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A lot of great research receives less attention than it deserves because of poor communication. Strong insights are not enough to break through today’s downpour of online information. At the same time, moving beyond academic journals promises audiences of hundreds of thousands or even millions of readers.

Academics are used to synthesizing existing research, testing out a new approach and making a compelling, evidence-based argument. Popular writing requires much of the same thinking—survey current commentary, find a new angle and stake out a position—even as it demands stylistic adaptation, such as making language accessible to nonexperts (though research suggests simpler language also contributes to the success of academic journal articles).

Over the past five years, the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and Footnote have partnered to communicate research to broader audiences. While no template exists for the perfect mainstream article, we’ve identified three essential steps that lead to success.

Familiar Context for Unexpected Insights

If no one has heard of anything in your piece, it’s probably not right for a popular audience. The best articles use something familiar to readers as an entry point for unexpected insights.

For example, conversations about racial and gender diversity in corporate leadership have become increasingly common. But what about political diversity? In a piece for Quartz, ASU professor Matthew Semadeni ties political diversity to this more well-known conversation: “In the same way that greater gender and racial diversity leads to broader thinking, political diversity enables companies to look at the same problem or set of data from different perspectives.”

Or take the fear of missing out. Writing for Harvard Business Review, W. P. Carey’s Rachel Burgess appeals to a pervasive curiosity of what our lives would have been like had we chosen a different job. She used a question we’ve all asked ourselves—“What if?”—to tee up her research questions: “How does this sort of dwelling on the road not taken affect us in the workplace? And what can employees, managers and organizations do to help workers who may be experiencing some internal conflict with respect to their chosen careers?”

Unexpected context can also mean surfacing trends people don’t see. Many people scroll on social media and recognize that not everything they see is true. But as cybersecurity expert Victor Benjamin points out in a piece for The Boston Globe, “what’s often invisible is the degree to which bots—automated accounts that post independently or under the direction of human controllers—stoke the flames of division behind the scenes.”

Semadeni, Burgess and Benjamin all used familiar topics to situate readers within a conversation and create a framework for presenting their ideas and research.

Offer a Path Forward

If a doctor gave you a worrying diagnosis and sent you home without instructions, you’d feel confused. Similarly, a piece that poses a problem without offering a path forward leaves readers wondering, “What now?”

If Tim Richards, the Morrison Chair of Agribusiness at the W. P. Carey School, tried to simply argue that food waste is bad, media outlets might not have been interested. Of course food waste is bad! But Richards’s piece stood out because it articulated solutions and resolved a misconception that reducing waste meant eating less.

“We don’t need to consume less, tightening our belts or giving up our favorite foods, if we can consume smarter by using technology and data to make our food system more efficient,” Richards argues in his piece for Fast Company. He painted a big-picture framework, even as he zoomed into specific fixes like better inventory management systems for grocery stores.

Similarly, in their piece for Housingwire, ASU professor Mark Stapp and alumnus Murphy Cheatham laid out how racism shapes homeownership and real estate. But they went a step further to advocate for initiatives to teach communities about “concepts like getting a mortgage, taking out a line of credit, buying and selling a property and becoming a landlord.” Stapp and Cheatham also argued for university programs to train real estate agents of color and mentorship for professionals once they enter the field.

Strong articles can leave room for uncertainty while still offering next steps. Whereas a journal article hedges with words like “might” or “potentially,” opinion pieces are more declarative, expressing what “should,” “needs to” or “must” be done.

Share in the Right Places

Sharing research raises three strategic questions:

  1. Which audience am I trying to reach?
  2. Which outlet already reaches that audience?
  3. And once my piece is published, how do I help it generate momentum?

Popular outlets, like academic journals, focus on different topics. Newspapers span a variety of issues for a general interest audience. Other publications cover areas like tech, housing, health care or business. Many ideas can find a home in more than one outlet. Bigger outlets, however, aren’t always best.

Take Stapp and Cheatham’s piece on racism in real estate. Since real estate professionals are in the best position to implement reforms, Housingwire was perfect to match their research insights to their target audience. Similarly, Harvard Business Review, which reaches CEOs, managers and executives, was a fantastic fit for Burgess’s goals of helping employees find more meaning in their current work and empowering managers to support their employees.

Finding an outlet to publish a piece is only the first step. The right strategy can help ideas spread further. Local PBS television station Arizona Horizon ran segments inspired by Stapp and Cheatham’s Housingwire piece and Burgess’s HBR article. And after we put together a campaign for Richards, who wrote about food waste, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tweeted about his piece.


Popular writing isn’t a distraction from core research. It’s an entry point through which rigorous work burrows into public consciousness, extending beyond the small cadre of academics who keep up with journal findings. The three steps we outlined above can be a launchpad for your own efforts to share research. Great ideas can thrive, spread and even make the world better—but only if they’re expressed in a memorable way to the right audience.

Shay Moser is the managing editor at the W. P. Carey School of Business. Joe Morone is the co-founder and CEO of Footnote.