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When to Send Article Pitches (and Other Important Emails)

It feels good when you’ve done your research before pitching an article idea to an editor: You know the publication’s…

The post When to Send Article Pitches (and Other Important Emails) appeared first on Copyblogger.

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15 Ways to Get More Followers on Instagram

It’s no secret that business opportunities are quickly growing on Instagram. Approximately 80% of Instagram’s 1 billion active monthly users now follow a business account on the platform. While Instagram hasn’t reported its current number of business users, the platform reportedly hosted more than 25 million of these accounts in late 2017.

As the platform continues to grow and develop more interactive features, such as Instagram Stories, businesses are regularly using it as a tool to humanize brands, recruit future employees, showcase products and company culture, delight customers, and generate new business.

But here’s the deal: Unless you’re famous, it’s really hard to amass a huge following on Instagram without some hard work.

For the average person or business, growing your following takes time and attention on a daily basis.Luckily, there are a few things you can do right away to collect at least 1,000 quality followers for your personal or professional Instagram account. It’s all about knowing where to invest your time and effort. Let’s discuss a few strategies that will help you gain those followers, from creating a follow-worthy Instagram profile, to using contests, to staying true to your brand.

1. Create and optimize your profile.

First things first: customize your Instagram profile to make it look good, tell your potential followers who you are, and give them a reason to follow you.

How? Start by making sure your username is recognizable and easily searchable — like your business name. If your business name is already taken, try keeping your business name as the first part of your username so that people searching for your business are more likely to come across you. For example, the Australian activewear line Lorna Jane uses the username @lornajaneactive.

Setting Up Your Account

Step 1. Make sure to add your full business name to the “Name” field in the “Options” section. To find “Options,” tap the three lines in the top right corner of the IOS app, followed by “Settings” which will appear at the bottom of the screen next to a gear. If you’re on Android, tap the three dots in the corner. Your business or name will appear under your profile picture and under your username in search.

Step 2. Make sure your profile is public. To make your profile public, open Instagram, open “Options,” and make sure “Private Account” is turned off.

Switch your Instagram account from private to public to gain more followers.

Step 3. Choose a profile picture that’s on-brand with your other social networks, like your company logo.

Step 4. Fill your bio with delightful, actionable, and informative information about your brand. Information like this lets people know what you’re about and gives them a reason to follow you. Include who you are and what you do, and be sure to add a hint of personality. Here are a few examples for inspiration:

  • @WeWork: “Make a life, not just a living.”
  • @Oreo: “See the world through our OREO Wonderfilled lens.”
  • @CalifiaFarms: “Crafting, concocting and cold-brewing up a delicious, plant-based future.”
  • @Staples: “We make it easy to #MakeMoreHappen”

Step 5. Add a link to your bio to make it easy for people to go straight from Instagram to your website if they want to. The space allotted for URLs is precious real estate. When you receive 10,000 followers, you can add swipe up links to your Instagram Stories. Until then, your bio is the only place within Instagram where you can place a clickable link, so use it wisely. We recommend using a shortened, customized Bitly link to make it more clickable.

Step 6. Finally, enable notifications so you can see when people share or comment on your photos. This’ll let you engage with them more quickly — just like a lot of companies do on Twitter. To enable notifications, go to “Options” and then “Push Notification Settings.” Select “From Everyone” for every category.

A word to the wise: We don’t recommend you link your Instagram account to Twitter and Facebook so your Instagram posts are automatically published on those other accounts. Post types are different.

2. Designate a content creator.

Just like there should be one (maybe two) people managing your other social media accounts, there should only be one or two people managing your Instagram account. If possible, choose someone who has experience using a personal Instagram account, and therefore “gets” the platform — and be sure they know all the handy features Instagram has to offer.

If you work for a large organization, you might find that a lot of people want to have a say in what’s posted. That’s when an organized request or guidelines document comes in hand. This document should inform people how to request a post on your Instagram account, when, the value of the post, and why.

3. Follow photography and editing best practices.

On Instagram, post quality matters. A lot. Your Twitter followers might forgive a few bad tweets, but a bad photo on Instagram is a big no-no. By no means do you have to take a photography course to be a good Instagram poster — nor do you have to practice for weeks before you start. But you should get familiar with basic photography tips and photo editing apps.

Photography Best Practices

Since Instagram is a mobile app, chances are, most of the photos you post to Instagram will be taken on your mobile device. That’s not just okay; it’s expected. While some brands use professional photography for their Instagram photos, most use smartphones — and that’s the vibe that Instagram is meant for, anyway.

