Data vs. Content: Which Matters More?

Science and art in online communications

Of course it’s a trick question, since the answer is always going to be, “it depends”. Your circumstances influence the balance point between data and content, but one is rarely as useful as it could be without the other. All the data in the world won’t help you if you don’t have the right story to tell, for example, and content isn’t much good if you don’t get it in front of the right people and understand the results.

Could tipping the balance the wrong way at the wrong moment be fatal? Maybe, though I’d suggest it’s rare. You CAN get so wrapped up in data that it gets in the way making decisions, for example when you lose the focus on making it “actionable”. Content has its own rabbit holes: writers and designers fly off into lacy golden aesthetic clouds and forget their actual assignment, while coders always seem tempted away from the problem they NEED to solve by the one that would be INTERESTING (and fun) to solve.

The 2016 Republican presidential race actually gives us a handy test case involving the data/content balance, as we discussed in the March edition of my Technology Bytes column on Campaigns & Elections. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio chose opposite strategies in the weeks leading up to the early primaries, with Cruz basing his campaign on data analysis and voter modeling. By contrast, Rubio’s team pursued a content-heavy strategy, turning out more videos, blog posts and other content than most of the other Republican campaigns combined. Along the way, they drove sizable amounts of traffic to the campaign website. The result of this little experiment-in-the-wild? Let’s go to the videotape, courtesy of Campaigns & Elections:

A Tale of Two Digital Campaigns

When it comes to internet campaigning, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio present a sharp contrast. Cruz went all in on data and voter modeling, creating a score system for voters in Iowa and other early states. He placed a big bet on psychographic profiling of Facebook users, even hiring a firm to “scrape” information from the social network and use it to create data snapshots of potential supporters. Many credited his Iowa victory to data-driven decision-making, and he’s applying the same approach to the delegate-hunt now in progress.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio’s digital team focused on other priorities. In particular, they embraced a content-marketing mindset. With help from Push Digital, Rubio’s staff turned out a flood of blog posts and other articles posted on the campaign’s own website and shared on social media. To bring people back to the site to read what they’d written, they encouraged site visitors to use the “notifications” feature in Chrome (and now Firefox).

This app alerts people automatically when a site has new content, and in a tweet sent the day after Rubio suspended his campaign, Push Digital’s Wesley Donehue credited it with “driving a lot of traffic.” In his words, “It’s working.” Still, which of the two candidates remains in the race?

Indeed! By the beginning of 2016, Republican race was shaping up to be a showdown between Trump and not-Trump, as Greg Sargent among others pointed out regularly. In part because of his data-driven Iowa victory, Ted Cruz survived to claim the not-Trump mantle, despite the fact that he seems to be unliked by just about everybody. Meanwhile, Rubio watched his presidential dreams get crushed by a single hard number: too few votes.

Here’s the thing: once you have a basic threshold of content, any extra stories, images and videos may not help you much that much, unless you’re using them strategically to reach specific audiences. Data can also yield diminishing marginal returns, but a data-driven strategy should feed on itself: targeted outreach yields more data, which in turn helps you target future outreach more effectively, yielding more data, etc. You’ll ignore content strategy at your own peril, but don’t let it blind you to the power of data to help you get much more out of everything you create. What truly matters? The balance between the two.


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Colin Delany
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