Written by Norman Guadagno, CMO,Acoustic
Today’s world is data-driven. We want to quantify our successes, measure the impact of our failures, and chart key performance indicators (KPIs) or objectives and key results (OKRs) that will help us determine what our goals should be moving forward. We’re constantly gathering data with the hope it will lead to more informed decisions or — in marketing specifically — more personalized, targeted campaigns. Essentially, we view data as the answer to our most burning questions.
But here’s the thing: numbers can’t tell us everything. Without context, data doesn’t tell the full story.
To unpack the relationship between storytelling and data, in my role as Acoustic CMO, I hosted a virtual fireside chat with Maria Konnikova, the New York Times bestselling author of The Confidence Game, an investigation into how con artists work, as well as The Biggest Bluff, a view into the world of high-stakes poker.
The discussion resulted in a few key themes, but one essential lesson: data doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t take your motives, industry context, or the sample sized you used into account. Data is cold, hard numbers – but not necessarily facts. However, when combined with storytelling, data can be a powerful ally.
Marketers: the modern con artist?
Marketers and con artists have more in common than you may think. While we never want to deceive people like con artists do, we’re both intending to persuade our target to take a certain action. In the marketing world, this is typically a sale. In the world of cons, this could be anything from selling the Eiffel Tower for a steep profit to convincing the police that a simple box could copy banknotes (refer to Count Victor Lustig for both of these scams).
Despite their nefarious actions, we can learn the power of storytelling directly from con artists. These scammers aren’t great communicators, they’re great listeners. They learn everything they can about a target and then identify a situation where they can use that person’s motivations to convince them to do something. It’s an extremely targeted approach.
Like con artists, it’s our job as marketers to learn about our target so we can craft the right story to motivate them. We know the same message or “con” doesn’t work for everyone, so we use data to inform our approach. However, this data must be interpreted within the correct context to give it meaning.
For example, if you hear that 20% of people who take a certain medicine develop adverse reactions, you will likely not be motivated to also use that medicine. However, if you dug into the data further, you may find that the sample size the drug was tested on was only 200 people, not 200,000, or that the study participants were all male. This context is crucial to your understanding of the situation — the number doesn’t provide enough information to stand on its own.
The same can be said for marketing. A retailer may know that Consumer A lives in the Northeast and typically engages with email communications on Friday mornings. This may prompt the retailer to send an email offering deals on the latest swimwear for the upcoming weekend. However, that weekend, the Northeast is expected to experience a cold front, making your email seem out of place. This context is critical so you can tweak your messaging or the time you send the email; knowing the person’s habits aren’t enough to make your message stick.
Knowing when to leverage data
Data can inform our approach before campaigns are launched, but it also plays an important role in measuring their success. With many analytics tools available to us today, we’re obsessed with tracking the results of our campaigns. We want to know open rates, click-through rates, how long someone spent on a webpage, and so much more. But do these numbers really matter?
Our ultimate goal is to attract and engage customers and prospects so we can drive sales. Messaging — or storytelling — plays a critical role in this. If you can leverage data when it matters most, such as to identify the appropriate message for your audience, and learn to lean into storytelling, you’ll craft compelling narratives that lead to increased engagement. It won’t matter whether someone spent five seconds or five minutes on a webpage as long as a sale is the end result.
So while data doesn’t take into account the nuances of you or your audience’s needs, you can use storytelling to address pain points and drive engagement. Data is a powerful tool for marketers, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of good storytelling.