How Data and Storytelling Go Hand-in-Hand

Every day we hear more about how valuable data-driven marketing is increasing ROI. Countless studies back this up; from improving click-through rates to creating the most effective strategies, it seems like data driven marketing does it all.

But your gut tells you that it’s the power of storytelling that will always drive sales most. And that’s the point: there’s what your instincts tells you and then there’s what the cold hard numbers are telling you, but are the two really at odds?

The numbers aren’t able to quantify what good storytelling is. That’s a purely qualitative assessment. Or is it?

Recently NPR ran a story about Upworthy, which in 2013 was declared the fastest growing digital company ever. But by the time Thanksgiving of that year had rolled around, the company had begun to implode. No doubt you remember Upworthy, it was all over Facebook three years ago. It was pretty much every third post you saw on Facebook. You know the type of headlines, one’s that had a hook and ended with “ . . . and you won’t believe what happened next,” or “ . . . and the results blew my mind.” You don’t see those sorts of headlines on Facebook nearly so often anymore. And while Upworthy still exists as a company that seeks to promote an upbeat message, they don’t rely on those kinds of headlines.

So what did happen to Upworthy at the end of 2013? Facebook changed their algorithms. And it turns out while those sorts of headlines are eminently clickable, once the reader had clicked through, what they found was lacking in what we in digital media call stickiness. It failed to capture the readers’ attention. They happily clicked through, but then they just as quickly clicked away, onto the next see what happens next headline. Facebook changed the algorithm to favor pages which held people’s attention, not that simply garnered clicks. And those sorts of articles, that promised a great story in the headline without revealing what it was, failed to deliver on the story, whereas the sorts of blog posts that engaged in good storytelling techniques, and held people’s attention were favored by the algorithms. And as a result, within a year, Upworthy’s traffic had plummeted to a quarter of what it had been at its height.

What’s the moral of the story? Algorithms come and go, and they will forever change. But stories, good stories, will always move people, will always capture people’s attention, and hold on to that attention. And the content that contain quality storytelling will always rise to the top. But how does data fit into the picture? It’s data that keeps us honest. Data can’t write a story that will capture an audience, but it can let us know when we are writing the right kinds of stories. The ones that truly deliver. It can help us brainstorm the category of stories that will do well, and make sure that we’re posting the right stories at the right time.

Good storytelling is a craft, and it comes from emotion to operate on emotions, but it’s hard data that lets us be objective in knowing that we’re doing our job well. When a story works, it usually offers the “who, what, where, when and why.” But while it’s the province of the storyteller figure out how to make compelling that who, what, where, when and why, there’s another set of questions that need to be answered that exists outside of the inner workings of a story. Who is the story targeted to? What is it communicating? Where are the best platforms to share the story? When will it have the best chance of being seen? Why is it being used for marketing—what goals can the content achieve? And how to get reliable answers to all these questions? By using data, of course.

Want to know more? Check out this great article from the Harvard Business Review about how to craft storytelling that works with data.

Every day we hear more about how valuable data-driven marketing is to increasing ROI. Countless studies back this up, from improving click-through rates to creating the most effective strategies, it seems like data driven marketing does it all. But your gut tells you that it’s the power of storytelling that will always drive sales most. And that’s the point, there’s what your instinct tells you and then there’s what the cold hard numbers are telling you, but are the two really at odds? The numbers aren’t able to quantify what is good storytelling. That’s a purely qualitative assessment. Or is it?

Recently NPR ran a story about Upworthy, which in 2013 was declared the fastest growing digital company ever. But by the time Thanksgiving of that year had rolled around, the company had begun to implode. No doubt you remember Upworthy, it was all over Facebook three years ago. It was pretty much every third post you saw on Facebook. You know the type of headlines, one’s that had a hook and ended with “ . . . and you won’t believe what happened next,” or “ . . . and the results blew my mind.” You don’t see those sorts of headlines on Facebook nearly so often anymore. And while Upworthy still exists as a company that seeks to promote an upbeat message, they don’t rely on those kinds of headlines.

