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August 17, 2016

Cindy Penchina, President

What Data Journalism Means for Marketing

Big Data.

It’s unavoidable. In our modern age driven by computers with processing power that just gets bigger by the day, it’s difficult to get past the crush of numbers and data analysis. It’s so prevalent that it’s become an entire genre of news: data journalism. Nate Silver’s 538 is the poster child for the movement, but it’s something that’s been a long time coming: if we crunch the numbers, what do we learn? What does it mean? And more importantly for marketers, how do we communicate it?

Communicating Data

Communication is the key thing to focus on. Reams of data aren’t hard to come by, but it takes time, effort, and energy to sift through it all and create a coherent picture out of it. Modern computing technology makes that a lot easier, and you don’t even need to be a statistician to do it (as long as you’re backed by credible sources). The key advantage data journalism has over traditional think-pieces is an air of objectivity that gives it the ability to cut through the noise; here are the numbers and what they mean.

And then they make it easy to digest.

That can be an infographic, an interactive web app, or simply an article that lays it all out with clear illustrations where needed – and a keen sense of how to dumb things down just enough so that it doesn’t sound like you’re dumbing anything down.

A great example is 538’s presidential election forecast tool, reproduced below.

538's Presidential ForecastWhat this tool does is give you the ability to easily sift through mountains of data and forecasting models in order to get a sense of how the election looks right at that second according to the available information. You don’t have to go through a single spreadsheet to do it, and there isn’t even any explanatory copy there to tell you what it means. It’s graphically represented and supremely straightforward.

You can look at three separate forecasting models, and look at how the various averages have changed day by day since they started tracking. This tool gives you a top-down data-driven view of the election as it stands, based on reliable numbers. If you want to go more in depth, they’re happy to take you down that road with detailed analyses of where these numbers come from and what they mean, but at the end of the day, you’ve got the web app feeding the numbers to you in an easy-to-understand way.

This can be done in all kinds of ways; it doesn’t have to be an interactive application, and the data doesn’t even have to be about anything super important, as long as it matters to the audience.

So What’s This Mean for Marketing?

Information is persuasive.

Yes, data is easy to manipulate, and presented badly can just turn into a giant stack of numbers. But ultimately, it’s about taking numbers and telling a story.

Well, hey! That’s what we do, isn’t it? It’s not appropriate for every product or service you can sell, but if you’ve got hard numbers relevant to what it is you’re trying to move, it’s a great idea to find some way to make those numbers into a persuasive, easy-to-follow, share-worthy story. And the beauty of it is that, right now, very few people are doing it.

Most people aren't out there putting out this content regularly, which means that powerful, data-driven content marketing is a relatively untapped part of the landscape where you can fairly easily stand out from the crowd.

There are two ways to go about doing this: the easy way and the awesome way.

Both work. The easy way is pretty straightforward: mine the vast data resources of the Internet and turn out some killer infographics. Get your best design guys on it, pretty it up, and make it sing. The data’s all out there. It’s just a google search away. Watch. Google searches for things as varied as the number of car crashes in Chicago in 2011, how many people in the US are Type O-Negative, and the average age of Kentucky Derby jockeys all returned relevant search results. And that’s all off the top of my head based on things I saw in my office. It’s not hard to find great data that backs up or otherwise supports your marketing goals that you can gussy up and set out on the internet.

Then there’s the awesome way.

The Awesome Way

The awesome way is where thought leaders go. It’s difficult to do, involves a significant outlay of time and resources, and would set you apart as a major industry force.

See, anyone can go googling around for numbers. But very few people are out there generating their own data. Curating and analyzing data would set you apart in a monstrous way, giving you information and leverage that few else can offer. That makes you the sole source for this kind of industry analysis – the fact is that you have data. Unless you’re a brand-new business, you’ve got years of sales data, customer forecasts, and more that you can transform into valuable content your ideal clients will really respond to.

So why not start digging? If you can spare the time and manpower, it’s an amazing way to start putting out really transformative content marketing materials that are sure to get attention.