Paul Bradshaw, an academic at Birmingham City University and co-author of the Data Journalism Handbook, defines it as “the new possibilities that open up when you combine the traditional ‘nose for news’ and ability to tell a compelling story, with the sheer scale and range of digital information now available”.
Once the preserve of scientists and statisticians, data is now being embraced by content creators in the mainstream media. The Guardian and The New York Times have sections dedicated to data journalism. In February 2015, using little more than numbers and coloured squares, the Wall Street Journal created a genuinely fascinating data-driven story about infectious disease and vaccination.
Nearly every major media company is now investing in data journalism. And content marketers ought to pay attention. As data begins to transform traditional newsrooms, content marketing agencies can’t be far behind. After all, journalism and content marketing are inextricably linked. They need each other. What happens in one industry affects the other.
Creating stories from information
Indeed, a handful of forward-thinking content marketers have already shown us what they can create with data journalism. Jawbone, a company that makes fitness trackers and sleep monitors, recently published some captivating data on the sleeping habits of entire cities. The dating site OkCupid runs a data blog that offers weird and wonderful insights into 21st-century romance. These are two examples of a company taking its most abundant and valuable resource – information – and weaving it into stories that customers want to hear.
Another great piece of branded data journalism was recently produced by Expedia. The online booking giant analysed data from millions of its customers to determine the best travel strategies for the Labor Day weekend. Which is the cheapest day to fly? At what time will the airport be crowded? Where’s the best place to rent a car? Avid travellers thrive on these kinds of insights, and they provide excellent fodder for a social media campaign. This is content marketing strategy at its best.
Data-visualisation of the OKC article “What’s the Deal With the Ages Gap in Raltionships”
So could this be the future of our industry? Should every content marketing agency rush out and hire a crack team of data journalists? That depends on who you ask. Despite the hype, some commentators remain sceptical about the value of data journalism.
“Data give commentary a false sense of authority since data analysis is inherently prone to bias. Even data-backed journalism is opinion journalism. Anytime you use data … it can be manipulated to push a particular point of view.”
In other words, dodgy journalists can use data to disguise the fact that they haven’t done enough research. Journalists often joke that 73% of all statistics are made up on the spot – ie, taken in isolation, most statistics are worthless. Perhaps the same is true of data. If what you’re publishing is deliberately dishonest, poorly conceived, or irrelevant to your audience, stuffing it full of numbers won’t help. Data can enhance a good content marketing strategy, but cannot replace it.
The moral? Don’t do data for data’s sake. Don’t do it to appear trendy or ahead of the curve. Your audience will see through the act. Instead, do data journalism because you’ve got a great story to tell. And do it properly, with the help of a professional. A data journalist is more than a talented writer who can design pretty charts. It’s someone who understands how to translate raw numbers into an authentic, honest and well-told narrative. If content marketers can get their heads around this concept, the data-driven future looks very bright indeed.
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