Commentary

Which Comes First: The Data Or The Story?

The data-story debate has only just begun, but it has the potential to carry the same weight as that of the “chicken or the egg” conundrum.  Different people answer this in different ways. Let me explain my point of view, which I steadfastly hold true to, and consider the only correct response.

I apply the scientific method to marketing — which says, in my personal paraphrasing of it, that your process should be “observation, hypothesis, action, results.” For good measure, I add “optimization” to the end.  This creates a five-step process for developing a strategy.  

If you hold to this process, then the data comes first because this is where you start to observe.  The data creates opportunity for insights, which then drive your development of a hypothesis.  The hypothesis is where you create your story. The story drives your actions, yielding results, allowing you to optimize your efforts.  

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The question is, how much do you let the data dictate your story?  Too often marketers will torture the data to accomplish their goals, looking to create connections that needn’t exist in order to craft a truly unique story.  When you do this you overcomplicate the story, which can lead you to speak to too small an audience, or to create a story that is too complicated for the majority of your audience to understand.

Rule number one of marketing (and of life in general) is to keep it simple.  The shortest distance between two points is a straight line — and although your audience may not follow a linear path down their customer journey, the simpler your story is, the more likely it is to be understood sooner, and convert or exclude prospects quicker.  Making that transition happen quickly makes for efficient messaging and budgeting. Don’t waste unnecessary time when you don’t have to: That’s my rule!

Also keep in mind that you shouldn’t craft the story without having some data to start with.  I’ve heard the argument that you should start with the story and let the data tell you if it worked — but in an era where data is so readily accessible, it almost feels irresponsible not to start with the data. 

Using basic analytics to provide you with insights helps you start from a place of knowledge rather than gut instinct.  At the very least, it makes your gut well-informed to begin with.  That always feels like a better place to start. Governments make mistakes when they tell stories not rooted in fact — and marketers do, too.

Telling a story is no easy thing to do, and telling one that resonates with your audience is an art form.  This is the single greatest reason why advertising and marketing will never be replicated by a machine.

I’ve said it multiple times in this column: Stories require inspiration, and no machine has ever been inspired.  Too often we associate data with machines, but the data is simply the itemization of consumer behavior, organized in such a way that a human brain can extract insights and create stories. 

If you don’t overcomplicate the story, it can resonate with a large enough audience, or at least manifest in a targeted way that provides a set of guidelines for how you speak to that audience.  That is why you need the data first.

So the next time to sit down to develop a strategy and tell a brand story, ask yourself if you’re starting from a place of data, or from someplace else.  The data will make your story “stickier” — so don’t overlook its value, and certainly don’t bypass that step in your preferred method of go-to-market.

1 comment about "Which Comes First: The Data Or The Story?".
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  1. Steve Climons from Crossover Creative, November 18, 2015 at 11:05 a.m.

    Stickier is good. 

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