Data Makes the World Spin, But How Can It Spin Stories With Impact?

This blog post is a continuation of the discussion that took place at the Nonprofit Symposium on Scaling Social Impact June 17 in NYC during the breakout session, “Better Communications through Strategic Use of Data.” The author, Clint White, moderated the panel.

In business, data is money, and money is value.

We are all, essentially, mission-driven businesses, so what can we learn from the for-profit world about how to make our data work more dynamically to make our brand storytelling better?

Just as businesses use data to anticipate and deliver on product and service needs we don’t even know we have yet, the entertainment sector is leading the way with audience content.  Did you know that Netflix shaped House of Cards, its first and immediate hit series, using a mix of customer behavior data and analytics?  They invested $100M and used data from their 44 million viewer preferences to create the show, and then gained 2 million new subscribers on its back, with no focus groups or testing.  Amazing.

A few other fun facts that demonstrate why we should be paying attention:

  • 90% of the world’s data has been created in the past 2 years
  • There are now a billion social media posts every 2 days (and while no single person can make sense of what a billion people are saying, statistical tools now can).
  • 65% of senior executives say management decisions are increasingly based on analytic data

In our work at WiT helping nonprofit missions come to life and connect to the right audiences – we study the business world and adapt the most effective, highest impact practices – how to win and retain customers, how to translate brand promise or mission into tangibles, how data can support and empower great storytelling that breaks through – for our nonprofit clients.

In our Symposium session,“Better Communications through Strategic Use of Data,” our panel – myself, Nancy McGraw, Chief Development Officer, Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), and Scott Hippert, CEO, Parents as Teachers– shared case studies of how our own and client organizations brought their communications to life by strategically fusing data with strong brand storytelling.

For nonprofits, data is value, and value is impact.

That impact is the value nonprofits bring to the world. Sometimes demonstrating it requires reframingconversations – and data can help you do that.  At WiT, we like to challenge our clients to think about the benefit not the product. Instead of looking in the mirror, look out the window.  Ask yourself: How does your product or mission fit into the marketplace? How can it be framed to integrate into a lifestyle?

One of my favorite client examples is Columbia University (where we do a lot of work), who asked us to name a new journalism program that integrated classic journalism curricula with the data and digital skills essential to getting your story into the world and engaging the right audiences today.   Even the Ivy League must respond to market demands! (Contact me if you want to know the winning name…)

During the Symposium session, Scott spoke of data’s value in knowing your audience, and being able to segment and communicate with it accordingly.  Feedback loops from the field made for more responsive, better optimized programs.  Nancy discussed CSH’s success using small data at a local level to pilot solutions and illuminate dynamics of larger scale issues and challenges.

For everyone, let’s use data to tell better stories.

Back to the for-profit world, retailers may use data to design a t-shirt to catch the eye of your consumer profile, but they present it to you as all benefit: cool, stylish, nostalgia-tinged, and ready for the beach.  So, too, should your stories use data to shape and support them, but ultimately focus on bringing the benefits to life.

How can we all make better use of data in our brand?  By delivering our missions in a layered way, while keeping them clear and authentic. An external perspective – like Nancy experienced when Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported CSH with a professional marketing effort – is critical to capture the view “from the window.”  Likewise, engage creative minds who know your challenge is not the first – and not only solvable, but full of potential for success.


Clint White is President of WiT Media, a NYC-based, full-service marketing agency specializing in nonprofits.