The diminishing effectiveness of conventional advertising and the rise of social media have led more and more brands to embrace content marketing. More and more companies are seeing themselves not just as advertisers, but as publishers, launching digital newsrooms, podcasts, and other forms of branded content in order keep their brands, perspectives, and value propositions in front of customers.
Yet even as companies have embraced their new role as content creators, they’ve largely missed out on one of the hottest trends in the world of traditional media: data journalism. This still-new form of reporting draws on the growing availability of data sets and data analysis tools to uncover and tell stories like the impact of vaccines on infectious diseases, the continuing problem of school segregation, or the differences in working hours across industries, often presenting the results through compelling visualizations or interactive applications. Newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times have invested heavily in data journalism because they recognize that the world of big data offers opportunities to uncover new insights, and to tell stories in newly compelling ways. Just as crucial, data-driven stories attract the kind of social media attention that publishers dream about: fresh data and infographics spread across Twitter, Facebook and other social channels precisely because they are able to tell a story in a concise, compelling and visually appealing way.
While infographics are now a standard part of the corporate communicator’s toolkit, data visualizations driven by original data are still few and far between. Look on Pinterest and you’ll see that a lot of corporate infographics are basically pretty blog posts, not data visualizations that tell an original story.
That’s an ironic oversight because today’s enterprises have access to more data than ever before. All that information could be fodder for top-notch marketing; instead, it’s treated like a state secret, and used almost exclusively to drive internal decision-making. Look up “data-driven content,” and you won’t find much about turning data into blog posts or reports: you’ll mostly find marketers using data to guide their own campaigns and marketing decisions.
The exceptions to this rule are the few companies who’ve used their own data to drive original and fascinating stories: companies like OKCupid, General Electric, and Kickstarter. My personal favorite is Jawbone, which has uncovered some fascinating insights from all the folks wearing its fitness trackers – like when people in different cities wake up and go to sleep (below). These brands recognize what virtually every brand should be doing: opening the treasure chest of data and offering some of that wealth back to customers and the public in the form of original content.
I woke up to the power of data as a content marketing resource through my work with Vision Critical: because a lot of global businesses use Vision Critical’s customer intelligence software platform, we were in a great position to develop reports like Sharing Is the New Buying (with Jeremiah Owyang) and What Social Media Analytics Can’t Tell You. Working on those reports opened my eyes to the benefits that a quantitative approach can offer any business:
Infographics are the type of content that’s most likely to be shared on social media, so creating data visualizations that offer real value to your readers is a great way to spread your ideas and message — and to drive traffic to your site. Unlike a typical blog post, a data visualization or report has some staying power, particularly if you choose your title keywords carefully so that your posts show up whenever people search for numbers on your topic or industry.
The rise of brands as publishers has led to an explosion in the volume of content available online. And let’s be honest: most of it is terrible. From the endless spew of blog posts meant to establish a “personal brand” on a given subject, to the daily grind of keeping corporate websites stocked with up-to-date releases, a lot of what’s getting cranked out offers more in terms of word count than it offers in actual information or actionable insight. When you’re sharing fresh, accurate, relevant numbers, you are offering content that gives people real value.
Sharing, curating, and analyzing data — particularly if it hasn’t been shared before — establishes your brand as the authority on a topic. If you can release a report or infographic that offers a new or definitive take on a key set of market trends or issues, you become the go-to source on that subject. That may bring earned media mentions and interview requests, but just as crucially, the report itself highlights your company’s expertise. For B2B companies in particular, underlining expertise is often one of the top aims of content marketing, and data-driven content accomplishes that goal very effectively.
Data analysis skills are turning out to be ever more important in today’s enterprise, so a lot of businesses have significant strength when it comes to using analytics internally to drive business decisions. But when you start sharing your metrics externally, you can get a whole new perspective — because seeing how other people respond to and make sense of it may give you fresh insights into numbers you think you already know inside and out. That’s particularly true if you take a page from the rise of the open data movement in government, and actually release some of your data in a form that other people can use to create their own charts or analyses: they may find patterns and insights you would never have thought to explore.
At a moment when consumers are increasingly concerned about the way that companies collect and use their personal information, data-driven content offers a way for companies to let people see how their information is being used. That transparency not only builds trust, but helps to address their concern that they give up more value by sharing their information than they receive back from the companies who collect it. By aggregating the data in a way that preserves the privacy of individual users, and provides insight based on the patterns revealed through that aggregation, brands can help customers understand how their data is being used.
For all the value that data-driven marketing can offer, it’s still an under-used part of the marketer’s toolkit — and as a recent Nieman Lab post observed, many of the companies that have ventured into this space are doing it poorly. But precisely because well-executed data storytelling is still the exception, there’s an enormous opportunity for companies to stand out from the marketing hordes by turning quantitative information into quality content.
Alexandra Samuel is a speaker, researcher and writer who works with the world’s leading companies to understand their online customers and craft data-driven reports like Sharing is the New Buying. The author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University. Follow Alex on Twitter as @awsamuel.