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Building a B2B Marketing Story and the Importance of Data

Building a B2B Marketing Story and the Importance of Data

greenbutterfly/Adobe Stock

Alan Brawn

One of the biggest challenges facing businesses today is trying to overcome the onslaught of information that is permeating customer’s daily life, and most importantly, figuring out how you can stand out in the crowd and be remembered. Without fear of contradiction, the answer can be laid at the doorstep of first having a product with the potential of sales success and then creating a marketing approach and message that will resonate with the target audience.

We will put this challenge in context, and then explore the elements of a B2B marketing message, the creation of the story, and using data points to punctuate and add credibility to the claims.

At its core, marketing is all about delivering a message to current and potential consumers of a product or service. The stated objectives are to introduce, maintain, and grow a business. Keep in mind that many tend to conflate marketing and advertising. Of course, they are symbiotic but marketing as a concept is much broader and more complex than the mediums and methodologies, that we lump under the heading of advertising.

Back in the day a company would simply advertise features and benefits and enjoy a high degree of success. Put simplistically, features tell customers the “what” of a product or service, and benefits tell customers the “why”. Those were the days of a simple B2B marketing message and a limited number of paths to preach the gospel of whatever it is you wanted to sell. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and network television ruled the roost. Select as many as your marketing budget would allow.

Related: Marketing To (and WITH) an Integrator

The single element that forever changed the landscape of marketing was the internet, with both mobile and stationary connected devices that are capable of accessing a seemingly endless amount of information. This has resulted in connectivity any time, any place, and on any device. Suffice it to say, we are in a connected world with an onslaught of big data and marketing outreach has become exponentially more complex and elusive.

Let me add some context (the size of the challenge) to the somewhat vague refences we see all too often relative to big data and connectivity. Just how much data is produced every day in 2021? With an incredible 2.5 quintillion bytes of data being created every day, 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. As for the content (which is defined as digestible forms of information generated by humans), out of 2.5 quintillion data bytes created daily, around 60% of content was uploaded by humans. This makes up to 1.5 quintillion bytes of content every day. A staggering figure, it is expected that the volume of data is to double every two years.

The graphics below from Statistica and The World Economic Forum respectively shows data volume growth in zettabytes and a chart for just how big a zettabyte is. The total amount of data created, captured, copied, and consumed globally is forecast to increase rapidly, having reached 64.2 zettabytes in 2020. Over the next five years up to 2025, global data creation is projected to grow to more than 180 zettabytes.

According to Statistica data, 4.66 billion people have been utilizing online access as of January 2021. That is close to 60 percent of the world population. So far in 2021, almost 320 billion emails are sent worldwide each day.

That number will reach close to 380 billion in five years. In fact, if you think that we create a lot of data now, get ready for a surprise. Based on the amount of data we generate online; it’s estimated that we’ll produce 463 EXABYTES of data per day by 2025! And the worldwide number of IoT-connected devices is projected to increase to 43 billion by 2023, an almost threefold increase from 2018. Suffice it to say that data and access to it affects our lives in more ways than we can imagine and every year we consume more and more of it.

This begs the question that with a veritable “firehose blast” of data coming at each of us seemingly all the time, how does a company break through to be seen, heard, remembered, and not deleted automatically. This is where creating and delivering effective marketing messages that resonates with the viewer or listener can become the differentiator. It all starts with the creation of a marketing strategy.

There are all kinds of versions of this, but most marketing experts speak about the 4 Ps of marketing. This is a concept that summarizes the four basic pillars of any marketing strategy.

The four Ps of marketing are: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion.

Historically,  this has been relevant and instructive, but I would suggest we look at the so-called pillars in a different way. This can be thought of as the “business order of things”. This concept sets forth the key elements that a business needs to address to be successful. In order they are Product, Marketing, Sales, Support, and Operations.

As you can imagine, Product is at the top of the list, but Marketing is a solid number two. If there is no resonant marketing message, then nothing else matters. Build it and they will come rarely works… unless there is a truly disruptive product or technology that sells itself. Marketing then drives sales, while Support keeps sales sold and customers loyal, and Operations is the glue that holds it all together. In this equation Marketing is the catalyst for success or in absence of effective market messaging, stagnation, or failure.

The creation of a marketing strategy should begin with a marketing audit. This is the starting point for discovery of your strengths, weakness, opportunities, and strength (aka SWOT). From here you can define your marketing objectives and how these fit in to your business objectives.

