How to Use Data to Tell Better Stories

Using data to tell better stories can mean the difference between approved projects and unhappy clients with confused, yet still angry, faces. Here’s how to get it right the first time.

Why Your Content Needs Data

data stories

Image via Flickr via Tais

Crafting impactful statements through content, including those monthly client reports, demands hard numbers to back up your analysis. Without data, you’re running the risk of churning out blocks of text that readers won’t absorb, meaning they’ll miss your key points. Data improves reader engagement, says the International News Media Association, gives your content distinctiveness, distills complex ideas into simpler mediums, and gives your content a more modern look. If you want executives and other decision makers to back your strategies, you need to build your narrative with clean data as its backbone.

Impact of Data Rich Content

Data rich content, whether it’s an infographic, a blog article, or a white paper, takes your raw metrics and turns them into digestible stories that readers can more easily understand. When readers comprehend your ideas, it’s a simpler task to persuade them that your path is the right one to take. Meanwhile, the numbers lend support for your tactics, showing that the effort you propose has merit based on hard facts. Stakeholders can tell you’re not just throwing creative notions against the wall and seeing what sticks. You’re crafting a measured plan based on previous results and targeted trends.

The Impact is Twofold: You get opt-in from key stakeholders. You get people wanting to share your content.

Leverage Existing Resources

Hunting for data doesn’t need to be a long run down a blind alley yielding little results and wasted hours. You have all the information you need to augment content already; you just need to leverage the right sources. Here’s where you can go now to get client-centric data to help enrich your content and liven-up your proposals:

  • Existing Analytics Packages: If you’re preparing strategy documents for a client, then you most likely have access to their web analytics packages, including Google Analytics or Omniture, depending on site size. Taking screenshots of trend lines and exporting organic traffic to landing pages are powerful features that can put teeth behind your recommendations. Use improvements or declines in other areas, including time on site and bounce rate, to show how your proposal can shift user engagement in your client’s favor.
  • Heatmaps and Click Tracking: Client thinks a resource that no searchers actually visit is a vital part of their marketing strategy? Prove them wrong with heatmap and click tracking that’s more than likely already in place on site. Thirty days’ worth of tracking is all you need to show trends.
  • Social Shares and Engagement: How do real people respond to your content across social platforms? Show engagement levels, including comments, shares, and click-through rates, from previous campaigns. This avenue can help you display the merits of different mediums to create a holistic effort that targets potential customers where they live online.
  • Competitive Intelligence Sources: Is the competition using your strategy and achieving success? Use competitive intelligence tools like SEMRush, BuzzSumo, and Google Trends to add actionable data that backs your proposal. 
  • Data Resource Centers: You need to conduct your own national survey to get good poll numbers. The Pew Research Centerhas a trove of non-partisan authoritative analysis and trends that you can leverage for your own content.

Give Concrete Metrics

As you analyze the data for trends, make sure you present your findings in the most concrete manner possible. Call out your metrics using numerals, so you don’t hide the good numbers in a sea of words that readers all-too-often miss. Avoid going for the biggest number available in your data, especially if it does nothing to strengthen your case or add layers to the story you’re trying to tell. You want data to support your story and lend credibility, which isn’t possible if you’re introducing numbers that seem dubious. For example, if you’re going to tell people that you believe doing X tactic can lead to a 75 percent increase in conversions, you’d better have concrete data to bolster that claim.

Put Information in Context

Showing a 100 percent increase in organic traffic isn’t all that much if you’re talking about going from 6 visitors per month to 12 visitors. Put your data in its right context, so readers understand the significance of the numbers and why you believe them to be important. Show your data within the context of a larger time period, six months to one year, so that viewers can see the broader impact. Digital media is an exceptionally powerful means to communicate complex information, but that doesn’t mean you should fudge the figures to make your content seem more potent than is actually possible.

Choose the Right Digital Format

Visualizing data is all about choosing the right format and medium. Infographics are great at boosting engagement, upwards of 94 percent according to industry studies, but they’re terrible when it comes to trend analysis. To show trends, you want a simple line graph coupled with hard numbers and clear color distinctions between data groupings.

Don’t go for amorphous visuals like pie charts and Venn diagrams when you need to show linear progression over time. Remember that viewers need to see your data as a visual and get everything they need from it in seconds. If you need to do more than one minute of explaining the chart, you’ve strayed off the path and need to rework the medium.

Keep in mind that you don’t need data visuals to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to making an impact on viewers; you’ve got surrounding text to help. A simple graphic that viewers can understand is much more impactful than a complex interactive that does more to befuddle than explain.

Recognize and Avoid Bias

In crafting your strategies and integrating metrics into your content, you should go where the data leads in forming conclusions. If the data presents a story that shows why a particular tactic won’t see success, build the narrative to show that result. Bending the info to support a predetermined narrative is a reflection of internal bias, and you need to drop it from the equation before you can proceed.

Leveraging data for content is an iterative process that demands constant digging and refinement. The better you get at analysis, the more captivating your stories will be for your clients and readers.

About the author

Jonathan Lister