Taxonomy results for: data

While statistics can make content more credible or help make a point in fewer words, it is tricky getting numbers to tell a story, and developing actionable insights from data is among the top challenges for marketers. By considering these key factors you’ll be off to a good start.

The Message

To keep the story on point, try to summarise it in a single headline or tweet, as this post in the Harvard Business Review suggests. Select one or two key data points or insights – the more unique the better – that support this core message and lead with them. Also resist the urge to cram as much supporting data into a piece as you can; few things provoke as many yawns as a sea of numbers and just a couple of strong statistics can add more weight than dozens of middling ones. Any data you leave behind can always be used in the future.

The Sourcing

Especially when working with external data, take extra care to ensure its provenance. Always look for original sources and vet their reliability. Databases of governments and world bodies, research agencies, industry associations and renowned think tanks are good places to start. Also make sure to be transparent about where your data came from and how any conclusions are reached. Attribution is key, especially when working with third-party data, as it burnishes a campaign’s and the organisation’s credibility — whereas failing to attribute data properly does quite the opposite. Read more about that here.

The Analysis

To cut through the jumble of data, make comparisons and look for trends, patterns and relationships to coax out relevant findings. However don’t overstretch in the desire to make connections, and make sure you’re comparing rough equivalents. Contrasting the economic data of cities with vastly different population sizes, for example, is unlikely to yield anything worthwhile. Most importantly, look for (and test) findings that are genuinely counterintuitive or run against the grain, which are virtually guaranteed to attract attention and provoke debate.

The Narrative

To paraphrase behavioural economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman: No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story. Data-driven stories are as much about the narrative as they are about the numbers. So, it’s necessary to step into the audience’s shoes and ensure a piece flows logically from one data point to the next. Keep it simple, avoid jargon, and include anecdotes and real-life examples that will help the audience readily relate to the information. Here’s an example from the South China Morning Post that weaves a compelling narrative about the Belt and Road Initiative through interactive charts, maps and graphs.

The Presentation

Given that the numbers are the story, make the presentation as visual as possible to break down complex findings and drive home the message. Research has shown that the human mind can’t process numbers beyond a certain level (read more about that here) so it helps to provide visual aids. Charts, infographics and interactive tables, used with a strategic combination of colors, can convey the data in a striking yet easy to digest manner. This selection from the New York Times provides a good overview of the various ways data can be presented.

The Engagement

Considering that the entire exercise is aimed at engaging the audience, make sure to create an opening for interactions. Invite, encourage and drive discussions around the story; guide the audience to information that complements the material at hand; and, seek feedback. Gathering statistics on what your audience likes and dislikes can provide you with fresh data to inform the next stage of your publishing plans.

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Amid all the comment about Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the most commonly heard complaint was about the flood of spam from companies who realised, a little late, that they needed people’s “freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous” consent to keep receiving their emails. (NewsCred has a good explainer on the impact on marketing here.)

I’m sure like me you deleted most of these “Don’t Miss Out on Our Bumf!” emails with nary a second thought – the first thought often being “I didn’t realise I was even on your mailing list.” (The ones I received may have sounded more plaintive than those sent to people who aren’t EU citizens: requirements obviously differ outside the EU, but the rest of the world won’t be far behind in legislating data protection.)

More interesting perhaps is the jolt of alarm I felt about the prospect of not receiving something I actually valued or relied on. I had that a few times and didn’t mind the extra steps of confirming my interest or re-entering my details.

This raises the question, what was the crucial difference between the two reactions? It all boils down to quality of content.

In the information economy there is plenty of content you need and are happy to pay for: reputable news sites and data feeds have all but stopped giving away content regularly in exchange for advertising reach. They needn’t worry about GDPR-related complaints from loyal readers (assuming they’re not over-using the privilege and flooding their inboxes): nothing screams informed consent like giving up your credit card details.

But paid content is still a minuscule sliver of what’s coming into your inbox. Email, for all its faults, is still a great means of receiving regular digests of news and comment from informed sources. Most companies rely on it to reach their best customers and hottest prospects and will need rapidly to work out how to keep doing so.

What GDPR has brought home is that if you’re giving away content in the hope of building a willing audience, it had better be as good as the stuff people are paying for. Because if someone signs up for “free” content with an email address and explicit consent for you to use their information, they are in fact paying for it – with their data, rather than their money.

The upsides to this are twofold. For the recipients, it should mean pure dross won’t get through: marketers will have to raise their content games.

