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Data Superpowers - May The Best Stories Win!

I’ve been obsessed with telling stories for as long as I can remember. But I was always a cynic about using data to inform creative: focus groups, research, and the like. I was a doubter.

Part of it is that sometimes I’m a stubborn know-it-all. But also, it seemed like a scam: smoke and mirrors people employ with their boss or client to back up their crazy ideas. It struck me as unnecessary, since storytelling was always second nature to me.

A Flashback:

1975, Delray Beach, Florida, 81 degrees, Poolside, Christmas carols playing on an AM radio station. My mom, slathering herself with baby oil, and my Grandma Millie introducing (5-year-old) me in front of a small crowd of her friends: “Ladies and Gentlemen, introducing Danielle, telling a delightful story: Fortunately and Unfortunately!”

My two big hits at my grandparents’ retirement community were Fortunately and Unfortunately and Ghost with the Bloody Fingers. All it took was the teensiest bit of promotion from Grandma, and I was a viral success, way before the internet.

No real surprise that I turned to a life of storytelling: broadcast journalism major; theatre minor; TV news reporter; documentary producer; book author; magazine columnist. Now: advisor to brand storytellers.

My sister snarks resentfully: “Danielle, no offense but you do realize, no one has ever been able to get a word in edgewise when you’re at the dinner table, right?... If your stories weren’t so great, we’d all hate you.”

My friend Ivy runs a storytelling workshop and salon, like The Moth. I’ve been going to open mic nights, watching and listening. I got up to the mic one time recently to tell a story.

But even for a natural-born storyteller, it takes work to get good at this. There are best practices. Things that work in this format. Things that don’t. And how do I gauge what’s “working?”

In episode-one of the Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge takes notes in her journal, logging the audience’s reaction to her husband’s stand up comedy act: which lines get laughs? which lines get applause? Detailed data on what material “worked” and what should be cut from the set. Midge recognizes instinctively that just like with open mic storytelling, in stand up comedy, audience reaction is everything.

So too for filmmaking, television, and digital content. With films it’s measured in ticket sales; in TV, it’s ratings; and in digital video: watch-time, shares, and comments.

It’s been the subject of many a conference panel, magazine article, industry workshop, and online discussion: cracking the code on video. What makes a digital video – branded or not – go viral? A shocking twist? An emotional tear-jerker? Comedy? Cats?

As much as people theorize and philosophize, the truth is, most creatives have been “going with their gut,” doing guesswork for decisions about the topics, tone, length, cadence, pace, talent, music, and fonts, that will make a video most engaging.

Sometimes a trend catches on and we rush to imitate the formula: hands-only-cooking-videos, stunt videos, retro sitcom videos. But replicating a winner isn’t easy. So, we scratch our heads and wonder: Why did that one work? And why did this one flop? What makes some stories so irresistible that people are compelled to pay attention and share them with others?

For those of us in publishing, digital programming, brand storytelling, sometimes it seems there’s no explanation.

Turns out, there usually is an explanation. It just takes lots and lots of data on lots and lots of people’s viewing habits to fully understand. Who has that kind of big data? Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Netflix.

Using their data, Netflix and Amazon have created some of the best and most binge-worthy programs ever, giving Hollywood and TV a run for their money. If anyone still thinks Netflix is just an entertainment company… Yeah, no. Here’s a paragraph from an actual current job listing:

NETFLIX, Senior Machine Learning Scientist, Los Angeles, California.

Netflix is in a totally new phase of its evolution. We are combining the worlds of tech and entertainment to create hundreds of new Netflix titles that satisfy audiences all over the globe… A critical piece of how we spend billions of dollars on content is understanding our catalog of content and how subscribers interact with that content- in other words, how do we best program our service to satisfy the diverse tastes of audiences all around the globe? As a scientist on the Content Development & Programming team, you will apply world-class data science techniques to transform Big Data into actionable models that inform which types of content we need to create in order to satisfy 100 million current members (and a billion more who aren’t yet members).

Fascinating, right?!

Now Google, Facebook, and Apple are getting into the entertainment business in a big way too. Because with all that data, why wouldn’t they? But none of them are sharing their data.

So, what’s left for the rest of us? We could take out our notebooks like Mrs. Maisel, or we could look for data partners who operate outside the walled gardens of the Netflixes and Facebooks of the world.

Recently I met a couple of content data geeks who’ve developed tools for analyzing all the video out there. They started a company called Limbik, selling data services to brands, agencies, and publishers. They provide blueprints for how to create video that will achieve desired results with the target audience. And they make recommendations for how to enhance existing video content so it’ll perform better. I’ve seen the power of this stuff up close and it works. It’s crazy cool.

So long story short, I’m a data convert. I even joined their advisory board. And yes, I do wonder what will happen if someday soon everyone has these superpowers. But until then, may the best stories win.

Danielle Dardashti is the founder of dash., a branded content consulting firm. She is on the advisory board of Limbik, a video data studio.


About the Author:

Danielle Dardashti – founder of branded content advisory firm dash. – is an Emmy award-winner, author, media executive, and former TV reporter. Danielle has been collaborating with marketers on branded content strategy for over a decade, and has held senior leadership roles at Meredith Corporation, Tribune Publishing, IKA Collective, and Magnet Media. She is currently on the board of directors of New York Women in Communications, and the board of advisors at both Cinelan and Limbik.


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