One of the most critical elements of market research is getting your findings heard, understood, and used. How does one do that? By turning data into stories.
Turning Data into Stories does not mean creating little vignettes, narrative arcs, or emotional connection points around every finding. It simply means laying out the context, the questions, the answers — the who, what, when, where, why — of your data.
In this newsletter, our feature article, Turning Data Into Stories, describes in more detail what it means to turn data into stories, and what you gain by doing so.
Other items of interest in this newsletter include:
- Here’s Why Market Research Needs Your Patriotism
- How Customers Want to Be Surveyed
- The Best Way to Get Better Survey Data
- How Our Brains Untangle Bad Survey Questions
- Give Me One Good Reason to Take Your Survey
- The Error in Your Smartphone Surveys
- The Dreaded Data Dump Survey Returns
- When to Use (and Avoid) “Select-All” Questions
- More Secrets of PowerPoint for Beautiful Research Reports
- Don’t Color-Code Your NPS Net Promoter ScaleWe are also delighted to share with you:
… which showcases some of our recent work for a new Ad Council campaign on brain health, a presentation at the American Academy of Neurology, as well as surveys reported in Barron’s and Kiplinger’s.
As always, feel free to reach out with an inquiry or with questions you may have. We would be pleased to consult with you on your next research effort.
The Versta Team
Turning Data Into Stories
“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
– Mark Twain
Mark Twain was one of this country’s most compelling storytellers, and his famous quip about statistics points to a broad truth worth understanding: numbers, data, and statistics can be used to tell powerful and compelling stories. Why is it, then, that market research reports are typically dull recitations of numbers, percentages, convoluted sentences, and foggy charts? Far from telling lies, most reports fail to tell any story at all. What market research desperately needs is more art in its storytelling along with the science of research to help mangers and clients understand what matters and why.
Data Have No Meaning
Data never speaks for itself. Is 97% a large percentage or a small percentage? If it’s the number of businesses that need your new service, it’s huge. If it’s the percentage of airplane engines that continue to operate when airborne, it’s disastrously small. If it’s the percentage of voters who support new policy ideas coming out of Washington – well, it’s probably a mistake.
The verstehen method in social science (from whence Versta gets its name) emphasizes that all data gets its meaning from a complex web of language, context, history, and human intention. Turning data into stories means extracting that meaning and making it explicit; it means moving beyond the numeric data and facts to gain a deep understanding of people’s worlds and experiences. The volume and complexity of a data set may be daunting, but ultimately it is tied to specific issues you care about, to questions you need to have answered, and to problems that are puzzling you.
How the Story Helps
Market research can be powerful if it is used well. It can give you information and insight about customers, products, needs, pain points, and aspirations. But often it is not used because reports are too long and too focused on presenting data. Turning data into stories helps market research reports come alive. The benefits are huge for you and your organization.
- Turning data into stories tells you what to do. There is nothing inherently “actionable” about data until it is embedded in a narrative that outlines the problem, the solution, and the options for what to do. Your manager and clients will act based on the implications of a story, not based upon a set of numbers, charts, or data points alone.
- Turning data into stories helps you integrate seemingly conflicting data. Every good research effort yields surprises, variation, and data that seems to point in multiple directions at once. This usually means you have successfully captured the reality of what you are studying. But the goal is not to replicate reality, but to interpret it and understand it. Telling a story with the data will help you integrate and reconcile disparate streams of data. You will be able to explain contradictions, make sense of variation, and highlight priorities so that your manager and clients do not get lost in a forest of details.
- Turning data into stories helps you avoid mistakes. An effective story helps reconcile conflicting data, and it forces you to be attuned to contradictions and variations that may not fit and that may require revising the story. Contradictions may actually be mistakes in the data, so you will find yourself wondering whether questions were asked in the wrong way, or scales were inadvertently flipped during programming. Reconciling conflicting data means double and triple checking that the data are right to ensure that every apparent contradiction fits. There are no surprises down the road with managers or editors saying, “This number doesn’t make sense!”
- Turning data into stories gets your research heard and understood. Like Twain, most of us are easily befuddled by statistics, especially if there are too many of them and they are poorly presented. But most people understand and can relate to a compelling story, even if that story is about numbers and supported with data points. What if instead of that last sentence, we had written: “98% of survey respondents indicated that they either strongly or somewhat strongly prefer receiving information via narrative methodology”? Ugh. That’s a sentence that will surely be ignored.
