Data is a sizzling hot topic these days. Marketers are learning how to use the right information to drive leads and close sales in record time. Data, refines strategy and optimizes efforts, driving your campaign to new heights.

But despite all the buzz data is getting in industry circles, most marketers are focusing on how it informs strategy rather than content. And we’re missing the boat. As Alexandra Samuel said in the Harvard Business Review, “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.”

Not only does data allow for new insights and build authority, Samuel argues that “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.”

Data storytelling hits an emotional and intellectual pulse that rivets your audience and keeps them coming back for more.

Data Always Tells a Story

In 1921, a Guardian editor wrote, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” Almost 100 years later, the same holds true in content marketing. To gain a foothold as an authoritative brand, you need to build your content on data, not opinion.

Even if you want to craft an eye-opening opinion piece, facts will be the bones of your story. Sarah Slobin at Wall Street Journal reveals why data storytelling is the way forward:

We can paint pictures of our entire lives with our digital trails. From what we consume and browse, to where and when we travel, to our musical preferences, our first loves, our children’s milestones, even our last wishes – it all can be tracked, digitized, stored in the cloud and disseminated. This universe of data can be surfaced to tell stories, answer questions and impart an understanding of life in ways that is currently surpassing even the most rigorous and careful reconstruction of anecdotes.

Now that this kind of data is available to us, digital storytelling can be both energized and grounded in information.

Understanding the Different Ways to Conceptualize Data

Data storytelling means different things to different people. There’s no one way to tell a story. Data unlocks limitless possibilities — you can shape facts and statistics into any form. You can even create new content formats with data (check out the history of infographics).

As you start to see your data as a goldmine not only for your strategy but also for your storytelling, you open up your content production horizons – serving up formats your audience is asking for.

Here are just some of the many formats you can consider for data storytelling:

  • Articles and Blog Posts
  • Calculators
  • Quizzes
  • Podcasts
  • Infographics
  • Images
  • Graphics
  • Interactive Visualizations

For more options, check out the Data Visualization Catalogue compiled by graphic designer Severino Ribecca. This ever-growing library of visual systems is an awesome resource for any content creator — it includes 60 form types, information about the best options for your data, and a list of creative resources that would make the best designers jealous.

Using data visualization as your storytelling method gives you the power to translate complex ideas and wide swaths of information into remarkable digital experiences.

Let’s take a look at five different narratives that showcase the power of data and how they work.

1. Illustrate a Process

We’ll start with a seemingly simple infographic. Released as a summary of the Data Journalism Handbook, this infographic by Lulu Pinney gives the traditional table of contents a major upgrade.

Pinney used small circles to represent data floating in the digital world. As readers walk through each stage of data journalism, the circles morph into shapes or forms, until eventually, they are shared with the audience as finished stories.

Once dispersed into the world, data floats back to the beginning of the journey in the form of crowdsourced information. As readers move through each chapter, they gain the tools to apply new knowledge to the data at their fingertips. In other words, the journey through the handbook is a metaphor for the data-driven content creation process. Pretty cool, huh?

We can learn from the color scheme as well. Bright orange and robin’s egg blue are snappy complimentary colors that draw in the eye and act as the perfect backdrop for the graphic. According to a study from University of Toronto, most people prefer graphics with two or three simple colors, so don’t get too complicated. Use this infographic as a blueprint for illustrating the steps of any process beyond the average listicle.

What You Should Do

  • Ask yourself: what processes or steps could you illustrate with a graphic? How could you make the journey clearer through visualization?
  • Enlist the help of a talented designer to make your vision a reality.
  • Consider the color scheme – make it user friendly and easy to digest.
  • Don’t try to do too much! The best visualizations simplify complex ideas.

Fried calamari is no longer the cool kid at the table — and it’s been replaced by brussel sprouts. (Yes, you read that right.) Neil Irwin, a senior economist correspondent for the New York Times, applied his analytical chops to measure food trends for the Upshot. He tracked the number of NYT articles using the term “fried calamari” as a proxy for its popularity over time.

Their graphic designer kept the calamari graph clear with one thin, purple line. Smaller charts in the article served dual purposes, showing the individual popularity of eight other foods over time, allowing readers to contrast and compare them against each other.

How could you use this in your own marketing? In some industries, measuring trends is itself a trend. Marketers that dig into their own data frequently discover interesting insights that might be worth sharing even outside their own four walls.

For example, Buffer recently conducted a study on their own blog traffic. What would happen if they stopped publishing new posts for a full month?

Their findings were fascinating, and turned into an incredibly successful new piece of content for the Buffer blog itself. The team could have simply conducted this analysis, learned from it, and moved on – but they wanted to share it with their audience, who might want to apply those takeaways to their own strategies.

I love this example because the “data storytelling” element is so simple. Buffer is a fully transparent company, so they simply screenshotted their Google Analytics dashboard and inserted the graphic right into the post.

