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Marketing

Published June 28th 2016

How to Get Started with Data Journalism

Using data journalism you can easily create original content in minutes. We reveal how we use this approach at Brandwatch, and how you can do the same.

Creating content isn’t easy. Creating fresh, original content can be downright hard.

A 2011 study by AOL/Nielsen showed that 27 million pieces of content were shared every day. Considering the number of internet users has grown by 42% since then, the increasing number of brands investing in content marketing and the continued growth of social media, that number will be far bigger today.

Standing out from the crowd is a tough job then, even if you have an exciting product to sell. Creating interesting content in a dry industry is, therefore a real challenge, where the main problem is not to shine brighter than competing content, but to craft something people will want to read in the first place.

One solution to these problems is to turn to data. There has been a rise in the prevalence of data journalism recently, as data becomes more widely available and content creators realize the speed at which they can produce interesting content with it.

The New York Times, The Mirror and The Guardian all have a data journalism branch, telling insightful stories in visually engaging ways. Stories by data journalists regularly reach the front page of Reddit. People are already consuming this type of content, and anyone with access to a data source can create it.


Find your data source

The first step is obviously to find a data source, which is easier for some than others. Looking at your own data set to see if there are any stories there is a good place to start. It makes sense to find a story within the data you hold, as it will lead to highly relevant content. This is dependant on the brand: not every company has access to the sort of expansive and insightful data that companies like Airbnb and Uber will have.

Another option is to find publicly available data. Government data is often freely available, and can cover a wide range of topics. However, using this data can involve a lot of data wrangling in order to manipulate the source into useable insights, which may be outside the comfort zone of many.

Then there is social data. The advantage here is you can find up to the minute data on any topic you chose to search for. This means you can easily write relatable content that is people-centric. Buzzfeed regularly publishes content created by curating Tweets around a topical event, such as the release of Starbucks red Christmas cups.

This technique can be applied to virtually any vertical or niche. While searching Twitter for amusing tweets is an easy way to create content, social listening tools allow for a broader overview of the topic with more in-depth analysis that can offer richer insights.


Creating detailed content through social data journalism

We regularly use social data to publish this type of content at Brandwatch. In order to illustrate how this approach works, we wanted to share some examples of how we create this content that has often done very well for us. Whatever the industry, it should be possible to replicate this technique to create great content in a limited timeframe. We’ll turn to how to do this for yourself later on.

In the run-up to the UK general election, it became clear that there was a great data journalism opportunity that could fuel a PR campaign. It had the potential to demonstrate our platform, our ability to provide reliable social data, and to raise awareness of our brand among key media.

Data visualization showing UK election mentions

The ongoing source of social data, combined with events that changed and shaped opinions, allowed us to publish a wide variety of content around the data. This was a big campaign for us that involved a dedicated team, including data analysts, designers, developers, email marketers, PR and social teams.

The size of the team involved may make this approach prohibitive for some companies. Where possible however, it is a strategy that should be considered. The large effort can bring large rewards. If you have a data set as big as social media provides, and you have the analysts to turn that into great insights, you set yourself up as an authority on the subject.

We met our goal of increasing PR coverage, as our analysis gained 35 pieces of media coverage including mentions in the Guardian, the Independent, and the Telegraph. One of our analysts was interviewed on Sky News, and we were referenced on BBC and Channel 4 News.


Using data journalism to create quick content

While a larger scale, collaborative approach such as this may not be possible for all, smaller teams can still utilize social data to create interesting, relevant content. It needs to be created quickly to capitalize on the chatter and become part of the conversation. We have had great success in driving traffic through social after creating quick content with differing goals.

We publish this type of content under the banner of Brandwatch React. Aiming to create something viral, we recently chose to analyze conversation around Donald Trump. He is obviously a divisive figure who creates passionate debate, so we knew the content would be provocative. We created a search term that looked at the phrase “I want to _____ Donald Trump”. The results added a touch of humor to a serious topic. It proved successful, driving 24,000 referrals from Reddit in an hour.

Data journalism using Donald Trump data proved popular

This type of content does not have to be a really in-depth, referenced article that represents an exact cross section of the social landscape. It can be a summary of the opinions around a certain topic, like people discussing the latest iPhone or Game of Thrones episode.

We took this approach for the launch of Windows 10. We were aiming for engagement, and the passionate user base combined with a topical release provided us with a great opportunity. The post drove a lot of engagement, with the comments section providing lively debate. We earned natural links from 10 domains, and ranked first for the search term ‘I hate Windows 10’.