Typically, marketing objectives include some or all the following:

  • Increase sales
  • Build brand awareness
  • Grow market share
  • Launch new products or services
  • Target new customers
  • Enter new markets internationally or locally
  • Enhance customer relationships
  • Improve internal communications
  • Increase profit

Marketing messaging takes into consideration the objectives in the strategy and represents how a brand communicates to its customers and highlights the value of its products. It answers the classic value position questions of why us, why not the competition, and why do anything at all. As one marketing guru pointed out, “Messages refer to not only the actual words and phrases used by a brand in advertising but also feelings and emotions associated with what they say. In short, messaging covers both a brand’s literal language and the subtext of their ads. Your approach to messaging impacts pretty much every corner of your business.” The key takeaway is to address feelings and emotions, and not just facts about a product or service.

Your B2B marketing message is what grabs your prospect’s attention, tells them how you can solve their problem, why they should trust you, and why they should choose to do business with you over and above all other choices they might have. Your marketing message should “speak” to your prospect. This is done by appealing to your prospect’s “hot buttons” or those sensitivities that trigger an emotional reaction.

The following is a simple step by step method for beginning to create your marketing message:

  • Identify your target market. Keep in mind that each vertical will require a different message
  • Identify the problems (frustrations and pain points) that your target market experiences. Apply the adage, “People don’t care about you, until they know you care about them.”
  • Clearly present your solution to your target market’s problem. Identify all the benefits of your solution and how those benefits will improve the life of your prospect and take away all their pain and fear.
  • Present the results (aka proof) you’ve produced for others in a similar situation. Keep in mind the flood of information coming their way and people are skeptical and don’t automatically believe you.
  • Explain what makes you different from your competitors. Sans differentiation, companies tend to look the same.

At first glance this may all look like “fill in the blank” but be forewarned… it is not. This is where the narrative of brand storytelling comes into play with a healthy dose of creativity on the part of the marketing team often being the deciding factor.

Cutting to the chase, brand storytelling is the present and future of marketing. Research shows that 92% of consumers want advertising to come in story form as the best path to make an impact in a customer’s mind. Properly written stories establish an emotional connection and make subjects resonate. As companies look to grow and increase their target audiences, they’ll need the storytelling skills of the marketing team to tell the company’s story in a compelling and memorable manner.

In a recent academic article on the topic out of Stanford, it was noted that humans have been using stories as a primary method of communication for over 40,000 years. But this begs the question as to why do they stick in our memories? Why do we tell them over and over again? Why do they have such a huge impact on us and the way we interact with each other? The simple answer? We’re wired that way. We store, index, and retrieve information in the form of stories.

According to Jennifer Aaker a marketing professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, “Research shows our brains are not hard-wired to understand logic or retain facts for very long. Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories. A story is a journey that moves the listener, and when the listener goes on that journey, they feel different. The result is persuasion and sometimes action.”

For the doubters, there is scientific data to back up the concept that it is all about evolution, chemistry, and the human brain. When we hear stories, chemicals are released in our brain which make us feel empathy and motivate us to cooperate with other people. It’s a neural mechanism that allows us to develop relationships with strangers. The graphic below from noted psychologist and Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, Dr. Pamela Rutledge illustrates the scientific concept.

In short (admittedly an oversimplification of a great deal of supportive research), once a story has captured our attention for long enough, we become emotionally invested. That’s why stories can do something to us that facts and figures alone can’t achieve. They can move us to tears or change our attitudes, opinions, and behaviors. But as television ad pitch people tell us, “There is more!”. In this case there is more, and this is where facts and data complete the story.

Some may think that there is a competition (either/or) between marketing that is story centric versus fact/data centric. Forbes senior contributor and leadership expert Mark Murphy analyzed the results of over 180,000 responses to his What’s Your Presentation Style quiz. At one point in the assessment, test takers are asked to choose between the following two statements:

· “I find stories more persuasive than facts and data”

· “I find facts and data more persuasive than stories”

The result was a 55/45 split. This is hardly surprising since different approaches appeal to different people. There is the theory that people are either left-brained or right-brained, meaning that one side of their brain is dominant. If you’re mostly analytical and methodical in your thinking, you’re said to be left-brained. If you tend to be more creative or artistic, you’re thought to be right-brained. But the most recent research shows that this is a tendency, and it is not either/or. One marketing expert correctly notes that “You need a delicate mix of both facts and stories to slice through online noise.”

Most of us inevitably lean toward the persuasion style we most relate to, and this may permeate our marketing approach. We tend to fall victim to overestimating how many other people think and communicate like ourselves; in psychology, this idea is known as the false consensus effect. This effect occurs when we overestimate the number of other people (or extent to which other people) share our opinions, beliefs, and behaviors.

Thus, sometimes individuals tend to believe that others are more like them than is the case. Effective marketing with stories and facts (data driven stories) bridge the gap of left side/right side brain theory, and the story camp versus those who prefers facts alone and lessons false assumptions (false consensus effects) as an intended benefit.

