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No Need to Survey, You Already Have Data for Great Storytelling [Examples]

Fast forward to December. This year will (mercifully) be almost over. The holiday season will be in full swing. You’ll get an email from Spotify that you’ll read – and probably share. You’ll see similar posts from your friends on your social media feeds.

Spotify Wrapped is a usually welcomed annual recap of each subscriber’s year in music as well as a review of broader music streaming trends for the year.

It’s a gold standard in data-driven content marketing. Not only does it enable Spotify to send enthusiastically welcomed personalized emails, the data-based reports have generated tremendous third-party interaction, exposure, and nearly 5,000 backlinks (according to Ahrefs) since the project’s inception, from sites such as the BBC, Forbes, and Mashable.

You can do something similar – use data to tell stories to your audience. It’s never been easier, cheaper, or more meaningful to use data in content, and it can give you an edge on your content competitors.

It’s never been easier to use #data in #content, says @Spiewak via @cmicontent. Share on X

Move beyond surveys

When you move past the default data used by many – surveys – you can unleash the real power of data-driven storytelling.

My advice is not to abandon surveys. They can be a valuable source of internal data that is both actionable and insightful. They also can provide industry understandings. But using surveys to collect external data to inform your content is a different story.

In the first four months of 2020 alone, brands pushed more than 2,000 releases touting survey results across a single wire service:

The survey noise element alone should suggest an opportunity to zig as other brands zag. Any company can run a survey on any topic – and clearly, thousands of them do. In many cases, they make no inherent connection between the brand and the polling of a random set of people. Thus, effectively incorporating that data into their content is hard.

Not only are surveys overdone, but many media members won’t use them to tell brands’ stories. Some openly reject all survey-driven pitches:

Others scrutinize the survey methods and tweet about them derisively:

“Data is great, but there’s a huge difference between a survey of a few hundred people and thousands of actual purchases on a brand’s website,” Jeanenne Tornatore, a travel expert and TV personality, said at a PR industry event in February.

Rather than looking to surveys as the best choice for data collection, explore the data you already have or to which you have access to tell relevant stories. As you do, think about how to visualize that data.

Don’t look to surveys. Explore #data you have access to and create relevant stories, says @Spiewak via @cmicontent. Share on X

Show what your data says

At Vivid Seats, we powered our 2019 Year in Review with our 2019 sales data:

As visitors scroll down the infographic, the next categories pop up, creating a culminating story of 2019 live events. As users hover on a category title, story details pop up:

Five years ago, creating this experience would have required front-end engineers and lots of development time – time that most UX, product, and engineer teams were spending on projects with a more direct impact to the business.

Today? It’s an easy HTML embed coupled with simple data points and a little design know-how. Tools such as Infogram, which we used, and Piktochart offer distinct advantages that build on traditional infographics (and address many of their shortcomings) by being:

  • Mobile responsive
  • Data friendly, with simple, recognizable spreadsheet interfaces
  • Easy to change and update in real time without the need to resave or republish
  • Highly interactive, lending to a more engaging (vs. educational/informative) experience

When you have the hang of more robust, interactive infographics, tap into even more powerful data visualization tools.

Flourish software can transform a spreadsheet into a mesmerizing experience, such as this “racing bar chart” on the top 15 brands since 2000:

.@f_l_o_u_r_i_s_h software can transform a spreadsheet into a mesmerizing experience, says @Spiewak via @cmicontent. #tools Share on X

You can use the Flourish app to create a racing bar chart for your data with no coding, etc. (Of course, the popularity of these charts is contributing to an uprising against them by community platforms such as Reddit.)

Let others tell stories with your data

Brands also can achieve massive victories in data-driven content when they’re willing to share data with others. For example, your brand’s data may serve as a lens through which a journalist might tell a story about a larger trend or societal behavior.

Brands can achieve data-driven #content victories when they share their #data with others, says @Spiewak via @cmicontent. Share on X

A good example is this piece from The Economist, which draws on data from Teralytics, a transportation and mobility analytics company, as well as the U.S. census. The Economist used that to explore the relationship between partisanship, pumpkin pie, and how long guests stay for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The article isn’t about Teralytics, but the brand is featured prominently in the story and the graphic because it was willing to share its data.

