How Have Quarantine, National Unrest Impacted Data Storytelling?

Data storytelling has emerged as the most strategic of modern marketing practices. It helps us align data’s underlying meaning with our calls to action -- and in the art of it all, craft our most resonant and compelling stories.

Narrative is the way we simplify and make sense of a complex world. Quality narrative resonates, connects and compels, serving us well as marketers, as we seek to engage our audiences, customers, and communities. At its best, narrative can and will drive change.

So what happens to this art and science when the consumer state incurs profound shift upon profound shift? The pandemic hits and quarantine begins. Then the country is thrown further into turmoil as #blacklivesmatter returns to centerstage. 

In addition to complex cultural dynamics, there are practical impacts to consider. As we reimagine marketing practices for right now, we still must talk about visuals, narrative and messaging. 



Is the shift permanent? Though the world is very different from even three months ago, there are eternal verities of data storytelling that even a malignant virus cannot disrupt. If anything, it’s never mattered more to build powerful, evidence-based narratives to help our disrupted world navigate what the data mean and what we should do as a result.

What is the vertical impact? Those that still have the liberty and luxury of (a) trading and (b) communicating, are shaken but relatively unstirred. Those whose ability to trade has been disrupted beyond measure -- from travel and tourism to automotive, from non-essential (especially luxury) retail to live entertainment -- are the most on high alert. When the time comes to restart, these sectors will need the power and potential of data storytelling more than ever.

Are we all D2C now? The lockdown has accelerated the journey towards D2C, but it’s too convenient to say that the pandemic has forced brand reinvention. Worldwide, there have been modal shifts in media consumption, with linear live TV enjoying its “best” quarter in terms of reach and frequency for years. 

Despite this global surge, media prices in this, the most-effective medium for reaching mass audiences at scale, have fallen too. Cinema and out-of-home have fallen off a cliff, but as societies reopen, their role will return, albeit modified.

So how nimble must we be? Agility is vital, and advertisers and their agency partners have displayed incredible fleetness of foot since Q1 of this year. Experimentation and innovation, testing and learning, are at a premium right now, as whole sectors look to pivot or evolve at record pace. But there’s a risk of fetishizing agility and taking shortcuts, and this must never be done at the expense of brand safety.

This increased intimacy means more time spent on smaller screens, which heightens both opportunity (more eyeballs) and threat (bombardment). There are creative risks, too, from cut-price, quick-and-dirty ads that look like Zoom calls failing to cut through the clutter, to recutting old content to new soundtracks. 

Not to mention the “all ads look and sound the same” phenomenon, with all brands looking to show their solidarity about “all being in this together.” 

Rest assured, the established rules of marketing -- and marketing measurement -- haven’t suddenly disappeared.

The business cultural stakes are ever higher. As leaders, how do we forge data cultures -- which require a knack for the human element -- amid this wholly shifted landscape? Evaluating data storytelling’s cultural success remains no easy task; benchmarking against the industry hype can lead to despondency and the key metrics of ‘culture’ not clear-cut to define from an abstract concept.

The new wisdom is in drawing organizational attention to the more creative and human side of data storytelling. Permanent or not, with the shifted consumer state, let’s reimagine how we connect through narrative, listening and applying the data even more thoughtfully to unlock its potential.

This piece reflects the collaborative work of the I-COM Data Storytelling Council, of which Knowles is a member.

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