Data storytelling is a powerful ingredient to include in your marketing mix. Sharing what you know (and how you know it) signals you are a go-to source for your customers and community. If you want to improve brand recognition, you can’t afford not to practice data storytelling. Every marketer needs an expert to cite, and data storytelling demonstrates your expertise.
On the Data-Driven Marketer Podcast, guest Zontee Hou spoke with Adam and Mark about how and why data storytelling is valuable—even when the data reveals more than you’d like. Creating stories with your information isn’t just about the data, though; it’s about positioning your brand as a source of information to build an engaged community, whether you focus on B2C, B2B, or nonprofits.
Zontee Hou is a professor, speaker, and the president of Media Volery, a marketing agency. She works as a digital marketing strategy consultant for enterprise brands in the US worldwide. In addition, she is a teacher for graduate students at Columbia and The City College of New York and regularly speaks on digital marketing topics.
Data Storytelling Starts with YOUR Data
When it comes to data storytelling, your data is the foundation of the content you create. “The data itself becomes the mental anchor,” says Hou.
If you aren’t sure you have data to share, you’re not alone. But you likely have more information than you think, and obtaining it doesn’t have to be complicated. There are different ways to find data within your organization and craft it into the content your audience consumes.
According to Zontee, “…what I always encourage companies to think about is, how can we find the information we have, whether it’s our internal information about our audience or the surveys we conducted to learn about our audience? Are there things we know we can actually share back with our community that they can benefit from? And most of the time, the answer is yes.”
Why Share Your Data as Content?
Sharing data makes you a source of knowledge for customers, the press, and online communities. The repetition of sharing information creates a favorable image among your internal and external audiences. Whatever information you have or find, sharing it builds a more extensive fan base for future storytelling, leading to increased brand recognition and even sales.
“I think the interpretation of data is really important, says Hou. One of the things that I talk to people about is why is it important for us to weave data, statistics, and numbers into the way we present our information. It’s because it (a) makes us more trustworthy, (b) it makes the information more memorable, and (c) it becomes a shortcut for somebody to access that information later on. So the more we can use data in our storytelling, the more we’re creating these signposts within our story that people can come back to. And that can be really powerful.”
Can You Give Away Too Much Information in Your Data Storytelling?
Companies resist revealing what they know about a topic, but the data and information help people connect with your brand, products, and services. Plus, the public isn’t taking the information and disappearing; they’re using it to validate who they trust or admire in real-time.
“The truth is that most of us have numbers that are not actually competitively important but can be really valuable to the community that we serve,” says Hou.
For example, Hou cites the nail polish business: “If you’re a beauty brand, you have the opportunity to tell people what are the top 10 nail polish colors of the season. Sure, that could benefit your competitor in the sense that, I guess, they could run out and start making those colors. But by the time you’ve actually reported on it, is it beneficial to them? Haven’t you already gotten the benefit out of that information and moved on?”
You can convey your data storytelling (to your benefit) in many ways.. “Maybe it’s like, what are the popular nail stickers that people are doing out in the world? You focus on the colors, but you talk about stickers. Sure, that’s fine. I mean, you can share whatever information you want, but if it’s beneficial to your audience and it engages them in consuming more of your product, then that’s still valuable.”
Why Storytelling Works
Storytelling is how you convey your message (using data) in ways that resonate with your intended audience. In this case, storytelling includes helping people find ways of doing things better, i.e., easier, faster, or with a competitive edge.
How you convey information makes a difference, of course. Everything from your tone and voice to the final content deliverable impacts the recipient’s perception. Concise copy will make you trustworthy and memorable, while your messaging can direct people to the desired result. Writing copy to connect with readers, viewers, or listeners is job number one.
One example is in expressing percentages in your copy. You can say “70% of people” or “7 out of 10 people.” The first option is a powerful way to establish credibility, such as in B2B marketing, while the other creates a more human connection, a tactic used in B2C marketing. The key is adopting strategies to speak your audience’s language for a stronger connection. Hou cites the book Hidden Persuasion as a good source for learning what language influences action in ad copy.
Similarly, you can tailor how you communicate your data based on the audience (and where they spend the most time). Choose the right channel (based on the analytics data) and convey your data in the form they choose to engage with—podcast, blog, video, etc. Use all the channels your followers expect. Don’t forget about display ads or video ads.