Before addressing the key elements of telling data driven stories, I want to address what many claim is data overload. Some will take the easy way out and simply blame an overload of data as the key ingredient for uncertainty and confusion in marketing.

To set the tone I want to begin with two quotes from Edward Tufte, an American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University. He is noted for his writings on information design and as a pioneer in the field of data visualization. He puts the data overload argument into perspective as he suggests the real culprit. “Confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information. And so the point is to find design strategies that reveal detail and complexity – rather than to fault the data for an excess of complication. Or, worse, to fault viewers for a lack of understanding.” “What is to be sought in designs for the display of information is the clear portrayal of complexity. Not the complication of the simple; rather the task of the designer is to give visual access to the subtle and the difficult – that is, revelation of the complex.”

Brian McKenna addresses this topic in his article “Data Overload is Not About Human Limitations; it’s About Design Failure” He writes that “Despite what most people think, humans are amazing at information management. We have a tremendous capability to take in large quantities of data from a variety of sources and make good decisions about where to focus our attention and what actions to take.” He goes on to say that humans have evolved mechanisms to process information, filter out the irrelevant, and focus on what’s important.

He points out that there are three challenges with the concept of data overload: 

  • The first challenge is that irrelevant data is presented to the target audience. At least some, and possibly all, of the data fails to provide decision-making value. He points out that this can often be traced to a designer who has little idea what data is relevant, so they collect whatever data seems to make sense or is easy to collect.
  • The second challenge is a lack of understanding on how to present the data. Data visualizations are extremely important. As McKenna points out, “There is a large body of research about the human perceptual system and how this can be leveraged in helping users understand their data. Not all charts can be used for all data sets. People are adept at identifying patterns in the world and data visualizations can be used to support this pattern recognition. But when the wrong visualizations are used (or no visualizations at all), the data can seem to be overwhelming.”
  • The final issue relative to data overload is just the opposite. Sometimes there isn’t enough data.

It is obvious that these problems are even more evident when they are found in combination. As McKenna notes, “designers have the duty to understand how humans think and to understand the decision-making needs of the user in the domain we are working in. We need to understand how human perceptual mechanisms work and how that impacts how we encode the data that users need. We need to give them the right data in the right way. We need to take advantage of the power of our users and design in a way that truly supports them.”

If the B2B marketing message is to resonate and be remembered, then storytelling and data must be inexorably linked. As we can see, the story is compelling, and the data (research and science) back up this position. Tim O’Brien once said, “Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.”

This applies to everything in life, especially data. With the average American being hit with around 34 gigabytes of content daily, the only way to make your message stick is by creating what he calls substance laden content backed up with objective data. How are key stakeholders supposed to make data-driven decisions when they are only given a boatload of data and no story to easily connect the dots for them? Research shows that facts are 20x (!) more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. Hopefully the point has been made as we turn our attention to what a data-based story is and how to craft it.

Data storytelling is the practice of blending hard data with human communication to craft an engaging narrative that’s anchored by facts. It uses data visualization techniques (e.g., charts, graphs, and images) to help convey the meaning of the data in a way that’s compelling and relevant to the audience. At the most granular level the objectives is all about making good decisions. This refers to good decisions on the part of the businesses delivering the messages thus promoting actions on the part of the target audience and good decisions and actions on the part of the reader or viewer. Good decisions rely on good information, but it is the content and methods that you use to communicate that information that drives the point home. Therefore, understanding and translating data into meaningful insights is crucial. That’s where data storytelling comes in. Data stories help you communicate key insights clearly and compellingly, driving change and inspiring action in the process.

Data stories are narratives that explain how and why data changes over time—often through visuals. But data storytelling isn’t just about making great charts and data presentations. It’s about communicating insights that deliver real value. Good data stories have four main elements: they are Audience, Narrative, Data, and Visuals. Let’s dig deeper into each one.

It begins with uncovering or developing a story worth telling. This may start by a business asking a question or forming a hypothesis, then compiling and digging into relevant data to find answers that support the hypothesis. What are you trying to explain? What are your goals? Are you trying to get buy-in? One expert notes that there are several ways to approach data to uncover a story—and the story you set out to tell may not end up being the story you find.

The key phrase here is to create or develop a story “worth telling.”

This is where knowing (beyond simply knowing of) the audience comes into play and how the narrative, data, and visuals completes the story.

