Why Data Stories Capture Our Attention: Q&A with Alexandra Samuel

Samuel_Alexandra-e1457735451186Alexandra Samuel calls herself a digital explorer. In her writing, the technology researcher and strategist examines how the social web shapes our lives—from how we give presentations to how we market goods to how we use data.

Samuel, a Harvard Business Review blogger, is author of Work Smarter with Social Media: A Guide to Managing Evernote, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Your Email. She recently chatted with CASE about data and storytelling—a topic she’ll explore in depth at the upcoming DRIVE/ Conference, May 17-18, 2016, in Seattle.

CASE: Have you always been a data enthusiast?

Alexandra Samuel: Absolutely not! When I was working on my Ph.D., I was in a very quantitative department [Harvard’s government department]. But my approach to the department’s statistics requirement was to figure out the minimum amount of work I needed to do for my Tuesday statistics class, so that it wouldn’t interfere with my Monday night Melrose Place viewing parties. (I realize I am dating myself.) I did do a tiny bit of quantitative analysis for my dissertation, but with an n of 50, that was never going to be a big part of my work.

It wasn’t until I started working on a project with Vision Critical, a customer intelligence software company, that I found my inner data nerd. At the time, I was running the Social & Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University. We worked with a class of 50 design students to create data visualizations for a survey I developed with Vision Critical and deployed to several thousand members of a U.S. and Canadian panel. It turns out it’s a lot more fun to work with data when you have a sample of 5,000 instead of 50!

What was the appeal of working with that kind of data?

At the time I started working with Vision Critical (in 2012), I had been working in social media for about eight years and knew how hard it was to capture attention when there are so many people competing for eyeballs online.  But I had a real “aha!” moment when I wrote a blog post for my Harvard Business Review blog, based on a slice of the research I’d been doing with Vision Critical. An Emily Carr student, Cheryl Loh, created a gorgeous infographic that helped tell the story of how Pinterest affects purchase behavior, and the volume of mentions shares we got for that post and infographic was just enormous. It made me realize how much of an advantage it is to tell stories with data. When you give people hard numbers and tell your story in a visual way, it’s just way easier to cut through the noise.

Why do stories with data have more impact?

A lot of the time, we use data behind the scenes to answer our own questions and help us make better decisions. But data can also provide the foundation for great content, whether that’s a one-off infographic, a blog post or a full-length report. When I joined Vision Critical as its head of social media research & development, we ended up using that research to drive a report, What Social Media Analytics Can’t Tell You About Your Customers. Because the data in that report was concretely useful to the kinds of businesses who need Vision Critical’s software, it was a great way to get the company’s story out to a wider audience, because so many newspapers, magazines and websites covered that report.Pages from social-media-analytics-report.fw

How has your data awakening changed the way you do your own work?

Now that I’m back to working as an independent strategist and writer, my starting question on just about any project is, “Hmm. I wonder what the data would say?” I’ve been spoiled because my continuing relationship with Vision Critical means I still have access to data that helps me on some of my writing projects, like my piece on digital parenting styles for The Atlantic. But the truth is, there is a lot more data out there than people who know how to work with it, let alone tell effective stories. More and more of my work is helping people come up with strategies for turning all that data into the kind of content that makes a difference to marketing and fundraising, and also writing about how to tell stories with data.

What are you looking forward to at the DRIVE/ Conference?

In the past few months, I have really fallen in love with Tableau, so I’m stoked to meet fellow Tableau nerds and pick up some new tricks in your workshops! Also, as someone who’s spent a lot of my life in and around higher ed, I’m excited to see how data is changing the way people approach their development and engagement work. And, of course, I always like seeing new data!

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