Can academics and brand partnerships coexist?

Like all creators, those focused on science create free content on their various social media channels. But unlike creators in some other fields, several science creators and experts told Passionfruit that monetizing their science content through brand partnerships raises some tough questions.

At first glance, Dr. Sarah Habibi and Dr. To be quite similar to Samantha Yammine. The two are both science makers in Canada with roughly the same number of followers. Habibi, better known to her 161,000 combined followers as @science.bae on Instagram and TikTok, mostly posts about at-home science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities and her life as a working mom. Yammine, better known for her 141,000 combined followers as @science.sam on both Instagram and TikTok, mostly posts about science from the perspective of a researcher and biologist and is known for explaining the science behind COVID.

The main difference between these two is the way they approach branded business. Habibi has partnered with brands like Olay, Secret, and Vicks, while Yammine is more selective about its partnerships.

For Habibi, “the two concepts of business and science fit together seamlessly” because she said, “My business is content creation, and it’s content in STEM.”

Aside from occasional partnerships with organizations like the Ontario Science Center or tech company 3M, Yammine told Passionfruit she doesn’t mind being selective about who she works with.

“Financially, it could hurt me sometimes,” Yammine said. “I could probably make a lot more money, but I focus my values ​​on everything I do.”

The nature of being a science creator creates a divide in the approach to brand deals. The field is new – and no one is quite sure how the money-marking part fits into it.

“The public needs experts they can trust when they have questions about science, and they’re particularly attuned to the corrupting power of money,” Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator at the McGill Office for Science & Society, told Passionfruit in a statement per E-mail. “Science communicators need to be aware of this and balance their integrity against the need to put food on the table during these trying times.”

Although there is no framework for partnerships between scientists and creators, Habibi and Yammine agree that the most important thing is scientific accuracy. They said they both do their own research on the science presented to them by the brand to ensure they meet their scientific standards. Both have PhDs (Habibi in Molecular Biology, Yammine in Neuroscience and Cell Biology) so they know how to conduct scientific research and understand clinical trials.

Habibi told Passionfruit that when it comes to a brand partnership, she looks for three criteria: First, does the brand align with its values? Second, does it pay its regular price? And third, does it have scientific content? Once a brand achieves at least two of those three points, she explains, she’ll move on. When it comes to scientific content, she does her own research to determine if the science is accurate.

For example, when Habibi was pregnant, she was offered a partnership with a cream that would remove stretch marks and tighten skin. But she said the science wasn’t there, so she declined.

“There are very few ways to actually remove stretch marks, and a cream that claims to remove stretch marks is simply not true,” Habibi said. “Everything I do has to be evidence-based.”

On the other hand, Yammine has a few more partnership guidelines. She has a scientific accuracy clause in her contracts and, like Habibi herself, does thorough research on any science related to the brand or product. Yammine also said she writes her own content for partnerships and doesn’t just read ad scripts written by brands. Also, she will not participate in a campaign that does not have fair representation.

Yammine added that she refuses to enter into pharmaceutical partnerships because she does not want to compromise her integrity and credibility regarding information about COVID vaccines. Anti-vaccine trolls are already calling her a “corporate shill” for educating her followers about vaccines, and she doesn’t want any more of that.

“People value my opinion as a scientist, and I’m very careful about how I use it,” Yammine said.

Habibi and Yammine’s processes might sound intense, but more non-scientific creators are now demanding this type of information from brands, Sarah Hickam, head of talent at influencer relations and talent management company Shine Talent Group, told Passionfruit.

Hickam has worked with writing specialists such as physicians, dermatologists and nutritionists, but also has a large roster of lifestyle, fashion and food designers. Many of the influencers she works with ask brands questions before they sign, such as: What responsibility do you take for the waste from your products? What’s in these ingredients?

“You’d probably be surprised how many creatives are saying no to partnerships,” Hickam said.

Even brands are starting to ask questions about creators, Hickam said. If it’s an eco-friendly brand, they’ll ask questions like, “Does the creator advertise single-use plastics?”

