Sunday, November 26, 2023

Should PacBio Abandon Their Set List?

In a piece on LinkedIn, Brian Krueger made a pithy comment that should give PacBio management pause.  In a series of bulletpoints he summarized key things he had heard from ASHG, and the one for PacBio starts with "And PacBio threw a party".  Parties with name musical acts has been modus operandi for PacBio Sales & Marketing for a number of years now, but I hope they seriously think about whether this is a good use of marketing dollars.  But fear not dear leader: if they do listen to Brian & I it's probably much too late to derail any plans for AGBT.

In the end, PacBio Sales and Marketing has two tasks: sell more machines and sell more consumables.  The effect of any marketing spend should be measured against those benchmarks. Of course, actually measuring any effects of marketing campaigns is difficult and certainly there isn't anything like a randomized, double-blind trial, but anyone in that arm of the business should be constantly asking whether their strategy is really bearing fruit.

Certainly the concert approach gets immediate excitement -- there was much ooohing and ahhhing over the AGBT party last winter by those in attendance.  I'll confess I didn't catch more than the last ten minutes, long after the headliner had left, as I had gotten in an interesting conversation with someone on the booth skeleton crew of anotehr vendor. Large, loud parties aren't my first choice, so maybe I'm not equipped to really evaluate this question.  But the question remains: did this really help PacBio move sequencers or consumables?

I live in an American society saturated with marketing, and marketing has long played a key role in in United States culture.  There's great nostalgia for classic marketing campaigns like Burma Shave.   But I'm certainly used to suggestions of the beer to buy from frogs, insurance from lizards and such.  I can even quote a few of the funnier "The Most Interesting Man in the World" lines ("he once parallel parked a train").  But does this really work for scientific instruments with five digit pricetags or consumables to feed them?

To put it bluntly: did anyone go into one of these concert parties not planning on buying a Revio or Sequel and then start the purchase order process from their phone while waiting for a bartender to pour their drink?  Did a rapper's slick moves inspire a new experiment using HiFi?  I'm very skeptical that anything like either of these happened -- that while people had a good time that good time quite likely translated into no new sales.

Or worse.  As Brian pointed out, the buzz over PacBio's ASHG party seemed to be the only news from them that carried,  overshadowing the rebranding of the concatemer sequencing as Kinnex  and the launch of a new cDNA kit and a 16S kit using that technology.  Kinnex solves a major issue with PacBio throughput on inherently short DNA/RNA elements and I would expect more kits in the future to further drive PacBio into markets still occupied by Sanger technology such as verifying plasmids.  

And so the stark question is this: could seemingly successful marketing -- creating social media commentary -- actually have a negative effect on sales?  That should be the nightmare that every employee of PacBio should be logically evaluating - did the buzz around the party essentially wipe out a substantive message about an important product line extension?

So what's the alternative?  Realistically, PacBio isn't going to go the route of Hershey Chocolate before my birth and eschew marketing.  And I certainly don't want to stifle the creativity of the small giveaways -- I've noticed TNG has one of my conference swag bottle openers on his keyring and I enjoyed assembling the Lego-esque Revio and Onso models.  But I would suggest that when a sequencing company is going to spend serious money on marketing, there are approaches that I believe are more likely to advance their position.

For example, it was clearly a win to fund academics to come to these big meetings and talk of their great success with envelope-pushing PacBio methods.  That is going to inspire people to envision new experiments and ask for the budget to spend at PacBio on those experiments. 

Beyond the big meetings, I think the vendor local events -- PacBio Roadshow in this case -- have huge potential.  Sure, many people show up and enjoy the free comestibles and that won't translate to sales.  But others will be inspired by the talks, and for both budget and family obligation reasons there are many scientists for which big multiday meetings are unreachable but a half-day local format is doable.

Funding student travel to meetings is perhaps a smaller win, but seeding the new generation of lab heads pays dividends.  PacBio rival Oxford Nanopore has certainly benefited from this strategy: the cadre of thought leaders around ONT sequencing is nearly entirely folks who were junior PIs, post-docs or grad students when Oxford first launched.  A even bolder effort would be to fund some pilot experiments using PacBio data generation in a classroom setting, subsidizing some of the costs to seed many new minds and also grab some great clickbait headlines.

There are also other mechanisms.  Funding academics to push the technological frontiers is always an option.  It carries the risk you'll pay them to do what they would have done anyways, but ultimately it is the academics who will try dozens of crazy ideas and winnow those down to a few winners.  The Kinnex concatemer sequencing technology started at the Broad Institute and has potential to greatly improve PacBio's competitiveness in full length cDNA sequencing, protein engineering and a number of other markets.  

Ultimately, PacBio should ask itself whether it wishes to be remembered as an entertainment promoter or an innovative leader in genomics technology - and if it wisely chooses the latter, to stop letting the party tail wag the genomics dog.


Anonymous said...

But isn't spaffing investors money on woo-woo a venerable PacB tradition ? their outing in 2011 had a massive fireworks party on the beach at AGBT.

Anonymous said...

Which is a better marketing spend? ONT likely spent $80,000USD to put up banners in an airport that received 5 seconds of viewing time by a small fraction of ASHG attendees. PacB likely spent $XXXXX? to have 20% of the ASHG attendees for four hours watching a concert.

Anonymous said...

Which is a better spend, $xxx,xxx for a concert, or the salaries of the 65 PacBio employees laid off just after that concert

Shawn Baker said...

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, and I certainly feel bad about the folks that PacBio let go. But the amount I heard for the concert (completely unsubstantiated) was $100k. That would be substantially less than one FTE. It wouldn’t have helped keep those people at PacBio.

Anonymous said...

Shawn Baker, $100K probably covered the drinks/appies bill. It was quite an affair, and my guess would be that the whole thing (facility, musical acts, dance troupe, transpo & cool bucket hat) was $500K+.

Anonymous said...

Concerts like that cost millions of dollars, not hundreds of thousands. Lousy move to fire so many people after burning up all that money on one day.