For companies forced to get to grips with their audience, it offers the opportunity to find out at a more granular level what they’re interested in (and prepared to sign up to receive). This means that if companies can deliver it, their content will be all the more likely to help them achieve their commercial aims.

Of course, getting to professional-standard content isn’t easy. Which is why we’re here to help companies reach a bar that’s getting raised all the time. With GDPR, it’s even more vital to make the jump.

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It’s right that truly original ideas are celebrated. That’s because they are exceptionally rare: it was said of Einstein that he only had two new ideas; they just happened to be the Special Theory of Relativity and the General Theory of Relativity. One of the most famous original thinkers before him, Isaac Newton, acknowledged that he got his ideas through “standing on the shoulders of giants” (though this might have been a mean dig at a short rival).

In business it’s often a struggle to identify more than a handful of ideas without precedent. Steve Jobs was a genius for launching the first phone with a touchscreen and apps? Nope: IBM got there fully 13 years earlier. Today’s dominant ETF providers, BlackRock and Vanguard, popularised an idea conceived first by the Toronto Stock Exchange. Even Henry Ford, according to his contemporary at Ford Motor Co, Charles E Sorenson, wasn’t the father of assembly line production, he was just the sponsor of it.

The same is true in just about any field of human endeavour (particularly creative ones). For most of us, there’s not much point wringing our hands about not being geniuses. When it comes to publishing and content marketing, we can all be sponsors and developers of others’ good ideas and, in the process, create arresting and useful content that burnishes our brands. After all, what most people mean when they talk about original thinking (or thought leadership, if you like) relates instead to original modes of expression or exposition.

These are obviously crucial. You can’t go plagiarising other people or repeating exactly what you said yesterday. You can, though, pay homage to other people’s thinking – if it is worth repeating, and assuming you give them due credit – and reiterate points you made yesterday that remain valid today. Both can lead to good quality content if they are expressed with clarity, brevity and perhaps a modicum of wit.

It’s important to recognise this point when planning a content campaign. At the broadest level your competitors are likely to be talking about the same topics, and you are likely to encounter the same issues time and again. That doesn’t mean you should stay silent, even if you don’t think everything you publish is staggeringly original. After all, the internet has a (very) short memory.

And when you do have something to say that no one else can (because it is truly original) or will (because it is brave or contrarian), then make it work doubly hard. So you invested in a lot in a truly ground-breaking study last year? You can come back to it again and again, focusing on slightly different angles each time. So you called the crash when everyone else was piling in? Keep referring back to it to remind your audience of your perspicacity.

Of course, judicious editorial judgement is required. But if you are used to reading the op-ed pages of respected newspapers (which had to fill pages for many decades before the internet came along), you’ll see that repeating yourself is hardly a cardinal sin – unlike not publishing anything.

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“I know half my marketing budget is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Any marketing professional will have come across that quotation by Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker. Or it might have been said by Henry Ford, JC Penney, or any other of a half a dozen early twentieth century titans of commerce.

Its dubious provenance is only part of the problem I have with it: its superficial folk wisdom doesn’t bear much scrutiny (as WPP’s Jeremy Bullmore wrote in a thoughtful essay on the sentence in 2013.) Its biggest problem is that it is has never been true. There has never been a good excuse for marketing expenditure to be “wasted”, as long as campaign goals and metrics are defined in advance.

In Wanamaker’s heyday (or Penney’s, Ford’s, whomever’s) it would have been a straightforward job to establish the impact of a marketing campaign, especially since most such pre-mass-media spending was geographically isolated. By taking the gross sales for a defined period after a campaign, subtracting the pre-campaign average, and dividing the difference (hopefully, a positive figure!) into the marketing dollars spent, Wanamaker could work out, say, whether billboards in Harrisburg did better than those in Wilkes-Barre, or if radio spots in either city beat print ads. Of course, other factors might have played a role in sales performance over time, but Wanamaker wouldn’t have been flying half-blind in calculating the return on marketing investment.

Maybe the quotation bemoans the fact that many people who saw the billboards or ads, or heard the radio spots, would have been unmoved to buy. That’s not really the point, though. Other things being equal if, after a campaign, sales went up, the marketing expenditure would have been amply justified.

Made to measure

Today it’s doubly more pointless to wheel out this maxim as a get-out-of-the-CFO’s-office-free card, for the simple reason that you can be much more targeted in your marketing—and since our bread and butter is B2B content, I’ll stick to that—on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, together with old-fashioned media.