B2B vs. B2C Storytelling
Compelling storytelling means pressing the right “buttons.” The buttons can be B2B focused, like conveying information to make people better at their specific job. They can also appeal to B2B and B2C, such as helping people find ways to do any job or other activities better.
Hou says your recommendations can include your products; there’s no shame in a product plug if the information is genuine and helpful. B2B storytelling can also benefit your business partners. Hou shared the example of her agency’s client, Cisco.
“They have a whole partner marketing portal where they educate their partners because they know that when their partners are successful at marketing, then they sell more Cisco Systems and products. And so, they’re really seeing this as the lifecycle of—how can we be more successful as a business?
It’s not just our marketing we can improve, right? It’s also making sure that the folks we work with have the tools they need to succeed. Today B2B and B2C content often include the same content, which can create an overlapping of audiences. “And the truth is your B2B customer is shaped by everything they see in their B2C lives, says Hou.
If Nike is serving these incredible, micro-targeted ads that are flashy and beautiful and highly relevant, then when they are experiencing your generic ad, and it’s clunky, and it’s sad, and it doesn’t feel particularly relevant, then they’re judging you in the context of every other ad that they’ve experienced, right?”
The Medium is the Message
“One of the books that I teach in my classroom is by Marshall McLuhan, who very famously said ‘the medium is the message.’ And his point is that the medium is culturally the message. When you use a particular medium, it’s in the context of everything else that somebody’s experienced.”
Hou says one example of this concept is interactive TV ads. “… Hulu can give you a targeted ad, and it’s interactive, right? But have I seen a TV ad before? Absolutely. Have I seen an ad where I get to pick an option? Absolutely. At this point, we’ve all experienced those things, so it’s not new information.”
The Future of Storytelling in Tech
In recent years, the mediums and strategies have changed rapidly. The rate of change will continue to increase; however, Hou says, “Rather than fight it, go with it.”
“Six months ago, it was a little sillier when I would pitch Tik Toks for our B2B campaigns, and now everyone’s completely on board because they realize how much that’s just sort of where the attention economy is right now. And who knows where it’ll be in two years, but to say, well, it’s white paper – we do white papers. Like yeah, okay, do white papers too, but also make Tik Toks telling people to go to the white papers if you’re in B2B.”
Facebook’s focus on the metaverse while experiencing push-back for its customer data usage raises questions about how and where marketers position themselves.
Facebook has decided to delete its entire database of facial recognition scans because they’ve realized that that is a step too far, and people don’t like it. And they want to, I think, make a show of goodwill in terms of the public’s needs and desires. Indeed, I think that we as a public, as a society, need to continue to push back on these organizations if we are seeing that they are doing things that we don’t agree with. And I think that we do need to legislate. There’s no way around it.”
“Then there again is adaptation—this idea that we’re always going to have to adapt to the new next frontier.” That means if customers shift to a metaverse, then follow them there. Similarly, if a medium is losing viewers, then move away from it. You should go wherever your audience goes—or try to get with them.
Tune Your Message for Each Medium
Condition your messages to resonate on the platforms where your audience spends their time. For instance, if your viewers are on Tik Tok, create messages that work well on that specific platform. As long as you have your data organized and ready for publishing, you should be able to sculpt it for any current or future platform as trends shift.
“… Beyond just storytelling, really think about what has value for your audience,” says Hou. Maybe the value is entertainment, but it’s still value, right? If there is not something that your audience gets out of the content that you are producing, then they are not going to stick around. So, you can create a whole bunch of Tik Toks, but if it’s not something that your audience wants to engage with, wants to watch, wants to share with other folks, then it’s not going to be successful.”
You can convey information on a podcast that will be valuable, but what keeps audiences coming back is your ability to entertain or educate. This often includes humor and fun. Data can be fun, too, you know.
Data Storytelling is Your Story to be Told
Your recipe for success includes insightful data and a compelling narrative to reach your audience on their preferred platforms. Create a process to help you show up consistently on popular platforms while testing new ones. Never lose sight of what you’re here to do, though: provide value to your audience based on their signals.
For more information on Zontee Hou, you can find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram as @zonteehou, or her website at zonteehou.com. Listen to the entire podcast episode on The Data Driven Marketer.