5 Rules for Turning Data Into Insights and Stories

With the advent of big data and the ability to track everything, I’m reminded of Einstein’s old adage, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Today, we have so much data, so few insights.

Turning data into stories and insights is one of my favorite parts of digital marketing. I recently gave a talk on this topic at Digital Day for one of my clients. Over the years, I’ve delivered this talk as a workshop, as a half-day training, and as a straight presentation – it always gets great feedback. So this week I’ve reworked it as a column for you all.

Here are five rules for turning data into insights and stories:

  1. Make it real. Back when I was at YouTube, we struggled with how to explain the scale of our audience growth and just how much content users were uploading to the platform. It was huge. To help our audience understand the scale and speed of growth, we compared it to platforms they were familiar with:

    If YouTube’s audience were a country, it would be the #3 largest in the world.

    Every minute, 26 Lawrence of Arabia’s are uploaded to the platform.

    Every day, users watch the equivalent of all the TV programming that’s been created over the past 40 years.

    Give your audience something concrete and familiar to think about when you’re explaining new or abstract concepts.

  2. Context is king. In digital media, we deal with huge numbers every day. To turn data into stories, you not only have to make them real – you also need to give your data context.

    For example, “We have 45 million users” is a stat. A big stat, but a stat just the same. “45 million users, up from 35 million last year, with 90 percent of the new users accessing our content via mobile” is a story. It gives insight into how your audience is growing, shifting, and changing its behavior.

    Give your audience enough context to understand why they should care about the data you’re sharing.

  3. It’s all in the details. Think about your favorite authors. When you read their books, you probably feel like you’re part of the world they’ve created. You probably feel like you “know” their characters. Marketers are storytellers, too. And good storytelling is all about the details.

    So, if you’re doing a case study about a campaign you helped optimize, don’t just tell me that a client used your agency and saw a 20 percent lift in conversions. Instead, tell me about the creative they used, and how you tweaked the copy. Tell me where you were when you had the bright idea to target their media differently. Tell me what sparked your new idea in the first place. Tell me whether the uptick in conversions was immediate, or if you were biting your nails as you waited to see if the new approach would work. Tell me what the client said – the actual words they used – when they saw the results. And tell me what you learned from the experience.

  4. Find the nugget. Every good journalist knows you need a strong lede – one anecdote that encapsulates the entire story you’re trying to tell.

    Back at AOL, we used to explain the power of Patch (the company’s local network of websites) through stories about its users. This sprang from the insight that while other local sites might have national news organizations behind them, Patch’s brand celebrated the individual and the communities it serves.

    For example, I’ll never forget the time a Patch mom in Darien, Connecticut posted to the site that her beloved family cat, a tabby with white feet named Marjorie, had gone missing. Marjorie had been playing out back with the woman’s son, Austin, but had disappeared from the family’s yard. Despite spending three hours driving around the neighborhood, they couldn’t find Marjorie and were desperate. The mom posted a plea for help to her local Patch, and within a few hours another community member had found Marjorie, safe and sound, though a little scared, hiding under her porch.

    The power of the Patch sites is the emotional connection and engagement they foster. If I told you how much time was spent on Patch sites – the traditional measure of “engagement” – you’d probably be impressed…then promptly forget it. But I bet you’ll remember the cat’s name tomorrow.

  5. No asterisks. Strong data and insights should be sourced, easily found, and replicable. Good data does not have an asterisk explaining that the stat was a one-day high, an all-time record, coming from a sample size of seven, or only true on Tuesdays when there’s a full moon. So look for the big, brag-worthy numbers, but make sure they’re representative and honest.

How do you turn data into stories and insights? Let me know in the comments below.

Kristin will be on vacation in August. Her columns will resume in September. In the meantime, she can be reached @kristinkovner.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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