Inside the Lab: How to Market to Graduate Students

By Maria Angelella, Ph.D.

It’s easy to disregard graduate students. Sure they don’t always present well, typically strung out on caffeine and donned in sweatpants. But despite their rough edges, they can be quite endearing. In fact, tell them a periodic table pun (like, “My favorite type of liquor is halo-gin.”) or simply buy them a beer and you’ll have their hearts forever.

An even more important reason to engage graduate students: they carry a lot of the purchasing power in academic labs. Grad students are the ones using your products everyday, requesting refills, trying out different devices, and experimenting with new instruments. Many have decades of scientific work ahead of them and will remain loyal to their favorite, reliable products.

Grad students are a worthy target market, but with so many suppliers out there – how do you get your brand to stand out? With a little inside knowledge, we offer some tips below for capturing the attention of these almost-professionals.

Did someone say free?

Well for one, you can try enticing them with free pizza. I’ll warn you though; this approach doesn’t work for everyone. When I was in grad school I never attended the vendor-sponsored free coffee and doughnut events. Something about hearing a sales pitch halfway through my Boston Cream made me uneasy.

However, there were several approaches that captured my and my cohort’s attention:

  • Sending a box of goodies along with a big order. Working in an optics lab, we ordered a lot of mirrors, cuvettes, and mounts. With almost every purchase – big or small – came fruit snacks, peanut butter crackers, and pens. Some vendors even gave us T-shirts. Granted, we didn’t purchase from particular vendors just because they gave us free stuff, but the presents reminded us of goodies at the bottom of cereal boxes, bringing us a sense of joy and familiarity with the vendor. We thought, “This company gets us!” Those were the companies that came to mind when we searched for refills and replacements.
  • There doesn’t have to be a treat to create a meaningful connection. Behind their bloodshot eyes (working in basement labs all day really grinds at the soul), grad students are people too. Just like the rest of us they want to use the same phone the cool kids are using, wear the newest Ray-Bans, and use popular science products. So why not use product placement? They are watching Big Bang Theory, Dr. Who, and the newest action hero movies. Trust me, if Chris Pratt is using your pipette, they’re going to want to use it too. If your company doesn’t have the cash for a big screen placement, sponsor a keg at the next grad student association party. No pitches, just beer. Well… maybe beer pitchers. Either way, build a genuine relationship.
  • Harness the power of social media. When they aren’t doing inert atmosphere work (iPhones aren’t conducive to being vacuum pumped into a glovebox), grad students are compulsively checking their Facebook accounts and posting pictures of their reactions on Instagram. Create a fun online persona and entice students to follow you by posting memes, sharing offbeat science facts, and engaging with them about their experiences using your products.
  • Lastly, take a tip from Snapple and add factoids to the inside of packaging. I imagine opening up a fresh box of filters to see that “Marie Curie had a cat named Kepler.” I made that up… but you get the idea…

Grad students will be project managers and principal investigators in just a few short years – well maybe a decade after that first (and maybe second) post-doctoral position. By that stage they may be emotionally married to another brand’s pipette. Reach out now and break up the monotony of their day via social media or with fun giveaways and sponsored events. Remember, they put on their lab coats one arm at a time, just like the rest of us. Meet them on their level, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy getting to know them.