Here are some highlights:

  • Focus on one subject at a time.
  • Embrace negative space.
  • Find interesting perspectives.
  • Look for symmetry.
  • Capture small details.
  • Make your followers laugh.

Edit photos before you post.

Instagram has some basic editing capabilities, but oftentimes, they aren’t adequate to make a picture really, really great. Most of your photos should go through at least one or two other photo editing apps on your mobile phone before you open them in Instagram for the first time.

4. Set a regular posting schedule.

Once you’ve created and optimized your profile, have someone manning it, and know a thing or two about phone photography and photo editing, it’s time to start posting.

It’s a good idea to have a solid number of great posts up — maybe 15 or so — before you start really engaging people and working down this list. That way, when people visit your profile, they’ll see a full screen of photos instead of just a handful, so they know you’ll be posting great content regularly.

To start posting on Instagram, first download this social media content calendar template and start planning out your Instagram posts. Over time, you’ll want to build up a backlog of photos for times of need, like the weekends or when you go on vacation.

Keep your target persona in mind when you first start planning out your posting schedule, as that can drastically change your posting timing and frequency — especially if you’re targeting an audience in a different time zone. (Download this free template for creating buyer personas if you don’t have a few already.)

Optimizing your schedule for your specific audience might take time and experimentation.

Here are a few of our best practices:

  • The very best times to post on Instagram seem to be Mondays and Thursdays at any time except between 3:00–4:00 p.m. in the time zone of your target persona. (For a United States audience, your best bet is to combine Eastern and Central time zones, For audiences located outside the U.S., use whichever time zones your target audience uses.)
  • Posting at 5:00 a.m. CDT from Tuesday to Friday generates some of the highest engagement. This is because people tend to check their phones when they wake up.
  • If you post on weekends, try to do so around 11:00 a.m, CDT on Saturday.

Because Instagram is primarily an app for use on mobile devices, users tend to use the network all the time, any time. According to a recent Pew Research study, a majority of U.S. Instagram users are on the app daily, although many users engage with content more during off-work hours than during the workday.  

Some businesses have also seen success with posting at 2:00 a.m., 5:00 p.m., and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. Experiment with these to see if they work with your audience.

5. Curate some of your content.

Although it’s best to have only one or two people manning your account, one or two people can’t be everywhere at once taking photos. What about that fun sushi night the engineers had last night? Or the event your head of sales spoke at earlier this week?

There’s a whole breadth of content you’ll want to post to Instagram, and more often than not, one person won’t be able to keep track of it all.

One solution? Create a system where you can curate photos and content from members of your team. There are a few ways to do this. One is to create a specific email address for employees to send their photos, short videos, memes, hyperlapses, and so on.

Just encourage people to put a subject line on these emails so you can more easily sort through the photos they’re sending. While this doesn’t seem like the smoothest way to curate photos, it’s actually the easiest for the people sending you photos — and the easier you can make it for them to send content, the more content you’ll get.

If your team shares a Box or Dropbox account, you could also create a shared folder where people can automatically drop their photos and videos. This just makes a few more steps for the people sending you the content, and not everyone might have that app downloaded on their phones. 

6. Use a consistent, platform-specific brand voice.

Photos and videos might be the most important part of your Instagram posts, but captions, comments, and other text should never be an afterthought. If you’re managing a channel for a brand or have more than one Instagram manager, consider developing a consistent voice that humanizes your brand.

This shows potential followers that you are credible and relatable, rather than formal or intimidating. 

When developing a voice, you should keep the platform and your audience in mind. For example, many influencers and prominent accounts on Instagram have a very casual voice and style, but still remain professional and on-brand. Once you’ve got your voice down, make sure it stays consistent and natural in your captions, comments, messages and your bio. 

7. Write engaging, shareable captions.

Captions are an essential part of your post — the icing on the cake, if you will. Consistently great captions can do wonders for humanizing your brand, winning over followers, and making your content more shareable — thereby giving you more exposure.

Here are a few things you might see in a winning Instagram caption:

  • Clever or Witty Comments
  • Calls to Action
  • Relevant Emojis
  • Hashtags

 

Clever or Witty Comments

Some brands and influencers have used clever or witty captions, or even audience-appropriate jokes to further humanize themselves on Instagram.

My colleague Kelly Hendrickson, HubSpot’s Social Media Manager, says that she loves Netflix’s account and sub-accounts, particularly because of the post captions: “They have such a clear brand voice, and you laugh along with them. They’re in on the joke, just like one of your friends.”

