How to Make Data Sexy and Why Our Future Depends on It

We have all been there before… Being asked to deliver or receive a spreadsheet of numbers, often late in the day, in a darkened meeting room… I’m falling asleep just thinking about it.

Contrast that to the glamorous world of advertising, with its photo shoots and parties, and it’s easy to glaze over when presented with data. It seems that data just isn’t as sexy as some of the other sides of marketing. 

But let’s be clear, it really is!

Data is everyone’s future. Your customers, your websites and devices like smart phones and other appliances are generating terabytes of data every second.

Understanding the needs, wants and opportunities this data presents is commercially critical to all of us, but we just need to find a way to keep everyone awake, maintain the attention of the C-suite, to make data sexy…

Here are some starters:

Visualization

Everything you read about analytics now is about visualization. And rightly so.

Most people find numbers pretty boring but we are naturally drawn to colorful, attractive visuals. There is a whole software industry to support data visualization, which goes a long way beyond simple charts and graphs to allow us to intuitively overlay data over geographies, time, even videos or images.

Here’s an example of how PR firm Porter Novelli constructed a visualization map of the top 50 UK PR twitter people and their followers on Flickr:

porter-novelli-flickr

Importantly, visualization also makes these huge volumes of data accessible and digestible to wider audiences of all skills and aptitudes.

This is a huge enabler for any organization.

The challenge is to design data reporting that hits its mark, is intuitive and looks great.

That means getting a designer or creative director involved and briefing your reporting the way you would a communication or creative project.

Data as Art: Making it Beautiful

Visualizing with a couple of pie charts is really not enough. Analytics and insights need to be works of art.

People’s eyes should linger over the work as if it was a Monet or van Gogh. Beyond pleasing the eye, our works of art need to tell a story, impart knowledge and drive insight.

My personal favorite ‘data as art’ is the map of the world as visualized by Paul Butler an intern at Facebook.

By simply plotting connections between friends and nothing else, the map beautifully tells us more about humanity, geographic and society than pages of words or numbers ever could, image courtesy of Facebook Engineering Report:

paul-butler-facebook

The Right KPIs

As an industry, we are pretty good at making up new and confusing performance metrics. These are all valid and important, but the higher up the management food chain we go, the less likely people are to either recognize or be interested in some of these KPIs.

Resisting the temptation to deliver and report too much, we need to be careful to both understand and include the KPIs that our audience really cares about and that help measure the business.

Anything related to revenue, cost and profitability perhaps being the top corporate list.

From a customer relationship point of view, I still advocate the Net Promoter Score as a key KPI that is comparable across different industries.

Once we have all these, we report them and report them until the end of time.

Commentary

As with sub-heads in a newspaper story, people tend to read at a scanning level, picking off the little factoids and nuggets of information as they go.

Getting captions and commentary spot on is thus critical in winning an audience and getting your message across. But all too often we leave the commentary to the data analysts, who are a real whizz with the numbers and data tools but whose talent is too often not in the commercially, action focused world of our audience or creative writing.

Captions and commentary need to be perfectly crafted like great copy or ad headlines, hitting their mark with memorable sound bites that tell our story and shout out the issues, opportunities and successes.

Time to get wordsmiths or copywriters involved.

Real-Time and Interactive

Yesterday’s numbers are too late in fast moving verticals like on/offline retail, data needs to be here and now. This means real-time.

There are a few technical issues here and these are not always easy, but work at it.

Real time reporting is amazingly addictive with marketing directors constantly refreshing and re-clicking to look for the most minuscule change in results.

As with any addition once they are hooked, they always want more. It is human nature to want to touch and change things.

Given that everything is now delivered on a screen, there is no excuse for not making our data interactive. People want to zoom in, drill down, change variable and ask ‘what if.’

The more accessibly interactive and customizable we can make thinks the greater the value and insight there is for the user, and there is a lot of software around to help with this.

Tell the Story

From birth we are hardwired to listen to and learn from stories and even as grown-ups we still love them. Every chart, every graph should tell a story, supporting facts with emotions and human interest that inspires and creates lasting memories.

A very old and tragically beautiful example of data telling a story is Charles Minard’s 1869 chart showing Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign, depicting his army’s losses as they marched on Moscow and further decimation as they struggled home.

charles-minard

Add to that a compelling voiceover and you will have your audience eating out of your hand. 

Data’s master storyteller has to be Hans Rosling who is certainly worth a few idle minutes watching some of his amazing videos. 

Moving Forward

Much of the success of data is about taking the vastness and complexity and presenting it in ways that people naturally understand, are attracted to and can adsorb.

But ultimately sexiness comes down to what you can do with data and how you can make it work for you.

The future and potential game changer for our industry is the marketing cloud.

The big beasts of marketing automation that can suck in huge volumes of customer and market data, make sense of it all and then serve up real time unique and custom messaging at the right time and across the right channel, driving business and making the customer feel special.

Getting it right for every customer, every message every time, now that’s sexy.

*Image via Shutterstock

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