Making the creative leap to data storytelling

By Nidhi Chimnani, Director – Research & Insights, MSLGROUP

Alongside the accelerating stream of numbers, content and rich media waiting to be transformed into meaningful patterns and intimate insights, is another key chapter of the data story: Data Storytelling – Engaging people around data, usually by sharing the learning from the analysis with people in a way that’s exciting, entertaining and even addictive. This certainly isn’t new. But it’s where the opportunity for evolution is: to take newer, potentially richer data; analyze it with better frameworks and tools; and present it in a more riveting and relevant fashion.

Did I lose you at “exciting, entertaining, and even addictive?”

Let’s start with an example: Self-Quantification.

People love data: We’re obsessed with measuring things

Let’s take a niche, but growing, way that people use data: Self Quantification, the movement to measure and analyze all aspects of our daily lives. The most common form is quantification of our diets. People have graduated from using diaries and calculators to using apps to track how much we eat (à la calories), what we eat, when we eat and how much water we drink. We use apps and wearable devices to quantify our physical activity (Nike even introduced a new metric for this, NikeFuel), the number of steps we take, our speed, our heart rate, how much we sleep, the quality of our steep, our body temperature, and our mood.

Beyond activity, we track and analyze our health (blood sugar level, blood pressure), our productivity at work, our personal expenses, our energy consumption, our carbon footprint and so on.



People who use self-quantification apps love it, and with good reason. (Disclaimer: I use several of these.) The data helps us understand our own behavior, set goals and motivates us to improve. GPS-connected phones and wearable trackers make it easy to measure the data, and smart phone apps and web dashboards with their visual interfaces make the data analysis process quite fun. Many apps also have a social component – you can share your achievements with your social networks, and can compare your performance with friends and communities.

Self-quantification can be quite intimate as you learn more about yourself and how much you can push yourself. And comparisons can lead to a whirlwind of reactions: they can evoke feelings of pride, happiness and success if you’re a top performer; or concern, jealousy, competition and guilt if you’re not.

Clearly, there’s a lot of emotion involved here.


50 shades of Data Storytelling

Today’s online media landscape reflects this reality: People love data. Data-driven insights & stories will get clicks. Enable comparisons and your content will be shared.

Brands and organizations can use elements of data storytelling to make their content stand out, attract people’s attention, shape public sentiment, and motivate some form of behavior change – be it among  people, their networks, public officials, employers, businesses etc.

Broadly speaking, we can identify two approaches to Data Storytelling.

  1. Data as a Key Character, in the forefront of the story

There are lessons to learn from the self-quantification movement: this type of data storytelling should add value, be relevant, be easy to understand and interact with, include a social component, and be share-worthy.

In the examples below, you’ll notice that the brand or organization typically offers valuable data (or data-driven insights) to enable, entertain or educate people. There’s often a call-to-action – in fact, this formula sums up the engagement:.

    • Personal finances tracker uses data and infographics to help Millennials learn how their spending habits differ from other age groups, to help them manage their budgets better
    • Australia’s UBank encourages people to share their personal data to see how their expenses compare against “PeopleLikeU” (people who match their demographics)
    • GE and IBM use data and infographics to showcase their capabilities in an easy-to-understand, interesting, even entertaining style. For example, IBM proves its data analysis prowess through a series of infographics on its IBMSports social accounts
    • The Swedish Pensioners’ Association enabled pensioners to calculate their tax dues and share these on social networks to raise the issue to the national spotlight
2. Data is Interwoven into the Plot, in the background of the story

This second type of Data Storytelling goes beyond content or output created. It ranges from using data analysis to make content more relevant, to inform engagement strategies, and to make up the heart of the idea.

It’s not as common as the initiatives that put data at the forefront – precisely because data is not the star, and also because it’s at a nascent stage. Yet, this is where, I’d argue, there lays the biggest opportunity to be creative and make a meaningful impact.

Here are some inspiring ways organizations are engaging in this form of data storytelling and engagement.

    • BuzzFeed uses data analysis to drive its content strategy and identify opportunities for growth. For example – low traffic trends on weekend were reversed by using data to drive which posts were shared on weekends.
    • The New York Times uses data analysis to identify where conversations about its articles take place and to prioritize which conversations are most influential. Journalists are then encouraged to participate in those discussions, continuing the engagement off-site.
    •  UN Woman showcased popular search terms around women to create awareness around the sexism that still exists today. The initiative is based on the insight that people are familiar with Google’s auto-suggest feature, which in turn is based on aggregated search data from people themselves (UN Woman Search Engine).
    • ASICS used GPS data to track the progress of participating New York Marathoners in 2014.  On race day, when the runners passed by each check points, ASICS posted updates to their social networks. (Mini Marathoner)

Data as a Catalyst for Creativity

In 2014, the role of data in the creative process was highlighted when the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity announced the addition of a new award category dedicated to the creative use, interpretation, analysis and application of data.



As Philip Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions festival put it:

“Using data and technology as tools that can lead to great ideas has become mainstream. As ever when these seismic changes occur in the industry, Cannes Lions is asked to consider ways we can acknowledge and reflect the reality of what is going on. The Lions Innovation Festival will highlight how data and technology can be powerful catalysts for creativity.

Creativity in 2015 is not the same as it was a few decades ago. We addressed this very issue in our most recent People’s Insights report, The Future of Creativity, in which we re-define what it means to be creative in the Empowered Age and Converged Era, and identify 15 drivers to engaging creatively in 2015.

Making the Creative Leap

In summary, here are three things you can do to become better at Data Storytelling:

  1. Integrate Data
    • In the beginning – for the insights that will shape you strategy
    • during the execution – in the forefront if the data adds value and is relevant to your audience
    • or during the execution – as the foundation of the idea, content, experience, product or service
  2. Have Heart
    • Add a layer of emotion to help the data or the idea relate to people, connect with them, and inspire them to share it
    • Add a layer of social, to make the data more interactive, and to inspire conversations around it
    • Be respectful – ensure that you have permission to use the data, that you are safeguarding people’s privacy and that you’re using the data in an appropriate fashion (when it comes to data, it’s safer to err on the side of caution, and to be aware of the local/regional laws in place)
  1. Master the Engagement
    • Use data to find the conversations, respond better, and engage in real-time
    • Use data to pre-empt the next engagement, and to be better prepared  for it
    • Use data to add more value, relevance, and even delight


This post is part of our People’s Insights report Data In. Data Out. Transforming Big Data into Smart Ideas.

Nidhi Chimnani

Nidhi Chimnani

Nidhi is Director of Research and Insights at MSLGROUP. She tracks digital consumer trends for People’s Insights and is community manager of MSLGROUP’s insights community SPRINT. Tweet her at @nidhichimnani

2 Responses to “Making the creative leap to data storytelling”

  1. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    Making the Creative Leap to Data Storytelling – @NidhiChimnani in Data In. Data Out. #DataInDataOut #bigdata

  2. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    Master your #engagement with #BigData – @NidhiChimnani in Data In. Data Out.


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