Here’s one example she gave where Netflix makes a pun out of the term “ghosting”:

Netflix’s voice is casual, trendy, and humorous while still staying on brand. In the post above, the caption cleverly connects a new commonly used phrase to an older film that’s streaming on the platform.

Calls to Action

Another way to increase the shareability of your caption and engage your followers is to ask questions or have some sort of call-to-action in the captions of your photos. For example, you might say, “Double-tap if you find this funny,” or “Share your story in the comments.” In the example below, we asked followers of the @HubSpot Instagram account to like the image if they agreed with its advice.  

 

Relevant Emojis

According to a recent study, certain emojis can actually spike engagement such as likes, comments, and shares on platforms including Instagram.

Adding just a few relevant emojis can add even more personality to your posts. It could also make them even more noticeable on an Instagram feed. In the post below, HubSpot includes the combination of a call to action and relevant emojis to make the post pop. 

 

Along with the three items listed above, you’ll also want to include hashtags.

8. Optimize posts with relevant hashtags.

On Instagram, a hashtag ties the conversations of different users who wouldn’t already be connected into a single stream. If you use relevant hashtags, your posts will get exposure to a wider audience than the people who already follow you or know about your brand.

The key to using hashtags effectively is to use them smartly and sparingly. Try to limit the number of hashtags per caption to around three. Similarly, don’t use “like for like” hashtags, like #like4like or #like4likes. This is a dirty tactic that’ll leave you with a whole bunch of low-quality followers.

To find the hashtags your audience might be using, do a little research on relevant hashtags in your niche or industry. The easiest way to do this research is in the Instagram app itself, in the “explore” tab (i.e. the magnifying glass icon).

When you search for one hashtag, it’ll show you a list of related hashtags at the top of your screen. For example, when I search for #inboundmarketing on Instagram, it shows me relevant hashtags like #marketingdigital, #marketingtips, and so on.

Hashtags can optimize your post in hashtag-based searches and help you gain more Instagram followers.

To help relate to your followers on a personal level, you might consider hopping on hashtag trends like #tbt (“Throwback Thursday”), #MotivationMonday, #TransformationTuesday, or hashtags that are trending at any given time. 

Here’s a post from @HubSpot’s account using the #InternationalWomensDay hashtag: Once you build up a bit of a following, you can try creating your own hashtags — like your company name or a slogan that applies to a lot of your photos. This is a great way to build up your brand on the platform and build a more cohesive presence.

 

9. Interact with users through follows, likes, and comments.

Instagram is very much a community, and one great way to get involved in that community is to find people who post pictures that interest you, and follow their accounts and interact with their content. It’s the most natural way to draw attention to your own Instagram account. It may also get your foot in the door in the platform’s community.

That does two things for you: for one, when they get the notification that you’ve followed them, they might check out your account and decide whether or not to follow you. (This is why it’s important to have some great content on there before you start reaching out to others.)

Secondly, it means you’ll be seeing their recent posts in your feed, so you can Like and interact with them if you choose to.

As you build a following, celebrate your followers and show you appreciate them by responding to their comments, and even following them and engaging with their posts.

10. Cross-promote with users who have audiences similar to your own.

Once you build a solid relationship with some of the folks behind these accounts that have a similar audience to your own, you might ask to do some co-promotion on each others’ accounts.

The more natural and less spammy you can make the content of these cross-promotions — especially the captions — the better. It also helps to be picky about them, and don’t do them very often.

Below, @flow, an alkaline water company, and @completelymomblog, the account of a blogger named Cortney Lynn, cross-promoted each other at about the same time:

 

11. Run Instagram contests to encourage engagement.

Another great way to expand your reach while increasing engagement on your photos is to publish a post promoting a contest, and then ask people to follow your account and Like or comment on the photo in order to enter.

You might add a UGC (User-Generated Content) element to the contest, too, where people post a photo of their own and use a specific hashtag along with following your account. Here’s an example of a post from Starbucks promoting a UGC contest on their Instagram account.

 

12. Use Instagram Stories and explore its interactive features.

Instagram has always offered the opportunity to post beautiful, curated photos to represent your brand. However, with the introduction of ephemeral Instagram Stories, brands can also share on-the-fly, behind-the-scenes looks for 24 hours that may not be as polished as a published photo, but give your brand more personality on the platform.

One look at Snapchat’s explosion in popularity demonstrates that social media users are clearly responding positively to ephemeral photo and video sharing. Instagram Stories let brands engage with users in different ways to cultivate brand loyalty and appeal.

