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Building Stories and Trust Using Data

February 21, 2019 • Alan Maites

Virtually every executive who lives in this Big Data world asks three core questions when faced with the veritable tidal wave of data and metrics:

    • What data do we want?
    • If we don’t have it, how can we get it?
    • What will we do with it when we’ve got it?

These three basic questions have been asked for many years. Now, even more important questions emerge that are attuned to today’s content-led marketing: What is the story the data tells us, and how can we tell a better story through the data?

For the vast majority of data interpretation, getting a “go/no go” decision is all that is asked of the data. A simple graph or bar chart shows the data, providing the backdrop for making a point. Yet there are innumerable examples where the data helps tell more of a story and in fact becomes the center of the story itself. These examples mark the next level of data visualization beyond the simple pie chart and show how data can become content. If that data is true and based on a company’s history and experiences, then it becomes even more valuable as authentic content.

Let’s take a look at a few ways that data can be transformed into authentic content to help companies tackle various business issues.

1. Expressing Organizational Evolution

One of the most common uses of data as content by businesses is the company timeline, placed on a website, used within an exhibit, or highlighted in a publication. Timelines marry data with corresponding events from the company’s or the world’s history, and are one of the most common ways to show how organizations have developed. They often combine quantitative and qualitative milestones in a linear progression.

We’ve written previously about common problems with timelines, including ways to help improve them. Many website content management systems, such as WordPress, offer off-the-shelf templates and plug-ins for this form of data visualization. Timelines are a common tool, and when done correctly, they can tell an informative and compelling story.

2. Highlighting Change

Showing how a business has changed using a single statistic often involves using a bar chart or line graph. However, using video to illustrate the rate of change over time can be far more compelling. Take a look at this example by WawamuStats: a video that shows the change in gross domestic product for 10 countries between 1960 and 2017. It’s compelling viewing, especially if you’re aware of economic events and the relative growth and decline of some economies. For an organization trying to show how it has developed—in number of employees, revenue, geographically, etc.—this approach provides a great way to bring to life data and development throughout a company’s history. For a keynote address, a website, a social post and myriad other applications, this illustration of change is a powerful tool.

3. Contextualizing a Business Downturn or Expansion

Showing how a business coped with headwinds or tailwinds in the past is a great message for internal and external audiences, to reassure and convey confidence. Contextualized data can help. Contextualized data is about putting data into a historical context. There are many ways to do this: side by side, layering and using interactive methods, to name a few. Contextualized data is useful and can be creatively applied to illustrate and support a broader story about how a company weathered the storm during an economic downturn, or outpaced the economy during a growth phase.

This type of data utilization is particularly effective for organizations that may be facing headwinds, supporting the message of “we’ve been here before, and we’ve come out stronger.” It can also illustrate how a company’s past R&D investments paid dividends X years later, and how the current R&D investment could follow the same pattern.

Here’s an example from FiveThirtyEight showing data from our client, the NFL, on every franchise’s relative strength after each game throughout the history of the NFL. It’s particularly interesting for fans who remember what franchises were like in their heyday—or in the doldrums—and see how a winning or losing streak translates into a chart that resembles a stock market graph. (Unless you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, where the chart resembles the shares of Sears Roebuck from its peak in the 1950s to today.)

As always, past performance is not an indicator of future performance. However, contextualized data is commonly used by market experts and analysts to spot trends. For example, portents of a market bubble about to burst or an economy about to slip into recession are often based on historical data parallels. Then again, Punxsutawney Phil isn’t always right!

4. Driving Thought Leadership

For thought leadership efforts, not to mention social media marketing programs, it’s vital to know what topics are relevant to a company, its competitors, the industry and/or the economy. Visualizing social media data is as old as social media—in other words, it’s somewhat new, within the past decade. Most companies are familiar with how it can be used to show conversations about their brands or organization, as well as track followers and levels of influence, etc. Yet increasingly this data can help companies track the flow of topics over time, lending a historical perspective to show how an industry, market sector or competitor is changing and adapting.

Here’s a chart from 2014 showing the major news topics based on volume of Tweets.

As we move forward in the social media age, companies will have a greater repository of data to draw upon that shows what conversations involved them, their competitors and their industry, over time and against a backdrop of major national events such as the ones highlighted in this graph. This type of data visualization is incredibly valuable for employees learning how their company has been consistently at the forefront of an industry, or for executives monitoring the effectiveness of their messaging over time.

Data Tells a Powerful Story—If You’re Creative

The challenge for executives is clear: Telling a memorable, persuasive story requires much more than a PowerPoint and some bar charts. Data can become an incredibly memorable and truly authentic addition to your content arsenal if you think broadly about how it can support your key messages and drive your business forward.

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