Today, we have unprecedented data and potential for better intelligence in all things business, and content is no exception. That’s exciting. It’s also a problem.

The Difficulty of Making Data Make Sense for Content

Why is wrangling value from data harder than keeping Mogwais who eat after midnight under control? (Forgive my 80s reference.) And why is it especially tough to get insight about your content? A few reasons I hear from my clients and colleagues include

  • Our organization still doesn’t see content as a priority or asset, much less evaluating it.
  • Our content-related data is scattered in many different tools. It’s time-consuming to access the data and piece together insights.
  • We get regular reports from our analysts or tools, but they’re gianormous and I don’t have time to dig through them in detail.
  • I’m not a numbers person, so the implications of some of our reports aren’t clear.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. And, most of these reasons are symptoms of a big, underlying problem: Terrible communication of data-driven insights about your content. Without better communication, your content data will never truly become content intelligence.

Why the Solution Demands Storytelling, Not More Visuals

So, how can you improve the communication of your data-driven insights? How can you help your team and stakeholders make sense of your data? Let’s start with what the answer is not. It’s not more cool visualizations. (See great examples of visuals gone wrong here.) Turning data into graphics, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily make the data clear. I’ve seen plenty of graphics-filled reports that collect dust on people’s shelves.

No, the answer is to use the data and insights to tell a story. Sometimes that story needs illustration, sometimes not. Why a story? That might sound touchy-feely and horrifyingly subjective. The reasons are many and, surprisingly enough, grounded in science. Among the reasons stories are influential…

  • We’re wired to remember stories. If your team or stakeholders can’t remember the insights from your data, they can’t use them to make informed decisions.
  • Stories tap into both logic and emotion, which motivates response more than logic alone. If no one does anything about your data and insights, you might as well not have it.
  • Not everyone is a numbers person. There are plenty of smart people who don’t relish wading in data. Can your company afford to marginalize their potential to act on your data-driven insights?
  • Enduring stories have a point. If you’re tired of wading through seemingly endless data reports with no takeaways, then you’ll find this benefit especially heartening.

(For more reasons stories are influential, see my first book “Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content.”)

Now, allow me to add a caveat for you scientists and analysts who are, very rightly, concerned with accuracy. I don’t mean figure out the story first and make the data fit later. I don’t mean make something up or make mistakes in logic such as confusing correlation with causation. I mean frame the data and insights into an accurate story.

To jump start your effort to make sense of your data, I’m sharing three types of narratives out of several I describe in my latest book, “Does Your Content Work?.*

image of vhs cover for the move rad3 RAD Stories Your Data Might Tell

The most compelling data-driven stories usually involve comparison, or seeing how your data stacks up against the past, against competitors, and against your expectations (or hypotheses). Let’s walk through three examples inspired by the greatest 80s movie, Rad. (Okay, it’s the greatest 80s movie about BMX biking.)

1. Coming of Age: Comparing Performance or Progress Over Time

Who doesn’t love a good coming-of-age story? From Billy Budd to Rad, we never quite tire of the tale of growing and maturing. In Rad, we see Cru Jones improve his performance on the bike track while navigating tough decisions off the track. (Hey, even Rad has layers.) By the end of the movie, Cru is a better BMX rider and a better person.

This story of progress or maturity can work for your content, too. As a simple example, one goal for my consultancy website,, is reach—we’re interested in expanding our audience through our blog. The traffic has increased steadily each year since the site launched in 2010 and more than doubled from 2010 to 2013. We’re progressing toward our goal and improving over time.

This story is especially important for content that doesn’t directly and immediately have an impact on conversions or sales, such as resources, thought leadership, technical support, and more. For example, launching my consultancy’s blog did not make a difference overnight to our reach. The impact happened over the course of weeks, months, and even years.

2. Saving the Day: Comparing Before and After

In Rad, Mr. Timmer saves the day by financially backing Cru Jones at the last minute. When your approach to content rescues your organization from a crisis or helps your company seize an opportunity, focus on this story. In the process, compare your content’s effectiveness before implementing your approach to your content’s effectiveness after.

For example, content strategist Sarah Cancilla of Facebook shared how her approach to content affected user engagement at a dramatic scale. She reworked the title, descriptions, and links for an underperforming “Find Friends” module. After implementing Sarah’s content changes, Facebook experienced an unexpected surge in the rate at which people were adding friends—an increase of 6,000,000 connections per week. Content was the hero, but no one would have realized it if Facebook had not compared performance before and after Sarah’s changes.

3. Choosing Your Adventure: Comparing with Your Expectations

As you explore the story that your data is revealing, you probably will discover problems or opportunities that you didn’t expect. At first, I found that stressful. But now I see it as an adventure—as the start of another great story. Every save-the-day story begins with a problem. For example, a multibrand, international hotel company once came to me after discovering that the rate of bookings for people visiting their site through mobile browsers was much lower than they expected. Together we worked out a response plan, and we turned that problem into a success story.

So, experiment with communicating data-driven insights about your content or business as stories. As you do, don’t be surprised if those insights become more memorable and actionable for your company. The benefit? Your company will make better decisions about both your content and your digital business, which ultimately leads to more success.

*Excerpted from Does Your Content Work? by Colleen Jones. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.


The Author

Colleen Jones is the author of The Content Advantage and founder of Content Science, a content intelligence and strategy firm that has advised or trained hundreds of the world’s leading organizations since 2010. She also is the former head of content at MailChimp, the marketing platform recognized by Inc. as 2017 Company of the Year. A passionate entrepreneur, Colleen has led Content Science to develop the  content intelligence software ContentWRX, publish the online magazine Content Science Review, and offer online certifications through Content Science Academy.

Colleen has earned recognition as an instructor on LinkedIn Learning, one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Content Marketing by a TopRank study, a Content Change Agent by Society of Technical Communication’s Intercom Magazine, and one of the Top 50 Most Influential Content Strategists by multiple organizations.

Follow Colleen on Twitter at @leenjones or on LinkedIn.

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