Three ways to tell stories with data

maxresdefaultIn the advertising business data is typically something we measure to determine the success or effectiveness of our efforts. How many people did we reach? How many page views did we generate? How many likes does our Facebook page have? Or in the case of programmatic media buying, how much should we pay to reach a particular person with a particular message?

But data offers those of us on the creative and storytelling side of the business just as much opportunity. We can discover, mine and even produce data to help us tell more emotional and convincing narratives. More on that in a moment.

Data has always entertained and informed us

In and of itself, using data to inform and even amuse is nothing new. Just take a look at Harper’s Index. Introduced 30 years ago it remains one of the most popular sections in the magazine displaying an uncanny knack for startling readers with surprising facts culled from public databases and data-based research.

Every month the U.S. government contributes to our collective anxiety or optimism with its reports on housing starts, unemployment, and trade deficits. Some of us consume it actively, others passively, but in either case it affects our confidence and our spending behavior.

In the world of education, data on SAT scores, GPAs and acceptance rates have become the key stories colleges and universities use to position their brands and brag about their selectivity. That in turn informs how we feel about our own standing and accomplishments. And for US News and World Report, their annual ranking of colleges informed by that data has become the magazine’s equivalent of SI’s Bathing Suit issue. Eagerly anticipated, incredibly popular, often controversial.

Journalists get it, but what about brands?

Journalists, by definition, have been forced to get better at mining and scraping data, structured and non structured, to discover stories that need to be told. When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently released payments to doctors, The Boston Globe immediately scoured the report to learn that some doctors were receiving millions of dollars a year in Medicaid payments. A subsequent article raised questions about overpayments, possible fraud or at least price gouging.

Brands and advertisers, on the other hand, have been a bit slower to identify and leverage data in their storytelling. However, today we have more ways than ever to capture useful information. Social media reveal trends in real time. Checkins, tagged photos, likes give us fodder for stories about our users. Increasingly available public records, along with tools for analyzing them even when they’re comprised of unstructured data, offer us lots of possible content.

Soon, plethora wearable devices that go far beyond the rudimentary capabilities of FitBits and FuelBands will offer even more inspiration. It only seems natural that we get better at using data to make our cases, celebrate our successes, inspire new behaviors and build loyalty for our brands. It strikes me that there are at least three ways that we, as marketers, can leverage all of that digital knowledge.

Mine data to find stories worth telling

BHTT3169000H-Reunited-HRBlock-30-1920x1080 youtube.pctOne example that comes to mind is H&R Block’s “Get Your Billion Back America,” a clever website and a series of ads dramatizing just how much money Americans leave on the table in overpaid income tax. Block had tax attorneys and CPAs mine data that revealed nearly half of all tax returns prepared by do-it-yourselfers were inaccurate and that the taxpayers affected were actually entitled to either a larger refund or smaller tax bill. The ubiquitous tax preparer then leveraged that data to capture imagination, educate and sell its services.

Get better at crafting and telling data driven stories

Macca, Sir Paul, sits atop The Sunday Times Rich List, even after his expensive divorce.

After the dip from an expensive divorce, Sir Paul is back at the top of the list.

Two words. Data visualization. But that doesn’t mean charts and graphs and circles. If there’s one thing ad agencies, creatives and story tellers should be good at it’s inventing better, more interesting ways to tell data driven stories. One of my favorites is the ongoing The Sunday Times Rich List campaign. In past years, the creative compared how much money the rich and the really rich had. Seeing an image of the Rolling Stones on stage with Mick Jagger 10 times larger than Ronnie Woods and three times the size of Charlie Watts was a brilliant way to convey the findings. More recently, as the names on the list have changed and the fortunes of some individuals have risen or fell, The Sunday Times devised equally compelling graphic images to tell that story.

An older campaign compared the wealth of the wealthy in a clever series of ads.

An older campaign compared the wealth of the wealthy in a clever series of ads.

Produce data to support the stories we want to tell

Perhaps the best example for this approach is Prudential’s I might live how long?  Prudential generated its own data— asking people the age of the oldest living person they knew — in order to dramatize the amount of time we’re likely to live between retirement and death and suggesting we better have a plan in place and the resources to go with it. They combined findings from that exercise with demonstrations of how long half a million dollars might last, and with relatable facts to show the likelihood that we might actually live to be 100 ourselves. They never started with an argument for their retirement products. They simply let facts and data tell a story that leads you to your own conclusions.

How many other stories lie buried in data?

When you look at examples like this it makes you wonder how many great stories lie buried in data that brands own or have access to. Nike and Fuel Band could craft insightful content about how much we do or don’t work out, what percentage of us stick with a routine and how many lack discipline.  Fidelity could show us how much we save for college or retirement compared to others in our age group or income bracket. HBO knows who watches what, by day of week, by time of day, by region of country. In all of those cases, the right story, told creatively, might motivate us to use a service more or strive to be like someone getting more out of it.

We know that if data helps a user take better advantage of a brand’s service, it’s both welcome and used. When OKCupid launched, it successfully encouraged more people to use its service over other dating sites by sharing data regarding what worked and didn’t work in appealing to the opposite sex. And there’s no shortage of apps leveraging an interest in personal data. Even the most personal and intimate information generates stories worth telling, even when we shouldn’t.

If you’re interested in this yourself, try to attend this upcoming conference at Boston University. I was asked to be part of it, but sadly can’t make it. But there are some pretty impressive folks on the agenda.

If you can’t get there, check out some of the resources below, and as always, feel free to share examples and ideas below. Thanks for reading.

More useful information:

Hans Rosling: The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen (TED talk)

OKCupid Trends to Return

Avinash Kaushik: Convert Complex Data Into Simple Logical Stories

Cole Nussbaumer: Storytelling with Data


My analyzer indicates that this article has relevancy to my existence. I have been programmed with storytelling abilities using personal data. I am just born and have a long way to learn how to properly handle data first before learning to tell stories with data.


@ThomasBech Tak. Tre ret forskellige discipliner. Jeg bevæger mig mest i Data Mining delen. Men man kommer jo ikke helt uden om visulisering