Content created this way can be quick to publish, (in fact, it’s important that it is produced quickly) and because it involves current events it has the potential to be shared a lot. It may be looking at that event in a different light, thereby adding something new to the conversation, or simply providing an interesting chart that helps to visualize the data in a new way.

Inspired by the success of our UK general election coverage, we also created smaller scale content around the US Republican presidential debates. We covered the changing sentiment around the candidates on Twitter during the debate. We positioned ourselves as an authority, creating content that added insight to the debates as they happened.  The content was retweeted by some of the candidates, helping to achieve our goals of increased traffic and placing ourselves as an authority on the topic.

Brandwatch data journalism chart around republican debates

How to do it yourself

Before diving into all that data, take a step back and have a think about how you plan to approach it. What are your goals for the content? You may be after links that will increase referral traffic. This content can drive shares, helping you drive brand awareness. You could aim to place yourself as an authority, to drive great PR coverage. Whatever your goals, have them set out at the beginning and tailor the content to drive success in these goals.

Consider your audience

As with all content creation, consider your audience. What do they talk about, how do they talk about it and where do they talk? Knowing what they are already talking about will help guide you in finding the story. Where they talk will be important when it comes to promoting the content.

Find your topic

Decide on a relevant topic. Look to the news and social media for inspiration. Google Trends and trending topics on Facebook and Twitter can help you find a story that is already part of the public conversation. If your story is topical, and often our stories are, you need to act quickly to get your content published. Ideally, you want to find a story just after it breaks and people start talking about it; to drive and become part of the story, not follow it once everybody else has had their say.

use google trends for relevant data journalism

Set some questions

Think about what it is you want to find out and set some questions accordingly. Do more people talk about Xbox One or PS4? What are the most popular holiday destinations? Once you start analyzing you may find the data guides you into an area that you hadn’t considered. This is fine if that is where the data indicates the story lies, but those initial questions will stop you from straying too far from what you want to say.


Find the hook

Once you have the story, you need to find the hook that will reel people in. Does it confirm prior assumptions or challenge them? Is it humorous? Does it stroke egos? Your headline should intrigue enough to generate click throughs, so spend some time crafting the right one. Brainstorm ideas to find headlines that resonate with your audience. Ask team members which they would most respond to.

Create beautiful visualizations

Visualizing your data in an engaging way will help your audience to digest the data and will back up your copy. If you don’t have access to a designer to help you create something visually engaging from your data, there are several free tools that can be used to make effective visualizations quickly. While there are powerful tools on the market that require coding expertise, several simpler alternatives exist to allow non-coders to visualize their data.


List of data visualization tools

  • Excel and Google Sheets – Tools that will be familiar to most, containing entry level data visualization. The limited set of styles and colors mean creating professional charts can be a challenge.
  • Cartodb – A SaaS tool that allows you to easily combine geotagged data with maps. It has various pricing plans, from free to enterprise.
  • Infogram – Online tool with multiple templates, interactive infographics and a free demo.
  • Timeline JS – An open-source tool that enables anyone to build visually rich, interactive timelines.
  • Datawrapper – A simple online tool. Upload your data and choose from basic but versatile charts.
  • Tableau Public – Free software that allows interactive, versatile data visualizations.
  • Raw – An open web app to create vector-based visualizations. Uses a simple interface to allow non-coders to access the power of D3.js.

Remember that not every piece will succeed. You will have to go through a period of trial and error to work out what type of stories work. However, if you create the content quickly (and as we’ve stressed, often you will have to create it quickly to stay relevant) then it is easy to justify the ROI.

Once the content is published and promoted, track your efforts by comparing your goals and outcomes across a variety of metrics. It will depend on your specific campaign and brand, but tracking a combination of social shares, referral traffic, engagement, press coverage, and backlinks will give you insight into how successful your approach was.

By comparing these metrics for each piece of content you will be able to discover which type of content works best for you. After a period of trial and error, you should be able to regularly create interesting, relevant content that regularly leads to big wins.

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Crimson Hexagon has merged with Brandwatch. You’re in the right place!

From May 8th, all Crimson Hexagon products are now on the Brandwatch website. You’ll find them under ‘Products’ in the navigation. If you’re an existing customer and you want to know more, your account manager will be happy to help.