Although Snapchat pioneered this feature, Instagram Stories now has over 400 million daily users, which is double the amount of Snap’s user base.

Along with sharing video clips and static images through Instagram Stories, users can also use interactive features like polls to gain more engagement and learn more about their Instagram audiences. Once a user is verified or has over 10,000 followers, they can even include a link to a webpage within a story.

How Brands Can Use Instagram Stories

Instagram Stories disappear after 24 hours, unless they are marked as a “Featured Story.” Featured stories will show up at the top of your profile between the photo feed and your bio. We can’t embed Instagram Stories just yet, but you can view HubSpot’s Instagram page to see what we’ve featured.

Here are a few other brands we recommend following to see what they’re sharing:

Rachel Brathen (@yoga_girl) is a yoga teacher and entrepreneur in Aruba who uses Instagram Stories to document the behind-the-scenes action of building a yoga studio. While her Instagram portfolio features beautiful, professional photos and videos of her in yoga poses, her Stories feature her dog sitting in on staff meetings, her team unwrapping amethyst crystals to decorate her studio, and artists painting the walls.

She uses Stories to showcase the other side of her brand to her 2 million followers in an authentic and unpolished way, and to keep her followers apprised of what she does every day (besides yoga, of course).

Dana Shultz (@miniamlistbaker) publishes easy vegan and gluten-free recipes on her blog. Her Stories feature neat how-to videos of her making breakfast and testing out new recipes in her kitchen. The behind-the-scenes aspect of her Stories provide a lot of human context for her blog’s brand, and everybody loves a good how-to video.

Casper (@casper) publishes quirky Instagram content to advertise their mattresses — without overtly doing so. The main theme of their content? Staying in is better than going out (because you can stay in and lay on a comfy Casper mattress, naturally).

They’ve even created a gallery for followers to use as backdrops for their Snapchat and Instagram stories to make it look like they’re out at a party, when they’re really laying in bed. One of their latest Instagram Stories featured someone watching “The Sopranos” in bed, with the caption: “Who needs plans when you have five more seasons?” This video supports Casper’s campaign to stay in bed with a very real look at what millions of people do when they’re hanging out at home.

Here are our tips for using Instagram Stories for your brand:

  • Whether it’s funny, sad, or unique, be authentic. Your photo gallery is where content can be perfect and polished. Instagram Stories are for the raw, unscripted, and un-retouched. Use Stories to share the other side of your brand that followers might not be able to glean elsewhere. Do you have a dog-friendly office? Is your team trying out the Mannequin Challenge? Start filming to showcase the more human side of your brand.
  • Go behind-the-scenes. These are by far our favorite type of content for ephemeral video sharing. Show followers what goes into the planning of an event or the launching of a product, and make it fun. Your followers want to feel included and in-the-know, and you could use Stories to cultivate a brand loyalty program that only rewards people who check out your content.
  • Embrace interactivity. As mentioned above, Instagram allows you to add interactive stickers to your stories. For example, you can ask your audience to vote in a poll, rate something on a sliding scale, or send you burning questions. These features might help you learn about your audience while also engaging with them.

13. Use the Live Video feature.

Instagram also lets users record and share live videos, another content format that’s proven to be hugely popular on other social networks. What’s unique about live videos on Instagram? They disappear when users stop filming.

This authentic, bi-directional experience lets brands share unscripted, raw moments with their audience to incorporate human elements into a social media platform that’s highly edited and polished in its traditional use.

Since the Live feature launched, Instagram has added even more features that may enable more engagement or interactions from viewers. For example, users can now launch live video Q&As or add music to live streams.

Live video is a growing trend across a variety of social media platforms, so if something interesting is happening, start rolling. Whether it’s a team birthday party, a staff meeting, or a cute animal, your devoted followers want to see what you’re up to every day. 

14. Share your profile link on your website and social media channels.

Place a follow button on your homepage, your “About Us” page, and various other places on your website. Consider adding an Instagram badge to your website that hyperlinks to your account. Here’s what the badge could look like:

Instagram

If your brand has brick-and-mortar locations, put out a good ol’ print call-to-action letting people know you have an Instagram account and encouraging them to follow you.

Also, be sure to promote your Instagram account on your other social media accounts. Chances are, the folks who already follow you on Facebook and Twitter will also follow you on Instagram without much prodding. Let those followers know you’re on Instagram and encourage them to follow you there by including a link to your Instagram account in the bios and posts of those other social media accounts.

