder and managing director of CareerTrax Inc., a biotechnology and pharmaceutical consulting firm located in Sedona, Arizona.

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