This article originally appeared on Column Five.
Data visualization, big data, brand storytelling—you’ve probably heard these terms, and you’re likely to hear them more and more in the marketing sphere. (In 2016, LinkedIn found that the #2 most desirable hiring skill is statistical analysis and data mining.) Data is everywhere, but it’s what we do with that data, what insights we tap into that make it so valuable. And that is essentially why data storytelling is so important.
DATA STORYTELLING VS. DATA VISUALIZATION
Contrary to popular belief, data storytelling is not simply data visualization, analytics reporting, or a handful of stats sitting in a PowerPoint somewhere. Data storytelling is the blending of two worlds: hard data and human communication. It’s a compelling narrative crafted around and anchored by compelling data.
Unfortunately, although data storytelling is an important tool, most companies don’t take full advantage. This is often because their teams are siloed.
The data reporting/analysis that many companies undertake seldom makes it into marketers’ hands. Even when it does, marketers are oftentimes ill-equipped to work through the data to unearth great stories. This results in a tremendous amount of valuable data unused, which is a tragedy because data storytelling is a one of the most powerful communication tools for brands.
THE BRAND BENEFITS OF DATA STORYTELLING
There are many types of communication, but data storytelling is uniquely positioned (and scientifically supported) to help marketers achieve their communication goals in many ways.
1) IT PROVIDES MEANING AND VALUE
In a world where we are besieged by data but desperate for meaning, data storytelling helps connect the dots. It is an incredibly effective way to communicate valuable insights and assign meaning and context to data that otherwise lives as numbers in an Excel spreadsheet. For brands, this is crucial.
Audiences crave useful, valuable content that expands their knowledge, solves their problems, and helps them better navigate the world. By delivering this content, your brand provides a real service to your audience. And by extracting these insights from your own data, your company benefits, too.
Dave Campbell’s model of information refinement.
All content is interpreted as data by the brain, but the highest-value content provides more than knowledge; it provides insight. This insight helps decision-making, spurns action, and is therefore the most meaningful. Data storytelling allows us to extract and communicate insight through compelling stories.
2) IT’S PR GOLD
To differentiate yourself from the competition, you need unique, original story ideas. Data is an easy way to get these stories. This is especially true for stories based on internal data. When you have proprietary data that no other brand has access to, you can tell a story that no one else can tell about your industry, your customers, and more.
These insights can help you shed light on a previously unexplored topic, introduce an interesting angle, or provide useful perspective to your audience and/or industry.
Not only are these stories compelling to your audience, publishers are also hungry for great storytelling. In a world of regurgitated content, data storytelling helps you stand out above the noise. A great piece published in a high-profile publication can elevate your brand and introduce you to an entirely new audience. (For more on that, check out our tips on how to get publishers to fall in love with your content.)
The Data Stories That Brands Should Tell
3) IT’S CREDIBLE
There is a lot of content out there—and a lot of it is bullshit (especially these days). In a world full of conjecture, audiences want cold, hard numbers that anchor claims to reality. If you can anchor your story to credible data, audiences are more inclined to trust both your message and your brand.
4) IT MAKES YOUR MESSAGE STICK
By blending narrative and visuals, you are effectively targeting both sides of the brain, cementing the information. The narrative guides you through the data, and the data supports the narrative, giving you the best of both the analytical and emotional experience. Data visualization is particularly powerful here because it increases:
- Comprehension: Our brains are hardwired to process visuals faster than language. Being able to “see” the data makes it much easier to understand. Coupled with the language-based context, the data comes to life.
- Retention: Information visually processed makes it easier to recall later.
- Appeal: Data visualization is visually stimulating, making the content more attractive to your audience.
Watch this motion graphic to learn more about the power of data visualization.
5) IT’S ENGAGING
In addition to the inherent stimulation that visualization provides, data storytelling also encourages the audience to engage in the storytelling. There are two types of data storytelling: narrative and explorative. Both foster engagement but allow the viewer to take different approaches.
