Writing is an inherently creative pursuit, but relying on your staff’s wit, prose and mastery of the English language alone to guide your content marketing strategy is a fool’s errand.

It’s all about data today, with content marketers poring over web analytics to dig up any kind of edge they can find. It doesn’t take an experienced data scientist to infuse your content with data-backed insights: A Google Analytics certification, maybe, but you can go pretty far in this field even without a degree in data science.

Data-based strategies shouldn’t end at the topic ideation stage, either. From sweeping marketing campaigns to the makeup of individual pieces of content themselves, data can be your guide to better content marketing. Telling stories with data is a fine line to walk, but we can help you strike the right balance between the numbers and the craft.

The value of data in stories

Let’s say you have a company blog ready to publish live. It hits all of your brand messaging sweet spots, seamlessly bringing in your value props without coming across as overly promotional or self-aggrandizing. It tells an interesting story, but it’s filled with assertions that lack evidence and claims that can’t be substantiated with actual research.

Will readers listen to that story? Will they buy into its position or view it with skepticism?

If you don’t cite data to back up your claims, people may doubt that you’re presenting your case in good faith. No one wants to be sold to, after all. By building content without data, you lose the benefit of the doubt.

That blog post of yours discussing benefits of disaster recovery services doesn’t even mention the cost of downtime or the value of DRaaS in dollar figures? Yeah, people are going to suspect you’re presenting a pretty flimsy argument with no hard data to back it up.

Now consider a blog that backs up every assertion it makes with actual data. It’s tough to argue with its point of view when it is precipitated by painstakingly curated research from some of the most well-respected institutions around. That is the difference between blowing hot air and actually establishing credibility with your audience.

If you want to reach a discerning audience, data-based storytelling will be essential to grabbing and holding their attention.

Neil Patel experienced the benefits of data-driven content first hand when he noticed a sudden uptick in his engagement metrics a few years back. In particular, site visitors were spending more time on blog pages than ever before – on average, people spent anywhere from 30-60 minutes on his site.

What changed?

Patel credits this incredible increase to his newfound practice of painstakingly providing data and research to every single one of his blog’s claims. Presumably, data-based arguments gave him more credibility, enticing readers to check out other articles he wrote after establishing himself as an authoritative voice in his field.

Does a 30-60 minute session duration sound too good to be true? Perhaps, but there’s no doubt that your argument will hold more weight when it’s backed up by unassailable data. Patel’s experience demonstrates the fruits of that labor: stronger engagement metrics and more credibility with your readership.

Giving your story some much-needed weight

Your more discerning audience members will be immediately skeptical of content that isn’t supported by numerical research. Credibility is a key component to overall content quality, sitting there right alongside style, tone and relevance. Unfortunately, this is one area that many marketers struggle with when producing content.

According to a 2017 ClearVoice survey of 1,000 marketers, establishing credibility was cited as the second-biggest challenge facing their content marketing campaigns, ahead of crafting viable strategies and obtaining the necessary resources.

Some diligently curated research can provide that credibility and support whatever assertions are made in your content. This is especially true if you’re trying to address customer pain points. Data that reflects not only the problems your customers deal with but how your solutions can help is a powerful tool to have in your back pocket.

And if you’re thinking of writing toward a C-suite audience, you better have the requisite research handy to back up your claims. Credibility is everything when addressing corporate executives, and if you don’t have cold, hard data to support what you’re saying, they’re likely to tune you out.

“It doesn’t matter how strong the messaging is, or how well your product can solve all of an organization’s problems, if the author of the content isn’t credible, the executive audience won’t take you seriously,” said Pegasystems Industry Marketing Manager and TechTarget contributor Brent Rapisardi.

PowerSpeaking, Inc. founder Rick Gilbert echoed these sentiments regarding C-suite audiences, suggesting that you quickly hit them with relevant data before they lose interest. CEOs don’t have time to comb through content to find impactful insights – you have to bring those to the fore.

According to the Content Marketing Institute, 81 percent of decision-makers conduct their own research before contacting a potential vendor, meaning they’ve already read up on your blog, viewed infographics, watched your corporate promo, etc. What’s more, in most cases these people are looking to your brand to provide credible information regarding industry pain points and how to address them – only 31 percent of decision-makers prefer to get this data from completely unbiased sources.

And if you can cobble together some research of your own, well, that’s even better. Three-quarters of decision-makers say original research influences whether or not they buy from specific vendors. Just putting together a quick survey of your clients or industry peers can provide that extra bit of authority and credibility with prospective customers.

Weaving data into your storytelling

Of course, barraging your audience with a bunch of numbers at the outset of any piece of content is risky in its own right. Hit them with a quick data point or two, sure, but be careful not to inundate your reader with too much information too soon.