Brands like manufacturing company Procter & Gamble (P&G) have even started hiring science communication teams to help developers understand the science behind their products like Downy and Olay.

The Olay science communications team is made up of cosmetic scientists and communications experts who help unravel the science behind their product formulations, according to Olay’s lead scientist, Dr. Rolanda Johnson Wilkerson. These scientists also work with product development teams and dermatologists to test and evaluate Olay’s products.

“Our team’s work ultimately helps communicate the value and effectiveness of the products,” Wilkerson said in an emailed statement to Passionfruit.

Habibi worked with Olay’s science communications team for their campaign about the brand’s reformulated micro-sculpting cream. She also did her own research on the science communications team’s claims about the effectiveness of skincare ingredients like retinol and vitamin B3 to ensure Olay’s science was accurate.

Despite the science creators’ rigor in ensuring their science is accurate, the Science Academy has not always been kind to their efforts. Habibi said she was called a “sellout” by some academics. A researcher criticized Yammine in the renowned scientific publication, Scienceclaiming, “Time spent on Instagram is time without research.”

The catch is that there aren’t that many academic science roles. According to a paper for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 15 percent of new Ph.D. Holders in science, engineering, and health-related fields found tenure track positions within three years of graduating in 2010.

In addition, according to Jarry, jobs in science communication and science journalism are not easy to find. So, being a science maker is one of the few accessible options for those who want to combine their science and communication skills.

In addition, scholars combat scientific misinformation (unknowingly spreading lies and bad information) and disinformation (knowingly spreading lies and bad information) by putting credible science online. They compete against The Disinformation Dozen, a group of 12 creators responsible for 65 percent of all anti-vaccine content. These whistleblowers make millions of dollars from their social media presence, largely by selling their followers things like unproven cancer treatments and $497 pet cancer documentaries.

“The people who do this to make money are the disinformers who make millions of dollars. I don’t do that,” Yammine said. “That’s why the standards are so important to me and I’m so wary of the brand deals [I take,] because there are people out there who use social media just to make money by spouting pseudoscience and nonsense.”

This scientific rigor is reflected in the pricing of science creators. Habibi charges between $4,000 and $6,000 for a TikTok video. She knows this is on the high end for her reach (exact prices influencers charge for TikTok videos vary), but said her scientific rigor and PhD provide consumers with credibility and trust that brands value.

Yammine declined to disclose her pricing for this item, but said she does something similar to Habibi: Part of her pricing includes the time it takes her to thoroughly verify all the data and information given to her. She said she encourages academics to reach out to her to learn more about pricing.

“There aren’t many of us, so we need to set a precedent for what a STEM creator is worth,” Habibi said.

According to Hickam, these bonuses for scientists are justified.

“It’s definitely more of a niche… and brands should expect to pay a premium with someone in that space,” she said. “It’s a smaller pool to choose from as far as people in the world go, and that’s reflected in the number of influencers that are out there.”

Yammine has another unique, conditional part of their pricing: an “emotional labor tax.” This isn’t a literal tax or something that’s always included, but when a brand asks Yammine to share a personal part of her life, she accounts for the “extra work and challenges” in her rating, including any backlash for posting about it. She encourages her creative friends to do the same—especially if it’s something that symbolizes or traumatizes them.

“You’re going to do pain porn of a difficult thing, you should be compensated for it,” she said.

As both Habibi and Yammine pointed out, most of their content is free to the public. It is used for science communication. It fights disinformation. Most importantly, it gets people to like and engage with science.

Because the space for scientific creators is so small, particularly in Canada, both Habibi and Yammine expressed how they believe they can move the industry forward by setting high standards: that everyone is paid well, that everyone is included and for everything, especially sponsored work, to be scientifically correct.

“This isn’t a very established career path, and this isn’t a very established niche,” Yammine said. “We can show people that it should be.”

Disclosure: The author of this article did freelance public relations work for Habibi from August to October 2021. Can academics and brand partnerships coexist?

Jaclyn Diaz

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