- Turning data into stories helps you communicate research to multiple audiences. The “facts” that come out of market research can and should communicate different messages to different audiences. Your sales team may need stories about customers struggling and the specific ways your product will help. But your management team needs to know how big the unmet need is, and what strategic opportunities it presents.
Real Life Examples
Some great examples of Turning Data into Stories come from research that gets published in the media. We highlight several below in our Versta Research in the News section of this newsletter. For example, there are stories about children of millionaires published in Kiplinger’s, and stories about memory loss that have been used to anchor an Ad Council campaign.
The stories can be scientific as well, like the one just presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. This one focuses on narcolepsy and how it affects daily life and social well being for those afflicted with it. It describes how doctors may overestimate whether patients’ symptoms are controlled.
It is critical that research for internal audiences and strategic decision-making tell a story, as well. We describe some examples elsewhere on the Versta Research website. For example, what happens when married couples make big purchase decisions? One person may be the decision-maker, but there is always a delicate dance with the spouse who is less involved. How do shoppers become buyers? A story that maps one persona group to the other helps answer that question.
One final example: We all know how boring tracking studies can be, right? They don’t have to be. The work we have been doing with Wespath Benefits and Investments for the last decade was just turned into a video and infographic story to encourage people enrolled in their benefits plans to utilize important resources available to them.
The best stories are embedded in the very fabric of the research.
In previous and continuing editions of this newsletter, we outline specific steps you can take to ensure that you create and capture stories in your data. The best stories are embedded in the very fabric of the research, from beginning to end. In the meantime we would be happy to think with you about your next project, or help you revisit current data to help make better sense of it.
Unlike Twain, we tell only non-fiction stories, but with the same passion and conviction that will capture your audience.
Stories from the Versta Blog
Here are several recent posts from the Versta Research Blog. Click on any headline to read more.
On the 4th of July, please think about three shared American values and public goods that make great research possible: Privacy, the Census, and Truth.
Unfortunately most customers don’t want to get survey invitations from you. But if they did, here are the data collection modes they are most willing to use.
Surveys respondents will give more thoughtful answers if you design surveys in a voice that speaks to them, their frustrations, and things they care about.
What happens when survey answer options do not exactly align with questions asked? The answer: It is probably OK for online surveys, but not for phone.
When pitching a survey to potential respondents, emphasize how it will benefit them, not you. Here are three possible benefits you might focus on.
New research explores “mode effects” of doing surveys on smartphones vs. PCs, decomposing potential error into noncoverage, nonresponse, and measurement error.
One of the worst surveys I ever (tried) to take keeps coming back, probably because nobody will fill it out. Here are some screenshots, with our rundown of why it is so bad.
Select-all-that-apply question formats produce less accurate data than forced choice yes-no formats. But there are still good reasons to use them.
This article describes some “hidden” PowerPoint tricks and shortcut keys we rely on all the time whenever we build research reports with charts and graphs.
Be careful not to get carried away when asking your NPS question. The colorful scheme for analysis and presentation should never be shown to respondents.
Versta Research in the News
Versta Research conducted a survey in support of a new public service advertising campaign launched by the Ad Council in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association. The findings and ad campaign were described in the Washington Post, and the ads can be viewed on the Ad Council website.
Versta Research conducted a survey for Fidelity Investments about awareness, attitudes and ownership of fixed income investment products (including CDs and deferred fixed annuities) among Americans age 50 to 75. A detailed look at the findings are available from Fidelity Investments’ Fixed Income Study fact sheet.
Two surveys conducted by Versta Research for Lincoln Financial Group were featured in a recent article about long-term care insurance as a component of financial planning. Findings are based on two parallel surveys that included more than 1,000 U.S. adults and 500 producing financial advisors.
Results from our research with patients and physicians about the burdens of narcolepsy for Harmony Biosciences were presented in May at the 71st annual meeting of the AAN. Detailed findings are available from the presentation poster. Additionally, Harmony Biosciences’ Know Narcolepsy website offers an infographic that highlights key findings from the research.
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