Is data-driven marketing holding back storytelling?

Jun 05, 2018

MarketingCharts staff

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of articles from MarketingCharts, which provides up-to-the-minute data and research to marketers.

Much has been made of the difficulties marketers face with accessing data, integrating data across technologies and even trusting their data. But some companies are facing an even bigger problem, according to Widen’s “2018 Connectivity Report” — telling the right story with their data.

In fact, when Widen asked more than 500 marketers and creative professionals the biggest challenge their team faces when procuring, managing and utilizing their marketing data, the largest proportion (21.5 percent) of respondents said the biggest challenge was telling the right story with their data.

Many of the other popular responses also appeared to deal with challenges making the data more accessible, including simplifying complex data, agreed to by 11.6 percent; distilling premium data from numerous data sources, 11.4 percent; and collecting and visualizing data, 10.3 percent.

This focus makes some sense given that the respondent sample was made up in part by creatives, as storytelling relates to the more creative side of data-driven marketing.

A survey last year of more than 600 marketing and IT professionals by Chief Marketing Technologist and Third Door Media produced similar findings. That survey found that more than eight in 10 felt it more of an art than a science to craft a narrative from data to persuade others.

So, while respondents to the Widen study are most interested in adding the data scientist/engineer role to their team over the next one to three years (in keeping with a general staffing gap in this area), the results serve as a reminder that there’s a creative side to data-driven marketing that also requires significant talent.

Other survey highlights:

  • After storytelling, the biggest challenge faced by marketers with respect to data activation is managing data across different platforms for a single view.
  • The vast majority (about 81 percent) of marketers have already gone or are currently going through digital transformation, defined as the integration of digital technology into all areas of the business.
  • The most important requirements for digital transformation are technologies that support business operations, system security and easy-to-use technologies.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Why do marketing teams seem to be facing hurdles crafting data- and analytics-based stories? Can data scientists be trained or motivated to become better at storytelling, or should companies develop new roles or take other steps to make data more accessible for storytelling purposes?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"It can't be all about the data or all about the story. It should be about some kind of balance between the two, except when it shouldn't."
"The challenge is not to limit one’s thinking to an either/or world of cold data or human emotions. "
"NO! Data does not hold back storytelling, it roots the story in a truth. The big problem is storytelling WITHOUT evidence."

Join the Discussion!

27 Comments on "Is data-driven marketing holding back storytelling?"

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Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

With the story as the core, applying the most suitable language, emphasizing some elements over others and targeting the ideal audience with the right version of the story are really the data challenges. Good marketers and storytellers would say “you give me the audience attributes and I give you a story they will love.” The problem is not storytelling or data, it lies in the bias of massive, bland campaigns that hope to speak to everyone equally at the intersection of story and data.

Phil Chang

Storytelling is an art. Data is the framework and the road signs by which a storyteller is guided. The missing piece in the middle is the insight derived from data to create the proper story.

Data scientists are doing just fine. In my opinion, the art of insight and storytelling is a marketing skill that needs to be refined. I think companies need to create environments where marketers can take the data they have and connect it to practical experiences outside of the office environment to find the insights they need to tell a story.

Charles Dimov
The world gravitates toward creative marketing (artistic, ad writing … ) and technical marketing (SEO/SEM, A/B testing, data-centric). Challenges lie in the middle. A more rare breed of marketer are those with enough technical skill to understand that side of the business, while being a creative writer. It is clear from need for STEM professionals and technical folk that there is a shortage in the market. However, the untold story is that there is an even greater shortage of those who bridge the tech/creative gap. It is by no means the only solution, but one option is to get technical teams to think out of the box. Practice creating cartoons from technical data. Practice public speaking (a speakers club) to get the storytelling juices flowing. Get more technical folk to write a short yet intelligible paragraph about an interesting data finding (intelligible by non-techies). If you have some good gap-bridgers, make sure they are mentoring others in your company! There is definitely a shortage (I have seen this in the world of marketing for the… Read more »
Tom Dougherty

It is absolutely a mix of art and science. It is important to remember that data is correlational and not causal. All too often we look to quantify complex human behaviors into an algorithm.

Telling the right story is as important as who you tell. Purchase choices are emotional at their root. The narrative is a means to connect with those emotional triggers. Remember Napoleon said (to paraphrase), “if it were simple, it would be the providence of mediocre minds.”

Can we automate engagement? I hope your competitors believe so.

Anne Howe

Marketing teams have a lot of MBA talent, and often resist input on crafting stories from team members and agency partners with creative, insights and anthropology skills. Collaboration equals success in this conundrum! Adding a human point of view will always enhance the story, as long as the overall objective doesn’t get lost in the mix.

Max Goldberg

Data can be interpreted in many ways, leading to a number of possible stories. When combined with the fact that most companies’ original stories were not based on data, modern marketers are faced with a dilemma. If they go with stories crafted strictly from data, they run the risk of losing sight of their business. And if they fail to incorporate data into how a marketing message is crafted, they risk losing customers. Is it any wonder that the average term of a CMO is less than 18 months?

