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Storytelling in Social Media Analytics: Beyond the Bar Chart II

In marketing, everybody talks about telling stories. Stories about audiences. Stories about ad concepts. Stories about brands … and about consumers who use them.

Analysts also see stories in data. Looking through lines of data or snippets of code, you can see the threads weaving themselves together to give you a clear understanding of what’s happening; you see offshoots that lead to questions about different segments or correlation/cause and effect. But if you were to show this directly to a client or an executive, odds are they would be confused.  You can bring those stories to life through data visualizations.

Part one of this series talks about some less common charts that aid analysts in creating better narratives. As a marketer and an analyst, I usually ask myself questions like, “What does the audience need to know and remember?” “What would be most impactful and important?” “What do I want them to feel about the information?” You can quickly sum this up into what you want the audience for your report to know, remember and feel.

In social analytics, it can be doubly difficult to tell the stories around your content or your audience’s behaviors or drivers; therefore, it’s more important to make sure your data, visualizations and insights tell a story they can both understand and engage with. Between the varying levels of knowledge about different social and emerging platforms, and a discomfort around raw or compiled data without written summaries, you have to bridge a gap between explaining the strategy, the analysis, and how those impact a business’s objectives.


Pro tip: Sticky notes can be an easy way to help organize your thoughts and story board your narrative, and they’re easy to move around.

What do you want them to know?


Think of this process as creating your top-level bullets in an outline. You’ll have key ideas that you want the reader or listener to know when they are finished reading your report or hearing your presentation. These ideas should be backed up by individual pieces of data or research, so you can make an assertion or create an insight, and back it up with a fact. This fact can be a chart, a featured metric or even a simple table. Simplicity is key.

Speaking of charts: They’re one of the most powerful tools we have available to tell—and show—our story. Visualizations help recipients understand why the data is important; therefore, the type of visualization you choose will greatly impact not only the person’s understanding of the data, but how they feel about it. Therefore, scrutinize every visualization choice to make sure it supports your narrative and the facts, that it formulates an overarching theme that conveys what you see in the data.

For example, you want your client to know that this year’s increase in advertising spend yielded more sales and delivered an increased ROI through more strategic placements based on the larger budget. You could always use the tried and true grouped bar chart. Show the spend and revenue, with one bar per year for each. Alternatively, you could use a tree map to show each type of placement—promoted posts, sidebar advertising or in-feed ads—and then use that chart to tell which generated the most revenue, which one did it the most efficiently, and compare it to one from the previous year side-by-side. Breaking out the data this way makes it easier to understand exactly which components of the social advertising strategy are driving which kinds of results.

Think about how much richer your story can be, without making things considerably busier or confusing by using different visualizations, and using the right one for the right purpose.

What do you want them to remember?

Your data’s impact is something you should always consider early on. You’ve reviewed your data, and identified your insights and the numbers that back them up. Before you start creating your overall narrative flow, how do you prioritize what’s most important and purposeful for others to remember in order to make strategic decisions with your analysis?

Thinking back to the tree map example, using a less common and appropriate visualization will make your point stand out and become more memorable, as your audience will be able to identify the data easier (know it) and then explore it deeper, leading to better recall later.

In your presentations and reports, you should identify in advance what pieces of data are worthy of a call out to help drive your story forward, and make sure they shine. These data are your key visualizations and need something more memorable than a pie or line chart to truly be effective. Tactics like scatterplots, box plots or tree maps  are opportunities to spotlight these points as more than just data points … and let the data help tell your story.  

What do you want them to feel?


There’s a human element in every good story. We understand the protagonists’ plights and root for their successes. We want to understand the information they have. In a good story, we feel what the protagonist feels. This is most critical part of a narrative. But data is different—data just is. It doesn’t have an opinion or even a point of view. It’s our job as strategists, analysts and scientists to give it a voice and personify it so that it can stand on its own, and create understanding that wouldn’t be there otherwise. If we don’t help it speak, it will primarily exist in silence.

When choosing a visualization, think about exactly what you want recipients to feel about the results. Do you want them to feel excited, lackluster or even neutral about what you are showing them? How you want them to feel shapes how you talk about and visualize the data.

Jennifer L. Aaker, a Stanford University marketing professor, discusses using data and stories to create better persuasive arguments in a video called, “Persuasion and the Power of Story.” One of her key assertions, citing behavioral research, is that stories are powerful because they have meaning. The emotional appeals in a good narrative give it meaning, and will help you keep readers/listeners engaged and interested. She also cites  a study in which students made persuasive pitches to others. Only five percent remembered the pitches that just had statistics, while more than 63 percent remembered the story.

The right chart or visualization can invoke strong feelings. Elements as simple as a change in scale or visualization type can dramatically change someone’s perception and reaction to data, and in turn, your narrative.

Wrap it all up.

Narratives have an end and a logical conclusion. Your reports should, too. Once you’ve considered these three critical questions (what do you want the audience to know/remember, what is most important, how should they feel?) your report should begin to take form, allowing you to truly highlight what’s important and meaningful—supported by great data visualizations—and impart the most understanding about the data and next steps.