THINK Contributor

Turning data into stories

By , January 18, 2017

As data continues to increase its role in marketing, the need to turn numbers into stories becomes more critical. By themselves, analytics aren’t worth very much unless they draw marketers to conclusions on which they can base action. Put another way, in order to make things happen, you need to translate your data into stories with a beginning, middle, and end.

“It’s important to remember that people’s eyes glaze over at numbers,” observes Marc Engelsman, vice president of strategy and analytics at the digital marketing agency Digital Brand Expressions in New Jersey, and also a board member and vice president of research at the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO). “They understand up and down, but the nuances have to be framed to understand.” 

For his part, Engelsman likes to tell his data stories visually, through pie charts and bar charts that dramatize differences and “are a lot easier for people to understand.”

Chances are, you have plenty to work with — often times, companies have a wealth of data that can tell stories no one’s ever heard before. And data gives your story substance. For example, while executives or marketing staffers might speculate on why users are behaving a certain way, it’s the data that validates what’s behind the behavior. It’s the data that will get your story heard.

The Basics in the Data 

Crafting an effective story isn’t easy. Before you even begin, you need to understand what your data represents, including details such as how it’s gathered, from where it’s sourced, how frequently it’s updated, and how each element is defined. Only then will you know what kind of story you can tell.

Then, you must thoroughly understand the question your audience needs to answer. It could be that email open rates are sliding, or that more customers are abandoning their shopping carts in mid-purchase. Either way, the challenge is to spot patterns in the appropriate data that can lead you to an answer.

For Engelsman, that answer has to include actions. “You only want to present data that’s actionable and leads to a conclusion,” he says. “The story has to lead to what’s next.” Data itself doesn’t have context, he notes. Your story’s purpose is to put it into context and steer your audience toward the appropriate actions to take.

That means the people putting the story together need to understand the issues on the table. Whether you’re working with the marketing team or the CEO, you must clearly grasp the specifics they’re struggling with, then study the data through that prism. 

It’s All About Context 

As Engelsman indicates, a big part of the challenge is putting the data into context. Consider this as a simple example: In December, your company sold $100,000 worth of product. “So what?” Engelsman asks. The story is in how that number relates to previous numbers. “The story should be about what changed and why,” he says. “If you don’t have change, it’s not a good story.”

But that change has to be presented in the right context. December’s $100,000 in sales may be down 10 percent from November’s, which sounds like bad news. But other factors may indicate that December is traditionally a soft month because your customers are focused on the holidays and traveling that month. The real story lies in comparing this December to the previous year’s sales of $90,000. That year-on-year jump is good news and provides a starting point to look for the reasons behind it.

Whatever the story, “you want to humanize it,” Engelsman believes. You might pick one data point generated by your website and follow its path to demonstrate that users who view two pages of content are more likely to make a purchase than those who view five pages. Then you have to look at the actual pages to examine what might be prompting some people to shop and others to continue viewing content. In the end, you might uncover quirks in your menu design that nudge one type of user to buy and another type to read. Either way, you’ve found data you can act on.

This is why “someone in the data chain has to know what to look at,” Engelsman says. If your website’s performance lags behind your competition’s, for instance, one thing I’d compare would be the sites’ load times, which impact Google rankings as well as user experience. How your site loads compared to your competitors’ tells a story. But somewhere marketing and data knowledge must intersect in order to tease it out. 

Each day, marketing becomes more data-driven. Though technology is a big driver of that dynamic, more data analytics experts are understanding marketing basics. That, in turn, allows them to tell better stories.


Mark Feffer is a writer and editor who focuses on topics related to technology, analytics, technology, and workforce development. His most recent work on technology has been copywriting for the website of services provider INSYS Group (www.insys.com) and stories on the use of IT in recruiting and workforce management for SHRM Online and Dice Insights. Mark is a paid contributor to THINK Marketing.

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