Nikki Baird
I don’t think it is any coincidence that a lot of brands and retailers are poaching from the magazine industry to fill out their marketing ranks — to address exactly this skill of storytelling. As someone who has made a career out of telling a story out of data, I can say that it is not easy. It’s a blend of art and science, and of knowing what data to pay attention to and what data to ignore. It’s also about knowing when the average tells the story just fine, and when the real story is in the variability hidden beneath the average. The problem here is domain expertise. You need people who know how to analyze data and know when data is “good” and when it is “bad.” You can use “significant” and “not significant” to replace good/bad sometimes, but not even all the time. And then you need people who know enough about the subject the data pertains to, to be able to tell you of that data what is relevant and what… Read more »
Neil Saunders

Data is only ever part of the solution, albeit a very important part. It is essentially an input that helps you set the course. However, it does not remove the responsibility of decision making.

To tell stories more effectively, teams have to turn data into insight and then create plans to act on the insight. That requires both analytical and creative skills and many other skills in between. That’s why it is important for different teams to work together so that talents can be blended and different perspectives included in decision making.

Dave Bruno

Data science is the fuel for creative storytelling, and I have long worried that the complete and unrelenting emphasis on marketing operations and the cottage industry it has spawned has disincentivized the role of creative storytelling in marketing. We have to have people capable of extracting meaningful insights from data … and scientists are not the people we should be turning to for help.

Adrian Weidmann

Every story has a myriad of perspectives. Every one of those points-of-view has an interested audience. The challenge isn’t for the data scientist or the marketing teams — the challenge is delivering the appropriate story to the interested audience. Matching the attributes of the story and audience is the objective. The data should allow you to define your audience by a set of attributes. The marketing teams can (should) author brand stories that cater to the attributes of your intended audience. The challenge is publishing and delivering those relevant stories to the appropriate audience.

Peter Charness

There’s a little of the “leading or following” aspect to this. Do you want to stake out a story and lead your customers (or prospects) to it, follow customers based on the marketing data or perhaps have a leading story and test it out with the data? All of these are valid approaches and I suspect for some retailers, based on their business model, they will lie closer to one end of that extreme or the other.

Cynthia Holcomb

Telling a story from the heart via interpreting data without the benefit of a master vision is challenging. On the other hand, disparate data interpreted by different creatives, under the umbrella of a genuine and authentic brand vision, is a wonderful playground for creatives to craft stories coming from the heart of the brand. Cold, hard data can be the impetus for inspiring new stories to humanize and endear the brand to the intended customer.

Doug Garnett
Data scientists should NOT be trained to become better at storytelling. We already have a massive problem that nearly any story can be created out of a pot of data. There’s also an inherent conflict between storytelling and truth. The most brilliantly popular storytellers today don’t speak truth – they speak the story that carries well. Perhaps that’s okay as a marketing creative. But a data scientist’s job is truth telling – not storytelling. The true problem this survey finds isn’t about storytelling (which, incidentally, is heavily overblown as a creative approach). The problem is that (as we’ve known in direct marketing for decades) data usually doesn’t reveal anything of big significance. Data science is finding more and more tiny things that aren’t worthy of stories – so we’re not missing anything. One Big Data project I worked on identified the highest per capita sales of our product in the smallest rural markets and the worst per capita sales in New York. Except New York was also our highest volume market. Sure glad we didn’t… Read more »
Joel Rubinson

the answer to the topic title is NO! Data does not hold back storytelling, it roots the story in a truth. The big problem is storytelling WITHOUT evidence! I have seen so much of that in marketing it makes me crazy. I won’t name names but when I was Chief Research Officer at the Advertising Research Foundation I was faced with stories in the echo chamber about the death of TV. Well, facts in 2008 proved TV was actually more effective and since then, ad revenues have grown not declined. How about the story that the ROI of social media is that you will be in business in five years? Well, paid advertising continues to drive marketing, social is a small percent of brand impressions and advertising is getting more effective with programmatic targeting of shopper and other segments. Data-driven marketing makes marketing better and that, in and of itself, makes for a heck of a story!

Gene Detroyer

Dealing with Big Data is difficult. Before it can be interpreted properly, it must be presented properly. That in fact is the big challenge. Data-driven marketing should not hold storytelling back, it should enhance it.

Take a look at this video. It expresses over 100,000 data points that if we read we would never understand. But presented properly, it tells a great story.

Jeff Sward

I’ll second Doug Garnett’s comment about the difference between truth telling and story telling. There is a critically important difference. I draw my own distinction between data and knowledge. Knowledge provides context and insight. It begins to answer the questions of “how?” and “why?” In apparel it’s not enough to know style X is a bestseller. WHY is it a bestseller? Style, fabric, color, hand-feel, fit, trim … one of the Kardashians wore it on an evening out? If we want more best sellers, what exactly are we trying to replicate? Customers are telling you THEIR story through bestsellers. Understanding the WHY and HOW of their story seems like a pretty good start to writing your brand’s next chapter.