There are also many thousands more ways to measure the impact of that expenditure, through numerous engagement and brand impact metrics—as well as the plain old top line. Of course, too much choice isn’t exactly helpful here. That’s why for all content campaigns, marketers need to establish the precise business goals and what kind of measurements would constitute success, before pulling the trigger.

The key thing to remember is that every campaign is different. Among our clients, for instance, a tech firm selling a specific solution to a specific decision-maker in a specific industry measures the impact of their content in terms of its power to earn marketing qualified leads, benchmarking the marketing budget against their average cost per lead.

A major bank, meanwhile, seeking to raise the profile of its senior staff among corporate treasurers in a certain country, prefers to track LinkedIn engagement as the most important figure to focus on. Select other social media stats are used as supporting evidence, along with brand awareness studies.

It’s important to get the buy-in of the budget decision makers on these metrics in advance. Otherwise, when it comes to talking about the impact of your content, the temptation is to wheel out every stat under the sun to justify its success—which won’t win you any friends among time-poor senior management. And they certainly won’t accept the excuse, given with a shrug, that half the marketing budget has always been wasted, so what are they worried about anyway?

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A couple of interesting articles that caught our eye recently got us thinking about the growing importance of — perhaps even dependence on — data in media and marketing. Data is now the foundation for a lot of journalism and increasingly fuels publishing and marketing campaigns as well, both as a source of insight (on audiences and how to reach them) and collateral (by demonstrating an organisation’s knowledge or expertise).

This piece from Germany’s C3 references a couple of great examples of the latter, including dating site OK Cupid, which trawls through its data to produce interesting tidbits on the contemporary dating scene (shock finding: older men are more inclined to message younger women than vice versa) and Expedia’s crunching of data to generate sound travel advice for the jam-packed US Labor Day weekend.

We could add others with which we had the pleasure to be involved, including this groundbreaking report from Philips, which combined the results of an ambitious international survey with third-party data to develop a roadmap for the future of healthcare.

So far, so good. But as C3 rightly points out, whether you’re a journalist or marketer, in approaching and using data it’s important to be aware of its limitations. Data is no more inherently conclusive or free of bias as any other source of information, and should be subject to the same levels of scrutiny.

This isn’t a new story, of course: the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” was popularised by Mark Twain more than a century ago. Which means that if you’re not questioning your own data, someone else very likely will; a recent survey by KPMG and Forrester Consulting found that most decision-makers don’t even trust the data insights their companies generate internally.

Beyond the issue of trust, there’s the question of whether data really connects on an emotional level. As one of the most powerful quotes in this excellent Vanity Fair piece on how data has transformed decision-making puts it:

“No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

Having seen firsthand what data can (and can’t) do, we’re staunch advocates of putting it to good use. But as our recent reading has underlined, it’s important that data is used with principles in mind. Here are those that we see as the bedrock for any solid data-driven storytelling:

*Strive for transparency: Being as open and specific as possible about where the data comes (without sacrificing privacy standards) will add to its credibility; avoiding the matter will do the opposite. In publishing the results of a survey, this would include details such as the methods used and the number and composition of respondents.

*Practice acceptance: Maybe you’ve commissioned a poll and the data doesn’t quite tell the story or support the thesis you had envisioned. That’s okay, and no reason to discard the results — surely they contain other information worth sharing, and if they’ve confounded your expectations chances are other people would find them interesting as well. Also avoid cherry-picking findings to fit a pre-generated thesis, as it’s almost always obvious when this tactic has been adopted and it risks discrediting the whole exercise.

*Be selective: At the risk of appearing to contradict the above point it’s also important to be at least somewhat selective about the data you use and share. The ‘big data’ term exists for a reason; any data-gathering exercise inevitably produces a staggering amount of statistics. Rather than attempting to ‘go broad’, pick one theme or issue to target through research or a survey and ‘go deep’; the results will inevitably be more interesting. And when you do have findings, don’t plan to publish them all. Instead, look for consistent patterns or data points that seem to challenge conventional wisdom, and concentrate on examining and sharing those if they stand up.

*Remember data is a starting point: Regardless of the topic (yes, even the wild and wonderful world of online dating) audiences aren’t engaged by data alone, and a page chock-full of statistics or charts, no matter how tastefully designed, will cause a lot of eyes to glaze over. Proprietary data should be seen as a starting point for stories and campaigns that are fleshed out with anecdotes from internal and external experts, case studies and research from other sources, to build credibility and bring the numbers to life.

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