So what did happen to Upworthy at the end of 2013? Facebook changed their algorithms. And it turns out while those sorts of headlines are eminently clickable, once the reader had clicked through, what they found was lacking in what we in digital media call stickiness. It failed to capture the readers’ attention. They happily clicked through, but then they just as quickly clicked away, onto the next see what happens next headline. Facebook changed the algorithm to favor pages which held people’s attention, not that simply garnered clicks. And those sorts of articles, that promised a great story in the headline without revealing what it was, failed to deliver on the story, whereas the sorts of blog posts that engaged in good storytelling techniques, and held people’s attention were favored by the algorithms. And as a result, within a year, Upworthy’s traffic had plummeted to a quarter of what it had been at its height.

What’s the moral of the story? Algorithms come and go, and they will forever change. But stories, good stories, will always move people, will always capture people’s attention, and hold on to that attention. And the content that contain quality storytelling will always rise to the top. But how does data fit into the picture? It’s data that keeps us honest. Data can’t write a story that will capture an audience, but it can let us know when we are writing the right kinds of stories. The ones that truly deliver. It can help us brainstorm the category of stories that will do well, and make sure that we’re posting the right stories at the right time.

Good storytelling is a craft, and it comes from emotion to operate on emotions, but it’s hard data that lets us be objective in knowing that we’re doing our job well. When a story works, it usually offers the “who, what, where, when and why.” But while it’s the province of the storyteller figure out how to make compelling that who, what, where, when and why, there’s another set of questions that need to be answered that exists outside of the inner workings of a story. Who is the story targeted to? What is it communicating? Where are the best platforms to share the story? When will it have the best chance of being seen? Why is it being used for marketing—what goals can the content achieve? And how to get reliable answers to all these questions? By using data, of course.

Want to know more? Check out this great article from the Harvard Business Review about how to craft storytelling that works with data.

Recently NPR ran a story about Upworthy, which in 2013 was declared the fastest growing digital company ever. But by the time Thanksgiving of that year had rolled around, the company had begun to implode. Three years ago, Upworthy was pretty much every third post you saw on Facebook. (You know the type of headline. It usually had a hook and ended with “ . . . and you won’t believe what happened next,” or “ . . . and the results blew my mind.”) You don’t see those sorts of headlines on Facebook nearly so often anymore. And while Upworthy still exists as a company that seeks to promote an upbeat message, they don’t rely on those kinds of headlines.

So what did happen to Upworthy at the end of 2013? Facebook changed their algorithms. And it turns out while those sorts of headlines are eminently clickable, once readers had clicked through, they found the articles lacking in what those in digital media call “stickiness.” In other words, the articles failed to capture the readers’ attention. They happily clicked through, but then they just as quickly clicked the next “see what happens next” headline.

Facebook changed the algorithm to favor pages that held people’s attention, rather than those that simply garnered clicks. And the sort of articles that promised a great story in the headline failed to deliver that story. The blog posts that used good storytelling techniques and held people’s attention were favored by the algorithms. Within a year, Upworthy’s traffic plummeted to a quarter of what it had been at its height.

What’s the moral of the story? Algorithms come and go, and they will forever change. But stories–good stories–will always move people, capture their attention, and hold on to that attention. And the content that contains quality storytelling will always rise to the top. But how does data fit into the picture?

It’s data that keeps us honest. Data can’t write a story that will capture an audience, but it can let us know when we are writing the right kind of stories: the ones that truly deliver. It can help us brainstorm the category of stories that will do well, and make sure that we’re posting the right stories at the right time.

Good storytelling is a craft, but it’s hard data that lets us be objective in knowing that we’re doing our job well. When a story works, it usually offers the who, what, where, when, and why. But there’s another set of questions to be answered that exist outside of the inner workings of a story:

  • Who is the story targeted to?
  • What is it communicating?
  • Where are the best platforms to share the story?
  • When will it have the best chance of being seen?
  • Why is it being used for marketing—what goals can the content achieve?

And how do we get reliable answers to all these questions? By using data, of course.
Want to know more? Check out this great article from the Harvard Business Review about how to craft storytelling that works with data.

About the author

A freelance writer and content strategist for the last eight years, Alexandra M is a highly skilled writer, editor, proofreader and researcher. From an educational background based in English literature and poetry, she brings a deep understanding of the artistic use of language at its most basic level. Experience in overcoming research obstacles such as language, censorship and bureaucracies, has prepared her to tackle any inquiry with creativity and depth. Drawing on a breadth of personal and professional experience, she uses original thinking to apply these skills to produce and write creative, corporate and technical materials. When editing, her attention to detail combined with a quick grasp of overall coherency allows her to respect the author’s voice and intention while steering a work toward its best possible form.


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