So give it a shot: Make a profile and start posting, testing, tweaking, and promoting your account. Garnering a following on Instagram won’t happen overnight, but the stronger of a foundation you create on your account in in your niche Instagram community, the higher quality your followers will be.

15. Apply for a verification badge.

When an account on Instagram is verified, it has a blue dot, called a badge, next to the username. When another user comes across this profile or finds the verified username in search, the blue dot confirms to them that the account is the business, individual, or brand that it’s claiming to be. 

While Instagram has a list of eligibility requirements for the badge, the platform does allow users to apply for one. You can learn more about that process in Instagram’s help center

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Googlebot renders, indexes AJAX-style dynamic content driven by XHR POST

More of your dynamic content can now be indexed by Google.

Please visit Search Engine Land for the full article.

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What’s wrong with translating keywords?

Translation automation relies on written language but the impact of speech for user-chosen keywords should not be overlooked.

Please visit Search Engine Land for the full article.

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Using IF functions on Google Ads to improve productivity

Back in the days when I was learning PPC, one of the two biggest growing pains I had were:

  1. Learning the difference between segmenting campaigns out to maximize efficiency
  2. Reaching the point where the juice is no longer worth the squeeze

Rather than creating clutter and a burdensome account to manage, I’ve since learned to make use of everything I can to speed up my workflow and free up bandwidth to focus on things that actually make a difference.

IF functions are a versatile means to tailor your ads to users in real time, using either the type of device they’re browsing on or the audience segment they belong to as signals to serve up specialized ad copy. The right message at the right time can make all the difference between a conversion or another bounced visitor. Search marketing is rapidly moving towards heavy automation and personalization, so IF functions are helpful because they’re a simple way to keep your seat at the table.

Setting up IF functions

The process of setting up IF Functions is painless. You could easily set one up in the time it will take to finish this article, regardless of your comfort level with Excel formulas. And if doing it on Excel is too daunting, you can set them up directly in the Google Ads UI under the Ads tab.

The basic logic is as follows

{=IF(condition is met, show this text):If not, show this text}.

So, if you wanted specific messaging for users on mobile, the logic runs something like this:

IF the user is ON a mobile device, show mobile-friendly CTA. If not, show the general CTA.

To put that in the basic formula

{=IF(device=mobile, Call Now!):Get a Quote.}

Another common usage of IF statements is serving specific offers to specific audience segments.

The basic formula for audience-based IF functions is

{=IF(Audience IN(audience name), Audience-specific copy.):General copy}

To put the above into a sentence: “If a user is IN this specific audience segment, serve them this specific copy. Otherwise, serve this more general copy.”

Suppose you were running a tiered promotion, where Club Members were eligible for an additional 15% discount on top of a 30% off sale, that text would look something like this:

Shop Now for{=IF(Audience IN(ClubList),45%):30%} Off!

Or, if your nurture campaigns weren’t entirely broken out and you wanted to move recent visitors into booking a consultation, you might have something like:

{=IF(Audience IN(Returning Visitor 7 Days), Book Your Consultation Today!):Download Our Free Guide.

Take note that you can target multiple audience segments in the same IF function. However, you are still limited to two copy options. The syntax is the same, just with your audiences separated by commas in the Audience IN section –

{=IF(Audience IN(Segment1,Segment2,Segment3)Learn More!):Get a Quote.}

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by keeping track of all of those brackets, commas, and colons, you can also build IF functions directly in the Google Ads UI. Simply add an open bracket in an ad field, anywhere from the headline one to URL paths one or two (note that ad customizers in Final URLs are not supported) and let the system walk you through putting it together.

Things to note while using IF functions

  • The character limits for each field still apply (but only for the ad text defined in your functions).
  • Symbols in the function’s ad text options like quote marks (both single and double), commas, and colons will need to be preceded by backslashes (\) for the function to work properly. For example, rather than “SearchEngineWatch’s” your function copy would read “SearchEngineWatch/’s.”

Using IF functions for fun and profit

Although IF functions don’t offer as many options to customize ads as using a business data feed, the options they do provide are staggering.

Shaping expectations based on device type is a must. While mobile browsers have come a long way in recent years, filling out long forms on a small screen with no keyboard is a slog, and desktop users might not have the same propensity to turn into brick and mortar visitors.

Tailoring your copy for devices isn’t a replacement for setting realistic device bid modifiers and taking cross-device/cross-channel conversions into account. But it is another way to squeeze more efficiency out of your ad budget.