Narrative: The audience is guided through a narrative to arrive at a specific conclusion.
Example: The Anatomy of a Breach interactive infographic we created for Microsoft guides readers through a data heist, anchored by data, to show how prevalent breaches are.
Explorative: The audience is encouraged to explore the data to draw their own conclusions and focus on the stories most relevant to them.
Example: We turned the results of Northwestern University in Qatar’s Media Use in the Middle East survey into an interactive infographic experience that allowed users to explore the data at will.
Although explorative storytelling requires more activity than narrative, both forms of data storytelling require the audience to actively view and synthesize the data.
6) IT’S VERSATILE
The insights gained from data stories can be communicated in many different formats, including:
- Annual reports
- Case studies
- Interactive Infographics
- White Papers
An interesting stat or data visualization can also be repurposed to enhance other types of content or used for social.
WHERE TO GET DATA STORIES
If you haven’t pursued data storytelling before, it all starts with great data. Luckily, there are many ways to get your hands on it.
Internal: The absolute best, most original stories come from your own data. When you are focused on creating content marketing to build your brand and boost visibility, proprietary data is key.
Plus, you already have a wealth of data in your organization, including:
- Customer data
External: The Internet is full of fantastic data from many credible organizations that likely have more resources than you. For content marketing tailored to your audience’s pain points or interests, these can be valuable sources to build data stories around (or use to support your internal data). Examples of these sources include:
- Government agencies
- Research firms
- Industry organizations/publications
You can also check out our roundup of 104 free data sources.
THE KEYS TO GREAT DATA STORYTELLING
Data storytelling may sound intimidating, and for those who come from a decidedly non-mathematical background, it may seem like a foreign language. But marketers can actually be most effective at bringing data stories to life.
Analysts and statisticians have fantastic technical skill, but when it comes to the human element, they often find it difficult to effectively translate all those data points into an interesting story.
Marketers know who their audience is, so it is easier to translate that data into a language they understand. If you’re diving into data storytelling, these are certain elements that will ensure it succeeds.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT SUBJECT
Great data storytelling needs an interesting story. While data can certainly give a boring subject an interesting spin, make sure it’s something that is relevant or interesting to your target audience. Keep in mind that data storytelling is not a story about numbers; it’s about how those numbers affect humans.
Sometimes you might have a story idea and need to assess the data to see if it has legs. Other times you might find great insights in a solid data set and build your story from there.
SOURCE CREDIBLE DATA
Data storytelling builds trust, but only when it’s based on solid data. Data can easily be manipulated, misrepresented, or misinterpreted, so having a solid, non-biased source is incredibly important.
Read our 5 tips for sourcing your data to make sure you follow best practices.
CRAFT AN INTERESTING, ENGAGING, OR ENLIGHTENING NARRATIVE
Good data alone does not make a good data story. Data storytelling is only effective when it provides value to your audience, whether it teaches them something new, gives them a new perspective, or inspires them to take action.
The way you deliver that story determines whether that message is communicated. Your narrative should guide readers through, provide context, and help them synthesize the data story as effectively as possible.
For more storytelling tips, find out how to craft an effective narrative.
DESIGN DATA ACCORDING TO BEST PRACTICES
One of the best ways to sabotage your data storytelling is with incorrectly or ill-designed data visualizations. Data visualization is meant to make the data as easy to understand as possible, which is why it’s important to work with a designer who understands best practices.
DON’T LET DATA SCARE YOU
The most innovative content marketers will learn to master this medium, but it takes experimentation to start. Data storytelling will only become more prevalent, so it’s in your best interest to become as data-literate as possible, stay up to date on content marketing best practices, and learn to become a true storyteller.
To get you on the right track, you might want to:
- Read our quick overview of the data basics you need to know.
- Create audience personas to make sure your data stories will capture your audience’s interest.
- Learn how to design the most common charts and graphs.
- Dive deeper into data storytelling with our book Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling.
In the meantime, always be on the lookout for your best data stories.