I haven’t been working in content marketing for very long, and yet I can already anticipate one of the reactions I’ll get when I tell people what my job is. A look of skepticism and curiosity, then:

What do you write about?

How often do you write?

How do you come up with ideas?

Or, if I’m dealing with a particularly shameless inquisitor…

Are any of your stories true?

At first, that last question baffled me. Why are my scruples on trial? Am I being accused of dabbling in fiction simply because I’m a writer?

After asking some questions of my own, I found that one of the most unexpected reasons people questioned the credibility of content marketing was that while a great many marketers produce captivating and helpful stories, readers often get the impression that these stories are born of opinion and assumption rather than cold, hard fact.

 

But these readers are wrong.

 

At least half of being a good web writer these days is knowing using data—to identify interesting angles, to back claims up with fact, to break news, and to track analytics and see what’s really working in a story and what is not.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, data and creativity are not at war. Instead they fuel each other.

 

Here are 3 ways that data can make you a better content writer:

 

1. Provide a source for captivating visual overviews:

Capitalize on gathered data by creating charts, graphs, and other methods of visualization to accompany your written content, or even to explain it in a way that words can’t. A good example of a company that did this is ProPublica, who recently released an interactive visualization tool that illustrates, better than any words can, how much worker’s compensation a worker can expect to receive per limb in each state. (Yikes!)

http://projects.propublica.org/graphics/bodyparts-small

Photo courtesy of ProPublica

Imagine all this data in a giant chart or spreadsheet. It’d be hard to ingest it, let alone draw any conclusions. Visualization tools make dense data much more accessible and comprehensible to readers.

In fact, scientific research has proven that people are more engaged by written text in conjunction with visual content rather than written text alone. According to a recent study, the Picture Superiority Effect results in an average person retaining 65% of information when it was presented with a relevant image, as opposed to only 10% when they were given text or audio alone.

Overcoming your reluctance to engage with data sets is well worth it, and easier than ever with new visualization tools. The exercise can help you develop new story leads, reveal trends you might have missed, and help you make unexpected connections.

If you’re looking for helpful data visualization tools, you can take your pick here or use Google has a great public data tool or try Piktochart.

 

2. Help you break stories faster

Data driven social listening tools like Dataminr scour twitter and do your bidding in real time, keeping a digital ear constantly to the ground for important news so that you can be among the first to break a story.

Photo from dataminr.com

Photo from dataminr.com

Data (which some find intimidating, dense, and unmanageable, remember?) suddenly becomes sleek and easy to access, as Dataminr users can browse through a consolidated set of information and latch upon the most relevant news rather than shuffle through piles of unfiltered information for something newsworthy.

The most important news is picked out and delivered directly to writers, all because of the remarkable predictive capabilities of big data. If you choose to take advantage of the capabilities of this sort of software, fresh (relatively untouched) news can invigorate your stories, even if your main focus is to produce evergreen content.

 Cool, right?

 

3. Identify what’s working (so you can write more of it)

 Analytic tools, like Google analytics or Chartbeat can show you what’s working about posts you’ve already published, and provide you some guidelines when you go to write your next story. But you can go deeper into metrics using tools like SumoMe, BuzzSumo and Salesforce to figure out how far through your piece people actually read, how people share your story and how good your email conversion is.

Identifying what really works and what doesn’t in your writing is an incredibly powerful tool, and if you’re one of the writers who consider this an impediment to creativity, you should probably rethink your position. Viewed in the right light the boundaries defined by your analytics will actually force you to be more creative.

Wait, boundaries can make you more creative?

Actually, yes. Using a set of data collected about your past stories as a bounded jumping-off point gives your new creative ideas direction and purpose. It directs you to delve deeper into a topic that is really working with your readers, and can ultimately enable you to make more specific and unique revelations within your posts.

As noted by Todd Henry in his book The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice,

“There is the persistent myth that creativity results only from complete lack of boundaries and total freedom. The reality is that we are not capable of operating without boundaries. We need them in order to focus our creative energy into the right channels. Total freedom is false freedom. True freedom has healthy boundaries.”

In this way, collecting and using data about the success of your company’s preexisting stories can make your writing more creative, as well as more powerful.

Interested in updating the role of data in your company’s content? Take a look at solutions by Oz Content Technologies.