Beyond device-type, the real power of IF functions come from the ease with which you can target specific audience segments. If you have a large enough CRM list to make customer match audiences viable for search, great. If your lists aren’t quite big enough, have no fear, you can create details of the possible audiences in Google Analytics and import it to Google Ads, the options are endless.

Bonus: Countdown ads

Countdown ads are yet another feature that is effective and easy to use but tend to fly under the radar. Beyond highlighting promotions, I’ve seen success in highlighting shipping windows (keep that in mind for the holiday shopping season), special events (for example, store openings), and more. Just like the other customizers available, countdowns can be put anywhere in an ad except for the URL.

The syntax is pretty straightforward

  • Specify a date in Year/Month/Day, pick a time in Hour:Minute:Second
  • Specify the language you’re targeting, and how many days you’d like the countdown to run

In the below example, the countdown will end at midnight on June 7, 2019, after starting seven days prior

{=COUNTDOWN(“2019/7/7 12:00:00″,”en-US”,7)}

The future is now

Running a successful paid search campaign has always required knowing who your customers are. Ad customizers make reaching the right user with the right messaging easier, and at scale. IF functions are easy inroads towards better tailoring of your users’ experiences towards their needs. It gives you more control over your ad copy than dynamic keyword insertion or responsive search ads, with a lower likelihood of matching to undesirable search queries than dynamic search ads. And with less setup needed than the Ad Customizer feeds, IF functions ultimately give savvy search marketers a powerful tool to boost performance.

Have any queries or interesting functions you know? Share them in the comments.

Clay Schulenburg is Director of SEM at PMG.

The post Using IF functions on Google Ads to improve productivity appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

Reblogged 2 days ago from searchenginewatch.com

4 Key Lessons Content Marketers Can Take From Data Journalists

Posted by matt_gillespie

There’s an oft-cited statistic in the world of technology professionals, from marketers to startup founders to data scientists: 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years.

This instantly-Tweetable snippet was referenced in Forbes in 2018, mentioned by MediaPost in 2016, and covered on Science Daily in 2013. A casual observer could be forgiven for asking: How could that be true in three different years?

At Fractl, the data makes perfect sense to us: The global amount of digital information is growing exponentially over time.

From Seagate

This means that the “90 percent of all data…” statistic was true in 2013, 2016, and 2018, and it will continue to be true for the foreseeable future. As our culture continues to become more internet-integrated and mobile, we continue to produce massive amounts of data year over year while also becoming more comfortable with understanding large quantities of information.

This is hugely important to anyone who creates content on the web: Stats about how much data we create are great, but the stories buried in that data are what really matter. In the opening manifesto for FiveThirtyEight, one of the first sites on the web specifically devoted to data journalism, Editor-in-Chief Nate Silver wrote:

“Almost everything from our sporting events to our love lives now leaves behind a data trail.” 

This type of data has always been of interest to marketers doing consumer research, but the rise of data journalism shows us that there is both consumer demand and almost infinite potential for great storytelling rooted in numbers.

In this post, I’ll highlight four key insights from data science and journalism and how content marketers can leverage them to create truly newsworthy content that stands out from the pack:

  • The numbers drive the narrative
  • Plotted points are more trustworthy than written words (especially by brands!)
  • Great data content is both beautiful and easy-to-interpret
  • Every company has a (data) story to tell

 By the time you’re done, you’ll have gleaned a better understanding of how data visualization, from simple charts to complex interactive graphics, can help them tell a story and achieve wide visibility for their clients.

The numbers drive the narrative

Try Googling “infographics are dead,” and your top hit will be a 2015 think piece asserting that the medium has been dead for years, followed by many responses that the medium isn’t anywhere close to “dead.” These more optimistic articles tend to focus on the key aspects of infographics that have transformed since their popularity initially grew:

  • Data visualization (and the public’s appetite for it) is evolving, and
  • A bad data viz in an oversaturated market won’t cut it with overloaded consumers.

For content marketers, the advent of infographics was a dream come true: Anyone with even basic skills in Excel and a good graphic designer could whip up some charts, beautify them, and use them to share stories. But Infographics 1.0 quickly fizzled because they failed to deliver anything interesting — they were just a different way to share the same boring stories.

Data journalists do something very different. Take the groundbreaking work from Reuters on the Rohingya Muslim refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, which was awarded the Global Editors Network Award for Best Data Visualization in 2018. This piece starts with a story—an enormous refugee crisis taking place far away from the West—and uses interactive maps, stacked bar charts, and simple statistics visualizations to contextualize and amplify a heartbreaking narrative.