Ralph Jacobson

This is all about connecting with shoppers. Easier said than done, however we are seeing retailers targeting their defined audience with stories that are gleaned from customer experience analytics that show where the shoppers find value. Yes, there are a few retailers that have roles that are pointing toward the specific storytelling task, however I’d recommend better true analytics to see what the shoppers actually want.

Mohamed Amer

Storytelling is an art with a basic formula that is sufficiently flexible to accommodate any piece of communication. Data does not hinder storytelling. What is a story without data, without information? The challenge is not to limit one’s thinking to an either/or world of cold data or human emotions. Reality is that telling a story involves data – some sort of information – and data must be part of a story but it cannot be the story in and of itself.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

In my experience data analysis and storytelling are two very different skills. Those who excel at analysis are linear thinkers who are thoroughly versed in statistics and algorithm creation. Those who excel at storytelling are holistic thinkers who can move away from detail to see the big picture. Marketing units need both sets of skills. The data analyst and the storyteller need to have an understanding of what the other person is doing and sees. Working together they get the most information from the data and are able to get others to understand what is actionable.

Jasmine Glasheen

As a writer/editor who does a lot of client work, I can tell you that we have to walk a fine line between quality and SEO. Sure, having certain keywords repeated eight times in the first 50 words of an article will boost search rankings, but there’s still something to be said for readability.

There’s a fine line between utilizing data and sharing stuff that’s fluff sprinkled with search words and data for backlinks, and a content writer has to walk that line while creating something at least moderately compelling at the end of the day.

Sterling Hawkins

They’re two sides of the same coin. Data is an abstraction of what’s actually happening and storytelling can be an abstraction of the human experience. Storytelling is something that’s deeply ingrained in people and it powers a company’s culture. Redirecting storytelling in a purposeful way can not only free up the creatives and data-execs in marketing functions, but transform company culture.

Jennifer McDermott

Data should bring a story to life, not hold it back. But using it in a compelling, digestible way is absolutely an art form. A brand’s inability to converge creativity and numbers may indicate a lack of a certain role, or just a hiring failure.

Jeff Miller

I think in a broader scope the issue is not only a storytelling or narrative hurdle but a decision making and prioritization issue. Once you have a significant data set, what decisions do you make after, what story you tell and how important that story is to your overall goals are really the keys. A simple data set on what marketing channel is performing best or which target market has higher LTV does not help inform you of the message you need and what story you tell moving forward.

Kevin Simonson

Great post, thanks.

The onus is certainly on the retail companies. If brands want to become “data driven organizations,” they must learn to stop wondering what they think and start asking what they know. To move away from hunches and instinct and closer to fact. Which is a useful approach when it comes to all technology.

Performance marketing is ultimately all about data driven thinking, but making sure the story you’re telling fits hand in hand with it. There’s definitely a balance of being human, but also being supported by objective reality.

Stephen Kraus
No. Data-driven marketing is not holding back storytelling. In fact, data-driven marketing is potentially a huge boost for professional storytellers (in this context, marketing & insights teams) by grounding their stories in fact, and sharpening the practical implications of the stories. These days, the most compelling stories have their genesis in data. For all its shortcomings, data — specifically, comprehensive market intelligence data that paint a complete picture of a marketplace — remain our most comprehensive and most objective means of arriving at the truth. In fact, I would argue that data-driven marketing is being held back by a lack of compelling storytelling. Spreadsheets and algorithms do not inspire organizations into action. Action is shaped by stories that provide vision and understanding and inspiration and emotion. Storytelling in turn is being back by the double-whammy of hiring people with weak storytelling skills, and then not training them up. I think most companies now recognize the importance of storytelling, so it is generally rewarded in corporate cultures today; when it comes to storytelling, the problem is… Read more »
Ken Morris

Data scientists do not typically have storytelling skills and I am skeptical about expecting them to learn this skill. To quote one such scientist recently when commenting on plant learning, he stated that to anthropomorphize the scientific method compromises the data.

Successful retail marketing depends on collaboration of science and art. The collaboration may extend beyond these roles, especially if the company has challenges with integrating data from multiple sources and channels. This is almost always the case, given the multiple data repositories in retail today, the marketing team of scientists and creatives will need to collaborate with the IT team to ensure they are getting complete and quality data to analyze. Until such time as a common platform and real time data becomes a reality this will continue to be replayed.

Mark Price

Stories are not driven by data, but by people, real or imagined. As the data identifies patterns of customer behavior that can lead to segments, marketers must then turn those segments into personas — typical people who most resemble the behaviors in that segment. The behaviors come from the data, the attitudes come from research (qualitative/quantitative) and experience of front-line staff with those customer “types.”

Behaviors and attitudes lead to needs and barriers, and the resolution of those challenges are best told with stories.

To succeed at leveraging customer behavior, marketers must use both the left and right side of their brains to draw the picture and create the story that will engage customers.

"It can't be all about the data or all about the story. It should be about some kind of balance between the two, except when it shouldn't."
"The challenge is not to limit one’s thinking to an either/or world of cold data or human emotions. "
"NO! Data does not hold back storytelling, it roots the story in a truth. The big problem is storytelling WITHOUT evidence."

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