Overdoing it on the research side will affect readability, and your breezy blog post can turn into a dense slog in a hurry. Save it for your white paper, bub.

Pepper data across your content with a deft touch, being sure to provide adequate support for claims that might need a little extra muscle to convince your audience. Not every single sentence or assertion absolutely requires a data point to go with it.

For instance, if you make the claim that cloud services can be scaled up to meet demand, well, that’s a pretty widely known feature. You don’t really need extra research to show that the cloud’s scalability is more than a myth.

Now, on the other hand, if you want to say that a particular cloud service improves uptime, you better have a specific number in mind.

Above all else, remember that data should facilitate your story, not be the story itself. If the numbers become the focus over the message, you’ll lose your audience.

Using data to construct a strong narrative

Data should be present for every stage of the storytelling process, from ideation to execution. The fundamental components of your narrative should be pieced together with the help of content marketing data.

For instance, take a look at what topics are trending on social media to get a sense of what’s gaining traction with your audience. If a particular angle is getting a lot of attention on LinkedIn, that’s good fodder for your own storytelling. Analyze trending blogs to see what elements you can work into the narrative of your piece to give it the best shot at capturing people’s attention.

Buzzsumo’s a fantastic tool for gathering social media metrics that can inform your own storytelling and content narratives.

Another angle to take is to use data that runs against common wisdom to get readers’ attention. There are some statistics that have been so widely and consistently repeated that people’s eyes glaze over when they read them. Did you know 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years? Yeah, of course everyone does, tell me something I don’t know.

Leading with data that contradicts or undermines things we take for granted is a surefire way to get people to take notice – just be sure you aren’t citing some dodgy stats for the sake of shocking your audience.

Representing key information with data visualization

One of the best ways to bring important data points to the fore is with graphics. What would you rather have: a dense, bulleted list of facts or a clean, well-designed graphic that lays out the same information? It’s got to be the graphic. After all, the human brain processes images 60 times faster than text.

Data visualization is a key component to the storytelling process, allowing you to communicate complex information in a neat package. We’ve talked before about people’s dwindling attention spans (we’re officially worse than goldfish at staying focused on any one thing, FYI), and well-placed graphics help readers digest your brand’s value adds and messaging at a time when they’re bombarded with content from all sides.

It could be something as rudimentary as a pie chart or bar graph, but imagery helps the reader consume, contextualize and understand information that may otherwise get lost in translation. If you have a piece of data that’s not only relevant to your customer but essential to your brand message, shine the spotlight on it. Graphics are the best and most effective way to do that.

They don’t need to be boring, cut-and-dry charts or graphs, either. Well-designed custom images can bring important data points forward in a creative and attractive package. If you want to get eyeballs on a specific piece of information, a custom graphic is the way to go.

According to TARGIT Senior BI Consultant David Hollinsworth, you have – at best – 8 seconds to convey your message before your audience turns the channel, so to speak. You need to take your shot and make it count. That means creating data visualizations that not only communicate some statistics or bits of information, but directly tie them into your brand storytelling.

Although separate visual mediums in their own right, infographics can help highlight key data as well. Infographics are ideal if you have a large amount of information you want to share with your audience in a very digestible manner. We’re talking way beyond one or two data points, here.

You do need to be judicious about when and how you supplement blog content with infographics, as the latter can easily draw attention away from the former. Is the infographic serving the blog or the other way around?

Let data be the engine for your content marketing machine

So, after you’ve gone through all of this work to support your content with data, how can you be sure it’s hitting the mark? There are a number of tools out there that can help you analyze your content and spot opportunities for improvement.

MarketMuse, for example, reviews the top 20 results in SERPs for a given search term to identify topics and discussion points that should targeted, flagging instances when those items are either missing or need further exploration to provide the right depth and substance.

Data should permeate every aspect of your content marketing efforts, from measuring performance to brainstorming topics. Some good, old-fashioned data analytics can give your team deeper insights into your target audience and what kind of content and subject matter they’re interested in. Some businesses have already done the heavy lifting for you, conducting surveys on digital content preferences.

If you have the means to conduct your own research, of course, you’ll get a more accurate view of the kinds of content your readers are looking for.

Analyzing both your past work and your competitors’ content is a good way to see what works, what’s relevant and what is doomed to fall flat on its face. The more research you can do into content performance and engagement before your team sits down and brainstorms ideas, the more effective those sessions will be.

At every stage of the content marketing process, data should inform each step you take – and that includes crafting individual pieces of content. Telling a story with data is a surefire way to infuse your message with credibility and authority and get even the most skeptical reader on your side.

Jeff Keleher is a writer and editor at Brafton. A man of simple tastes, he enjoys playing guitar, playing video games and playing with his dog - sometimes all at once. He still hasn't gotten over Illinois' loss in the 2005 NCAA National Championship game, and he probably never will.