Ways to build content with data

There was a time when graphs and data could close the browser, turn the page and clear the room. Not now. With the advent of open data, a new breed of journalists is coming through who understand both how to comb through the figures and represent them in a way the reader can easily understand.

Any brand seeking to emulate or compete with traditional publishers must do the same. There are a number of ways to go about this. But ultimately it can be broken down into a few simple paradigms.

What are you looking for?

Most data-driven stories are about extracting patterns that identify a trend or specific kind of behaviour. In most cases, the harder it is to find the better the story will turn out. Much of this can be achieved via filtering and analysis.

The next stage is to fit the data into a chart or graphic. Frequently, interactive graphs can be used with javascript libraries such as D3.js that allow the reader to examine the stats themselves. While there is still a place for the old-fashioned bar chart, many stories are now using more specific formats such as sankeys and circle packing.

Then it becomes a simple case of putting the story together. There are an infinite number of formats, but the following three should see you through.

Patterns or trends

Cause and effect. Look to find patterns of behaviour over time. Usually, this will correlate with other events. For example, it’s easy to prove recessions happen when banks fail and stop lending money. The challenge here is to find the less obvious connections. But be careful. If you look long enough there is a connection between everything.

Always remember that the endpoint is still the story and providing reliable and interesting information for the reader.

Top 50

Face it, everyone likes a league. Be it the Top 40 singles or the 100 Most Influential People in Time magazine. They put things in perspective. But by their slightly subjective nature, they allow you to create discussion and dissent.

Like with like

Simply comparing the performance of one product against another over a given period. It is both easy to demonstrate in graphic form and to understand. If there is one drawback, it is that it’s less effective as a standalone. Additionally, the data needs to be strong.


All three of these formats can be used to create new content. In a world where many companies are struggling to produce a steady stream of ideas, using data can be an easy win. Many organisations have a ready source of data they can tap into without upsetting data-protection rules.

There are many ways to illustrate such stories and it is worth remembering that interactive content is on the rise. The Content Marketing Institute found earlier this year that more than 75 per cent of respondents to a survey on interactive content said they would be increasing their investment in this form of marketing over the next year. For a better idea of what is possible go here.

Ways to build content with data is part of Content24, the blog for London content marketing agency FirstWord.