The Content Corner: Creating Engaging Content with Data

Jun 15, 2015
A screen capture showing that there were 192,579 people visiting government websites at that moment.

Over the last several years, continuing advances in computer processing power and storage have brought about the growth of what some call big data. Mobile and wearable devices now also generate large amounts of data via our interaction with various apps and our geographic location. This endless stream of information is being harnessed to create extremely informative dashboards like and helping make advances in medicine and even farming possible. And while big data holds the power to shift our technological age into an even higher gear, it also needs to be mined for the great stories and content that live among the statistics and percentages.

Letting it All Hang Out
Social data concept graphic; the word social on a card that is surrounded by binary ones and zeroes

For most Web or digital media professionals, we have viewed usage data and analytics as something that we study internally and use to make decisions regarding content or features that we may highlight on our website. In the age of social media, we also use data to review how popular a post was, whether via likes or favorites or sharing. Again, these data points are used for strategic, internal decisions and inform our editorial and marketing efforts. But innovative organizations have discovered that data isn’t just for internal use anymore. It is content worth sharing and is part of the ongoing initiative to be as open as possible.

Startups like Hubstaff and others have made transparency a central part of their marketing and communication efforts, sharing any relevant data regarding their successes or failures and allowing us to learn along with them. Another transparency adherent, Alex Turnbull of Groove, pointed out that transparency is important, but it alone isn’t enough.

Mobile App or Sociologist?

Along with using internal data to help share a story and build a sense of community among your agency’s customers, anonymous user data can also be mined for content that can reveal interesting trends or patterns.

Real estate company Zillow is a good example of taking straight-forward information and remixing it in a creative way to create content that is interesting and shareable. By taking data from the Census Bureau (who develops native apps to showcase their APIs for third parties like Zillow) and combining it with their own demographic information, they created a Valentine’s Day themed post showing the best cities for love based on number of single residents, disposable income and “potential date spots.”

After a shaky change in business model, Foursquare has also worked hard on turning their data into content that is revealing about our tastes. Once again showing that with a little creativity, streams of numbers can be turned into fun content, Foursquare combined user data with Mapbox to show America’s Most Popular Tastes (I never knew New Mexicans loved sopapillas and actually never knew what a sopapilla was; thanks, Foursquare!).

A screen capture of the right half of a map of the United States, from The Foursquare State-By-State Guide to America's Most Popular Tastes. The map displays which food or drink is most popular in each state.

Turning Data into Content

In fact, data-based content seems to be a new strategy for Foursquare based on the last two emails I received from them this week alone. The first was a comparison of meats or vegetables based upon searches and tastes that people have registered via their app. The second of their “Trending Tastes” emails informed me that people are currently searching for swimming pools and encouraged me to do the same.

These examples really drive home how various data points can be directly turned into engaging content. Not sure what next week’s blog post should be about? Find a data point that would be of interest to your audience. Its pretty clear that Foursquare has a set place on their editorial calendar for regular data-derived posts and content marketing efforts.

Government agencies are also using data to create visuals that can improve the public’s understanding of complex topics: the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes data visualizations in nearly all of their publications. They specifically designed two of their publications to showcase visualizations.

The popularity of infographics and digital dashboards are based partially on our brain’s love of visual information, but just like listicles and quizzes, statistics even in text form can grab a user’s attention (I actually read those two marketing emails from Foursquare, for example).

In our constant struggle to feed the content beast, data can provide one more method to generate content. During your next content or editorial meeting, take a look at all the data that your agency generates and ask yourself: what stories should and could we be telling?

You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.