It’s not often that the interests of investigative journalists and brand marketers intersect -- but they do in the five-day “Storytelling With Data” workshops that Maggie Mulvihill, a journalism professor at Boston University, launched in the summer of 2014.
The course is meant for communications professionals as well as reporters, lawyers and techies.
“We’re all data storytellers now,” Mulvihill says. “We’ve never before — any of us — not only had access to this level of digitized information … but also to tools to find the meaning in those records.”
We'll take a look at these tools -- which find, extract, clean, analyze and visualize data -- in a later column (please let me know your favorites). They are essential, considering the nonstop barrage of information known as the 3Vs of data: volume, velocity and variety. “It’s almost overwhelming, and it’s just going to get bigger and bigger,” Mulvihill says.
That presents a largely untapped opportunity to marketers. Although data storytelling is “one of the hottest trends in the world of traditional media,” as Alexandra Samuel pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article last month, most companies treat their data as “state secrets” that are used mostly to guide campaign strategy. But check out this week’s New York Times report, “Greenland Is Melting Away,” for one look at the innovative ways journalists are putting a compelling face on analytics.
“If you don’t humanize your data, who cares?” says Muvihill. “People read stories because they’re moved somehow by the voices in the stories.”
Exactly the same dynamics are at work on the content marketing side of communications, according to Amy Shanler, an associate professor at BU who directs its PRLab. Marketers are using data in a two-step process of “educating on a particular issue and then getting people to care through that personal story,” she says.
Liberty Mutual’s “New Beginnings” series of blog posts last spring, for example, was built around a national survey of 2,000 adults revealing that 42% planned to make at least “one major life change” this year. The posts “celebrated” milestones from marriage to renovating a home with tips from experts such as HGTV carpenter Chip Wade and clickbait such as “6 Things New Parents Waste Money On.”
It was an effective way to get people to think about whether their coverage is sufficient “without shouting ‘buy new insurance, buy new insurance,’” says Shanler, who spotted mentions of the effort in social media as well as print and broadcast coverage.
In a similar way, Prudential didn’t throw stats at us about the need to save for retirement like a frugal cranky Yankee. Instead, it created an entire website around the question “I might live how long?” The information it delivers — plan your finances as if you’ll live to be 105 — is brought to life through quizzes, videos and free tools,
“I can think of nothing that would put me to sleep faster than insurance data, because it’s probably pretty dry, right?” Shanler says. But perhaps because they've been around it so long, insurance companies seem to have figured out how to make actuarial data live and breathe better that most marketers. In fact, “Allstate has put data at the heart of its communication strategy,” Samuel points out in her HBR piece.
But, just as Mulvihill teaches her journalism students, Shanler stresses that the first step is to make sure that any data you use is credible. “And don’t try to be something that you’re not,” she warns. “The data still has to fit in with your overall marketing efforts, your brand, your voice.”
Shanler cites the “people-oriented” approach of Staples’ “2015 Flu Survey” microsite, which delivers such information as “59% of respondents say having the flu is worse than being without Internet or email.” A slide show that debunks myths about how germs are spread is again more effective than a wagging finger. But the intent is serious: to convince employees who’ve caught a bug to stay home (and to note that Staples has the office cleaning and de-germing supplies needed to keep everybody healthy in the first place).
Shanler contrasts this somewhat “lighthearted” approach with the necessarily “more serious” tone taken by Philips Lifeline about the risks of falls to seniors — particularly those with chronic conditions — on its own microsite, in a piece on Forbes’ BrandVoice and in a graphically rich white paper.
All Philips’ efforts are based on a retrospective study that, among other recommendations, suggests at-risk seniors “use emergency response solutions with automatic fall detection features” such as its own AutoAlert technology.
Glassdoor last week identified “data scientist” as No. 1 in its list of “25 Best Jobs for Work-Life Balance.” Data scientists also had the highest average salary, $114,808. “Content manager” was No. 21 on the list, with a salary of $60,960. Combine those two skills and it sounds as if you might be able to name your number.