  • Audience
    • The story must be relevant or interesting to your intended audience. As you build your story, ask yourself:
      • Who is my audience?
      • Is this story relevant to my audience?
      • Does it solve a problem they care about or provide needed insight
      • Have they heard this story before?
    • Your audience’s age, demographics, job, and subject matter expertise will affect how they understand and respond to your stories (and should inform how you tell your stories).
    • Filed under knowing your audience, according to the Harvard Business Review the data-based story needs to be framed around the level of information your audience already has. They outline five different types of possible audience members.
      • Beginner-The novice is new to the subject being discussed, but they do not want it overtly elementary.
      • Generalist-The generalist is aware of the content’s topic, and they’re looking for a general comprehension of it, broken down into major themes.
      • Manager-This audience member seeks an in-depth, actionable understanding of the specifics. They want details.
      • Expert-The expert wants less storytelling and more details.
      • Executive-Executives have little time, so they want to absorb the significant points of the data with conclusions of weighted probabilities.
  • Narrative
    • Find a new, unique, and irresistible story to tell. The fundamental question is what you want your target audience to know or do, and then create the narrative and use data points to support your position.o The narrative needs to flow from the general to the specific and build along the way. You begin with context and why you are telling the story, the “hook to engage the audience”. Who are the major players in your story and then what is the conflict or problem to be solved? This is followed by the solutions to the problem that you have introduced. The climax of the story is left until the end and is the proof of the case you have built.o The essential story elements will make your data relevant, relatable, and tangible for your audience. As you start to build your storyline ask these questions:
        • “What”
        • “Who?”
        • “How?”
        • “Why?”
        • “So what?
  • Data
    • Research data to determine exactly what you need. Search the data and vet your data sources. Make sure you filter your data findings, asking yourself: Is this vital to telling a compelling story and convincing the target audience?o Common data points/types to consider:
        • Trends
        • Ranking order
        • Comparisons
        • Outliers, surprising, or counterintuitive data
        • Relationships (drivers)
    • There is a misconception that using data is a quick and easy way to create stories. Not true. The process involves analyzing a lot of data without knowing if you will find any significant insights that tell a story. A significant amount of time is spent gathering, filtering, analyzing, and exploring potential implications and testing for applicability.o Caveat: Proper selected and vetted data can be illustrative of the points you want to make but audiences are smart and are quick to see when data is not all that it was intended to be. Data does not work if it is arbitrary, manipulated and/or cherry picked, and inconsistent.
  • Visuals
    • Data visualization is using data and statistics in creative ways to show patterns and draw conclusions about a hypothesis, or prove theories, that can help drive decisions and actions.o How will you display your data story visually, making it easy to digest for your readers?Bar charts, pie charts, infographics, and mappings are examples of ways to display your data visually. First, decide on which format will work best for the type of data you have and the audience you are addressing.o Remember, the more interesting and interactive the visualization, the more time readers will spend on it.o Regardless of how you choose to display it, you must keep it simple. A good way to ensure your audience responds to your data visualizations is to test out different types and see which one gets the most engagement. Then you can keep utilizing that format

      o There are many ways to visualize your data including:

        • Flowcharts
        • Bar graphs
        • Infographics
        • Road maps
        • Pie charts
        • Scatterplots

As you consider all that we have presented, file the following under quick tips:

  • Start with a story idea that will be interesting to your audience and then look for data which supports and confirms your ideas.
  • Check and double check your data, and that it supports your story.
  • Keep it simple and focus on one or two key statistics from your research that people will remember.
  • Use visuals to hone down your story to a key chart or image, which is the one you want people to share and remember.
  • Humanize the story and the data in a form, people care about and can relate to.
  • Make it insightful and helpful with the intended outcome that reding your message (story and data) that people can make better decisions.

Assuming that you have followed the advice of what experts are telling us relative to crafting a B2B marketing message supported by data, one last step is imperative. Gather feedback and do not (do not!) drink the proverbial Kool Aid.

Before launching your story, ask a project outsider or a focus group of the target audience for feedback on the piece. What do they think about it? You may find that you may have to edit the story and distill the data down even further or as one expert noted, “use a good ole’ handy thesaurus to find words that would tell the story more effectively.”

A data story adds value to your marketing message by providing context (the story) and assigning supportive/meaningful data so the audience can connect the dots and turn numbers into insights that they can use. The insights, in turn, facilitate decision-making and spur actions. By using numbers and facts with data visualization, you can anchor your claims and increase the credibility of your content.

Read Next: Capturing the Attention of an Integrator

This builds trust with your audience and increases the likelihood that they’ll be convinced by your point-of-view. The combination of narrative and visual elements activates both sides of the brain, delivering an experience that’s analytical and emotional at the same time to help your audience cement the information through comprehension, retention, and appeal.

As the Harvard Business Review tells us, “Data-driven storytelling is the next big trend in content marketing.” The team at Adweek go one step further and say that “Data-enhanced storytelling is rapidly reshaping both content and advertising.” To paraphrase an iconic ad from the late car company Oldsmobile that said, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” Well this is not your father’s marketing approach. We are already in the day and age of data driven stories and if your paradigm has not shifted, now is the time.