The Reuters piece isn’t only effective because of its innovative data viz techniques; rather, the piece begins with an extremely newsworthy human story and uses numbers to make sure it’s told in the most emotionally resonant way possible. Content marketers, who are absolutely inundated with advice on how storytelling is essential to their work, need to see data journalism as a way to drive their narratives forward, rather than thinking of data visualization simply as a way to pique interest or enhance credibility.

Plotted points are more trustworthy than written words

This is especially true when it comes to brands.

In the era of #FakeNews, content marketers are struggling more than ever to make sure their content is seen as precise, newsworthy, and trustworthy. The job of a content marketer is to produce work for a brand that can go out and reasonably compete for visibility against nonprofits, think tanks, universities, and mainstream media outlets simultaneously. While some brands are quite trusted by Americans, content marketers may find themselves working with lesser-known clients seeking to build up both awareness and trust through great content.

One of the best ways to do both is to follow the lead of data journalists by letting visual data content convey your story for you.

“Numbers don’t lie” vs. brand trustworthiness

In the buildup to the 2012 election, Nate Silver’s previous iteration of FiveThirtyEight drew both massive traffic to the New York Times and criticism from traditional political pundits, who argued that no “computer” could possibly predict election outcomes better than traditional journalists who had worked in politics for decades (an argument fairly similar to the one faced by the protagonists in Moneyball). In the end, Silver’s “computer” (actually a sophisticated model that FiveThirtyEight explains in great depth and open-sources) predicted every state correctly in 2012.

Silver and his team made the model broadly accessible to show off just how non-partisan it really was. It ingested a huge amount of historical election data, used probabilities and weights to figure out which knowledge was most important, and spit out a prediction as to what the most likely outcomes were. By showing how it all worked, Silver and FiveThirtyEight went a long way toward improving the public confidence in data—and, by extension, data journalism.

But the use of data to increase trustworthiness is nothing new. A less cynical take is simply that people are more likely to believe and endorse things when they’re spelled out visually. We know, famously, that users only read about 20-28 percent of the content on the page, and it’s also known that including images vastly increases likes and retweets on Twitter.

So, in the era of endless hot takes and the “everyone’s-a-journalist-now” mentality, content marketers looking to establish brand authority, credibility, and trust can learn an enormous amount from the proven success of data journalists — just stick to the numbers.

Find the nexus of simple and beautiful

Our team at Fractl has a tricky task on our hands: We root our content in data journalism with the ultimate goal of creating great stories that achieve wide visibility. But different stakeholders on our team (not to mention our clients) often want to achieve those ends by slightly different means.

Our creatives—the ones working with data—may want to build something enormously complex that crams as much data as possible into the smallest space they can. Our media relations team—experts in knowing the nuances of the press and what will or won’t appeal to journalists—may want something that communicates data simply and beautifully and can be summed up in one or two sentences, like the transcendent work of Mona Chalabi for the Guardian. A client, too, will often have specific expectations for how a piece should look and what should be included, and these factors need to be considered as well.

Striking the balance

With so many ways to present any given set of numbers, we at Fractl have found success by making data visualizations as complex as they need to be while always aiming for the nexus of simple and beautiful. In other words: Take raw numbers that will be interesting to people, think of a focused way to clearly visualize them, and then create designs that fit the overall sentiment of the piece.

On a campaign for Porch.com, we asked 1,000 Americans several questions about food, focusing on things that were light and humorous conversation starters. For example, “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” and “What do you put on a hot dog?” As a native Chicagoan who believes there is only one way to make a hot dog, this is exactly the type of debate that would make me take notice and share the content with friends on social media.

In response to those two questions, we got numbers that looked like this:

Using Tableau Public, an open-source data reporting solution that is one of the go-to tools for rapid building at Fractl, the tables above were transformed into rough cuts of a final visualization:

With the building blocks in place, we then gave extensive notes to our design team on how to make something that’s just as simple but much, much more attractive. Given the fun nature of this campaign, a more lighthearted design made sense, and our graphics team delivered. The entire campaign is worth checking out for the project manager’s innovative and expert ability to use simple numbers in a way that is beautiful, easy-to-approach, and instantly compelling.

All three of the visualizations above are reporting the exact same data, but only one of them is instantly shareable and keeps a narrative in mind: by creatively showing the food items themselves, our team turned the simple table of percentages in the first figure into a visualization that could be shared on social media or used by a journalist covering the story.