Image source

Sometimes, the brand is the focus of third-party content using its data. This visualized story – Mario Kart Goes Mobile – from Reuters takes a deep dive into the history and future of the Nintendo franchise. If a reputable outlet like Reuters hadn’t been the source, it might feel like company-branded, sponsored content.

Instead of paying for a branded content campaign, Nintendo scores a massive organic win by publicly sharing its data. And it didn’t even need to do an ounce of design work.

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Leverage data-driven content to leapfrog other brands

Yelp, another leader in data-informed content, earned a placement in this excellent New York Times piece on the decline faced by Chinese restaurants:

Did other companies have data that showed this trend? Real estate companies? Restaurant suppliers? Fortune cookie makers?

Restaurant data from Yelp fits. But beauty, wellness, and food data? The company’s first Trend Forecast Report in those categories earned pickups from Adweek, Pop Sugar, Bustle, and more. Surely, other brands more relevant to cosmetics and style could have shared this data.

Similarly, The Atlantic explored the rise of bathrooms in America with data from Zillow:

Imagine the home improvement brands, interior design sites, plumbing companies, et al. that could have shared data to shine light on this trend.

When brands are willing to tell stories through their data, they can earn press disproportionate to traditional brand awareness coverage. They also can differentiate themselves from their competitors. Strava, a fitness monitoring brand, was featured in The New York Times over its bigger competitors like Garmin or Fitbit. was featured over all other social listening tools in this article on NBA TV watching by FiveThirtyEight.

When brands are willing to tell stories through their #data, they can earn press disproportionate to traditional brand awareness coverage, says @Spiewak via @cmicontent. Share on X

Use third-party data to tell relevant stories

Not all data is the same or as interesting as the examples above. But what makes data-driven storytelling accessible for brands is that just like those media examples, you can even use third-party data to create your brand’s content.

Even though the data originates outside of your company, your newly created content should still feel on-brand. Instances of this sort of data-driven content marketing include:

  • Rave Reviews, a product review site, taps into IMDB data to determine the most popular TV show in every country.
  • Ask Traders, a hub for stock traders, researched CEO names, salary data, and baby names to publish an article on which baby names are most likely to set a person up to make the most money:

  • Provision Living, a national senior-living community, analyzed public FTC data to determine which states get hit hardest with robocalls/potential scams.

All these examples also were picked up by multiple media sites. In the Provision Living example, found the data so compelling it did its own visualization:

These public, non-proprietary data sources are all around. In many cases, they are free or inexpensive just like the tools that can help synthesize the data into a powerful visual story.

Audiences are drawn to data visualizations

For years, publishers have known how powerful data can be for storytelling. (Two of the top three most-read stories from The New York Times in 2019 were data-driven visualizations). The COVID-19 crisis has helped others recognize the power of data visualization.

The notion of “flattening the curve” is rooted in data visualization. This piece from The Washington Post illustrating how social distancing can help reduce the spread of the virus became the site’s most-viewed story ever. The Financial Times created a data visualization that became the most popular all-time story on its site.

Image Source

The Financial Times charts’ creator John Burn-Murdoch has gained more than 250,000 Twitter followers since its publication.

John believes the visualizations will help solidify the role of data journalism in the future as he tells Nightingale on Medium:

I think we’ve certainly got enough ‘credit’ built up here that anytime anyone in the future questions ‘what is the value of data visualization in the newsroom,’ we’ve got several million answers here.

Visualizations will help solidify the role of #data journalism in the future, says @jburnmurdoch via @cmicontent. Share on X

These data visualization successes signal that data storytelling is here to stay for publishers and brands alike.

Invest in data-driven content marketing

No intense data research is necessary to recognize the opportunity facing brands in 2020.

It’s a basic equation that adds up to massive potential and possibility:

  • More people are consuming data-driven content.
  • More media outlets are investing in and covering data stories.
  • Brands can more easily obtain and visualize data.
  • Most brands are not taking advantage of the opportunity.

Ditch the survey; open the spreadsheet. In 2020, what data-driven content opportunities are already lurking within your data?

All tools mentioned in the article come from the author. Given it is not possible to include all related tools in a single article, please add your favorites in the comments.

What can you do with your content marketing data? Attend the now-virtual ContentTECH Summit this August to learn how data can help improve your content strategy. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute