Content Marketing - Design, Data and Narrative

by Tom Bowers on Friday 15 March 2019

latest trend or fad. 360 video, Google Glass, augmented reality (remember how Pokémon Go was supposed to “change everything”), us marketers are total suckers for this kind of thing. We should really know better, and we should also be well versed in the issues surrounding believing our own BS. But, time and time again heads are turned, and budgets are burnt on being part of the next big thing.

While there is a good reason for being in front of the queue when it comes to an emerging trend or technology, this is not a strategy that suits all businesses.

Rather than being held hostage by the latest trend to arise, as marketers, we should be looking for longevity, consistency, and reliability when aspiring to create content in order to attract and engage new and existing audiences.


I started toying with different answers to this issue maybe three years ago, inspired by a well-worn piece of content by Velocity Partners. This blog post (published way back in 2013) spelt out a dangerous and inevitable truth - if agencies and business continue to create content just for the sake of it, web users will be buried underneath a mountain of content that is essentially, crap.

The world of content marketing all agree, and then proceed to fall over themselves trying to perform the perfect Baton Roue.

In a worldwide web stuffed to the brim with misinformation, content marketers should be looking to provide users with content that enlightens, entertains and engages rather than add to the pile of useless content that adds no value to the user's web experience.

How To Fix Content Marketing

This is far easier said than done. Pressure from clients and budgets doesn’t always allow for holistic thinking. But quick fixes can serve only to produce diminishing returns and raise difficult questions. Content marketing is a slog, it’s tough and failure is part and parcel of the process.

Minimising the chances of failure is possible, and there are three structural pillars that you can use in your own content marketing that can help to reduce the chances of your content becoming fodder.


These pillars can work together as a pair or a trio, they usually relate to one another or, one can be used to form another.

Think of them as three points on a radar graph, you don’t always need to explore each point to its fullest extent, but you should look to take each section into account.

In my own experience, any piece on content marketing worth its salt usually takes two or more of these pillars into account.


Big shock, right? Not like you’ve read this before. As soon as any marketer starts to talk about data it's really easy for us to thumb the nose and drop off, I get it.

But I want to talk about how we use data to form content, and there’s a simple truth here that you should be following when it comes to using data in your content marketing - does my audience care about this data, and is it useful to them?

If the answer to one of these questions is “no”, bin the dataset and start again, it's not going to work.

One of the best iterations of content nailing data usage, comes from Shutterstock’s roundup of 2018 Creative Trends

Arguably the best resource for web users to source video, music and imagery for any creative project, Shutterstock receive billions and billions of internal searches per year from users looking for the perfect imagery for all sorts of projects.

These searches, when collated and analysed, tell us a lot about what’s going on in the world of design, and gives us an insight into upcoming and current trending themes.

The data from these searches work on multiple levels

  • It’s predictive – Not only does this piece predict future trends, but it also uses data to confirm what we already know. The imagery itself allows us to go, oh yeah, I recognise that

  • It’s credible – Shutterstock should be providing this information, it’s from their own internal search results, they’re the authority on the subject

  • It’s rich – There's loads going on here, the use of video and imagery is great and rightly so considering who it’s coming from

What Shutterstock are doing well here is using data (on page searches) to drive a narrative (top trends for 2018) with a well-designed page (video, imagery, internal links to other supporting content). All three pillars in action, with an emphasis lying on data.


First things first, this is not a selling tool. Using a story to ram a product down your audience’s throat will not give you the results you want. Even if your product is going to change the world, you’re going to have much more success spinning a story that relates to the benefits of your product, business or ethos rather than screaming about it from the rafters.

With this in mind, one of the greatest online instances of using narrative to reach an audience comes from WeTransfer’s editorial arm, WePresent

WeTransfer as a business is essentially a boring concept. The transfer of digital files from one person to another made simple through a secure and easy to use process. Zero’s and ones from one laptop to another. Yawn.

What possible kind of narrative can you get out of that? What WeTransfer do well though, is use audience data to their advantage to form a catalyst for content marketing.

While the concept of sharing files is boring, the sharing of ideas is a different bag altogether. And with 75% of WeTransfer users identifying as creatives, you start to build out narrative that can run and run.

WePresent is a huge editorial undertaking covering subjects from art, film, sculpture and social equality. But what binds these articles, interviews, critiques and reviews together is a central theme – unexpected stories about creativity.

Data-driven audience insights highlights this rich narrative, and an innovative and arresting design brings it to life. Anyone with an interest in the creative arts can find inspiration from a well-known artist, they can explore theories and concepts around creativity and learn tips on how to hone their skills.

When the time comes for this user to share a document or portfolio with a potential client or partner, which online file sharing service do you think they might use?

The narrative here sells the service by engaging and exploring the topic of creativity

  • It sends a message that relates – WeTransfer know their audience and they create a story that they know will relate directly to them

  • The content is cohesive - The content here brings a whole wealth of tangents together for WeTransfer

Having a narrative driven by customer insights can be a really powerful tool that can be used to really connect with your audience at a deeper level. Rather than asking what’s customers pockets, we should be finding out what’s in their heads.


Design within content marketing has come a long way, and we’re at the point now where incorporating design into our strategy can no longer be left till the last minute. Making something look pretty, won’t cut it.

We need to understand that the design of an asset or content piece won't just affect how a user looks at a page, but will also impact how they interact with it too.

Great design can also support the data and narrative by making big and difficult datasets and narratives easy to digest. One publication holding the torch for implementation of this process is The Guardian, who continue to produce data visualisation pieces on large and difficult subjects – particularly Brexit.

Arguably the most important story to hit post-war Britain, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people are sick to the back teeth of the subject. And yet the internet provides a plethora of ways to breathe life back into a horse that has been beaten to death.

The Guardian is committed to making this gargantuan story interesting, digestible and understandable. This is no mean feat with a subject that changes by the day and has so many moving parts.

The amount of data that users can explore within this interactive piece is insane. Never mind the huge data dump at the end of the piece which allows you to inspect the individual vote of each MP, the fact that each vote is partitioned to show the development and constant state of flux of cross-party politics, allows the narrative to be told visually rather than editorially.

This increases the engagement and understanding of the subject whilst presenting the user with a unique view of Brexit politics which often bewilders and frustrates the public.

  • Visualise your data to push a narrative  - Use intelligent design to visualise your data and enhance your narrative when trying to tackle a big subject. Your audience will engage more and in turn, understand more as well


There’s a lot of information here, so here are some key takeaways to discuss at your next content meeting. The bottom line is this though, if you make crap content, you’ll get crap results. Hone in on how you’re using data, design and narrative in order to raise the bar on your content marketing projects.


  • Look at your own data sets - what trends and patterns can you find which can be explored in a narrative

  • Look at your audience data – what do they care about and what are they interested in? How can you use this within your ideation session to create a piece of content that truly resonates with them?


  • Sell the story, not your product – use narrative to sell a compelling story rather than the benefits of your product. You’ll garner more loyalty from your customers when you do

  • Think outside the box - Even if you work in a pretty dull and uninteresting niche, there will be narratives relating to your business or product that can provide rich and interesting narratives. Think outside the box a little, what’s related to your niche that you know your customers care about?


  • Start these conversations early – you shouldn’t be walking into in an ideation session without a design-minded person in the room. If there are non-available, ask yourself how an idea can be visualised and whether that is achievable before going any further

  • Think about the user – How can you utilise design to make a narrative or a dataset easier to understand and interact with?

For more information about Content Marketing, why not come along to one of our roundtables or speak to a sales advisor about how Content Marketing can work for your business.