In other cases, such as if the topic is more serious, simple visualizations can be used to devastating effect. In work for a brand in the addiction and recovery space, we did an extensive analysis of open data hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The dramatic increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States is an emotional story fraught with powerful statistics. In creating a piece on the rise in mortality rate, we wanted to make sure we preserved the gravity of the topic and allowed the numbers to speak for themselves:

A key part of this visualization was adding one additional layer of complexity—age brackets—to tell a more contextualized and human story. Rather than simply presenting a single statistic, our team chose to highlight the fact that the increase in overdose deaths is something affecting Americans across the entire lifespan, and the effect of plotting six different lines on a single chart makes the visual point that addiction is getting worse for all Americans.

Every brand’s data has a story to tell

Spotify has more than 200 million global users, nearly half of whom pay a monthly fee to use the service (the other half generate revenue by listening to intermittent ads). As an organization, Spotify has data on how a sizeable portion of the world listens to its music and the actual characteristics of that music.

Data like this is what makes Spotify such a valuable brand from a dollars and cents standpoint, but a team of data journalists at The New York Times also saw an incredible story about how American music taste has changed in the last 30 years buried in Spotify’s data. The resulting piece, Why Songs of Summer Sound the Same, is a landmark work of data-driven, interactive journalism, and one that should set a content marketer’s head spinning with ideas.

Of course, firms will always be protective of their data, whether it’s Netflix famously not releasing its ratings, Apple deciding to stop its reporting of unit sales, or Stanford University halting its reporting of admissions data. Add to the equation a public that is increasingly wary of data privacy and susceptibility to major data breaches, and clients are often justifiably nervous to share data for the purpose of content production.

Deciding when to share

That said, a firm’s data often is central to its story, and when properly anonymized and cleared of personal identifying information, or PII, the newsworthiness of a brand reporting insights from its own internal numbers can be massive. 

For example, GoodRx, a platform that reports pricing data from more than 70,000 U.S. pharmacies, released a white paper and blog post that compared its internal data on prescription fills with US Census data on income and poverty. While census data is free, only GoodRx had the particular dataset on pharmacy fills—it’s their own proprietary data set. Data like this is obviously key to their overall valuation, but the way in which it was reported here told a deeply interesting story about income and access to medication without giving away anything that could potentially cost the firm. The report was picked up by the New York Times, undoubtedly boosting GoodRx’s ratings for organic search.

The Times’ pieces on Spotify and GoodRx both highlight the fourth key insight on the effective use of data as content marketers: Every brand’s data has a story to tell. These pieces could only have come from their exact sources because only they had access to the data, making the particular findings singular and unique to that specific brand and presenting a key competitive advantage in the content landscape. While working with internal data comes with its own potential pitfalls and challenges, seeking to collaborate with a client to select meaningful internal data and directing its subsequent use for content and narrative should be at the forefront of a content marketer’s mind.

Blurring lines and breaking boundaries

A fascinating piece recently on Recode sought to slightly reframe the high-publicity challenges facing journalists, stating:

“The plight of journalists might not be that bad if you’re willing to consider a broader view of ‘journalism.’” 

The piece detailed that while job postings for journalists are off more than 10 percent since 2004, jobs broadly related to “content” have nearly quadrupled over the same time period. Creatives will always flock to the options that allow them to make what they love, and with organic search largely viewed as a meritocracy of content, the opportunities for brands and content marketers to utilize the data journalism toolkit have never been greater.

What’s more, much of the best data journalism out there typically only uses a handful of visualizations to get its point across. It was also reported recently that the median amount of data sources for pieces created by the New York Times and The Washington Post was two. It too is worth noting that more than 60 percent of data journalism stories in both the Times and Post during a recent time period (January-June, 2017) relied only on government data.

Ultimately, the ease of running large surveys via a platform like Prolific Research, Qualtrics, or Amazon Mechanical Turk, coupled with the ever-increasing number of free and open data sets provided by both the US Government or sites like Kaggle or data.world means that there is no shortage of numbers out there for content marketers to dig into and use to drive storytelling. The trick is in using the right blend of hard data and more ethereal emotional appeal to create a narrative that is truly compelling.

Wrapping up

As brands increasingly invest in content as a means to propel organic search and educate the public, content marketers should seriously consider putting these key elements of data journalism into practice. In a world of endless spin and the increasing importance of showing your work, it’s best to remember the famous quote written by longtime Guardian editor C.P. Scott in 1921: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

What do you think? How do you and your team leverage data journalism in your content marketing efforts?

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