Next time, instead of mulling over your coolest finding at the water cooler with colleagues, share your off-beat finding with your community. They’ll thank you for it.

What You Should Do

  • Identify a trend your audience cares about – that might mean digging into your own data.
  • Think about the “visualization” resources you already have – your technology dashboards can be a great place to start.
  • Share your insights with your community. Even if they aren’t necessarily earth-shaking, creating a show-and-tell can help foster customer relations and advocacy.

3. Support an Argument

I stumbled on this epic piece of content in an article by Neil Patel on Quick Sprout. Patel’s findings are always gold — but this one surpassed all others by bringing data to a serious sports debate.

The question, “Who is better, Ronaldo or Messi?” has plagued soccer fanatics for years. FiveThirtyEight Sports decided to end the debate by breaking the question down to sheer metrics. Their findings: Ronaldo is a great player, but Messi is “impossible”. As Patel remarks, “He stands out so much on these graphs that no one can really make an argument against the conclusion.”

Neil Patel has a major point — FiveThirtyEight uses not one, but 18 different graphics to make the undeniable conclusion that Lionel Messi takes the cake…I mean, the cup.

If you ever need to make an argument, make sure to rely on visuals. A study cited by Buffer found that presentations that include visuals are 43% more persuasive. Follow FiveThirtyEight’s lead and approach the debate from every angle. When readers see the results with their own eyes, they may be convinced by facts rather than opinion.

Also, note how their graphic designer used the soccer field as part of the data visualization. Yes!

What You Should Do

  • Identify the metrics you’re using in your persuasive copy and think of how you can represent them visually instead of just in numbers.
  • Whenever possible incorporate the subject’s theme into the design and display itself.
  • Provide variations on the data to show multiple perspectives and forms of evidence.

4. Drive Emotions

Data can end an argument, and it can also inspire people to action. George Washington University’s graduate program in health administration created this visualization about climate change to impart a sense of moral obligation.

Peter LaPuma, a professor at George Washington summarizes its impact, “This infographic helps to illustrate the environmental injustice issues related to climate change. The countries who have had the least to do with greenhouse gas emissions have the most to suffer from it.”

This piece of content makes a vast body of data absorbable for the average viewer. It uses the size of concentric circles as a metaphor for the injustice of the climate change crisis — the biggest emitters of CO2 are also the least vulnerable to the effects of climate change and vice versa.

A world map draws a second conclusion to the forefront, illustrating that most of the vulnerable nations are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The most amazing visualizations never leave you guessing — it clearly illustrates a point, and in the case of this infographic, move you closer to empathy and change.

What You Should Do

  • Devote time to understanding your core audience and find out what interests them, what their pain points are, and what will motivate them.
  • Use data to inspire a connection that will resonate with them past the typical sales points, touching upon them as people and not just buyers.
  • Make your designs to clearly emphasize the main takeaways, not leaving any guesswork for the viewer.

5. Make Data Storytelling an Interactive Experience

Michael Schrage, a fellow at MIT’s Sloan believes that data visualization will not reach its full potential until it seeks to engage, not just enlighten: “Yes, accessibility, understanding, and insight are the wonderful products of wonderful visualizations. But truly transformative visualizations invite people to touch, stroke, and go deeper into the data that underlie them. They engage, and encourage engagement. They give their users a new way to view each other, as well as the data.”

At SnapApp, we couldn’t agree more. Interactive data applications take visualization to the next level, engaging the audience with a malleable experience that shifts with individual interests.

This application from GapMinder illustrates the correlation between life expectancy and GDP per capita. You can also adjust the year of the data displayed, or view the progression of age expectancy over time by pressing “Play” on the bottom left button. Users can select certain countries to compare, and can also correlate the data with each continent.

Just in case you still want to dig a bit deeper, click their “How to Use” button for more tidbits on making the most of the data.

By having different dynamics users can alter and control, automatically gets them sitting and more interested in the results they are creating. Providing different functions piques different interests, giving you a bigger target.

Interactivity brings a new dimension to a visual experience, and we are just beginning to crack into its potential as marketers.

What You Should Do

  • Repurpose your current infographics into interactive experiences where users participate with the interface.
  • Create dynamic calculators where prospects can apply their own numbers to see results based on your data findings. This creates a direct and personalized result.
  • Layer in questions into your data displays to learn more about your audience. Use this data to build better buyer profiles and inform future content.

In Review: Why Visual and Interactive Data?

Ninety percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone! As a marketer and consumer, you have more access to information than any generation before you.

With so much of the same content formats constantly being promoted to buyers everywhere, creating unique stories and visual experiences with hard numbers can give your marketing the edge to stand out.

Start learning how to analyze information and mold your best gems into visual and interactive experiences. And remember — data and graphics are a winning pair, like mac ‘n cheese. Never leave your best assets hanging without their other half.

Thirsty for to learn more about different interactive content options? Experience our Interactive White Paper: What Is Interactive Content and Why It Works.

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