It’s the scourge of effective marketing: content that caters to everyone and thus caters to no one. It’s plain old vanilla – ubiquitous, bland, and the default choice when you don’t really know what people want or care about and can’t be bothered to find out.

When you follow a storytelling approach informed by data, it’s possible to be much more specific, and thus relevant, to your customers’ needs and interests. Instead of plain old vanilla, it’s goat cheese marionberry habañero. Instead of just a chocolate bar, it’s Tony’s Chocolonely Dark Pecan Coconut. Or, instead of yet another white paper about the virtues of a hybrid cloud environment, it’s a personalized video or peer-to-peer roundtable hosted by CIOs for CIOs.

Master the art and science of data-infused stories

Data-led content makes for much better stories, especially if you can personalize the message and delivery. What kind of data do you need to do that? Where do you find it? And how do you use it to create a more effective content strategy? Fortunately, you don’t have to be a data scientist, but it does require both art and science to connect the insights in your data to content and conversations.

“If you have customers and you have salespeople and you create content, then you have giant barrels of (data) monkeys that are just waiting to be linked,” says Julie Wisdom, co-founder and creative strategist for London-based agency ALIAS Partners, where she has developed a rational, proven approach for creating data-led content that doesn’t lose its sizzle and pop. “I say that because it absolutely can feel like a daunting task. But if you stick with it and just focus on linking a few at a time, your content strategy can confidently carry your marketing strategy.”

With 24 years as a journalist-turned-B2B marketer, Julie has specialized experience and perspective on how to best use data to create more relevant, effective content strategies that tell a great story.

Add empathy to personalized content

First, Julie advises, dig into your existing customer data. When maintained, it’s the single best view into the behavior of your ideal customer. While search and social data are typically the easiest to analyze for topic popularity, customer data provides the richest insight for planning content stories and adding empathy to each stage of your buyer journeys. “Customer and prospect data are precious,” she says

Too many companies overlook or even avoid the data they have internally, either because it’s unstructured and difficult to get or they don’t have a strategy for how they want to use it. “It’s worth the time, pain and anguish of doing whatever is required to access that data, because it’s so hugely valuable,” Julie says, “as long as you remove anything too dated.”

The data in your CRM and marketing automation systems can help you understand how and why your customers became buyers in the first place. Looking across hundreds of thousands (if appropriate) of records, you can get aggregate insight into the buyer journey. Customer engagement data can reveal how your content is performing, including which content drives the most interest and what helps to move people most aggressively from awareness to consideration to purchase to optimization and back to consideration for the next thing.

“If you are feeding this information into Salesforce, for instance, you can see what decision-makers and influencers from a single account consumed through their journey,” Julie says. “This is one potent way to inform your content strategy for their future and also for like accounts.”

Use behavioral data to understand decision-making styles

Some of the most interesting insights relate to how people – and companies – make or influence buying decisions. Are they more emotional or rational? Do they make decisions quickly or more deliberately? There are distinct differences, depending on a person’s role, department, company, and industry – and the buying personality of the company.

“Two companies in the same industry can be radically different,” Julie says, “so why do we focus just on grouping profiles of roles rather than profiles of businesses?” She adds that different types of companies often have a distinctive style of decision-making based on their culture and leadership.

ALIAS uses a model for profiling prospects and target accounts based on buying modalities. This allows Julie and her team to create content based on stylistic differences, tailoring the tone of voice or format for different preferences, rather than producing different content for every possible segment.

Here’s how different decision-making styles might be implemented in your content strategy:

  • Competitive – interactive survey that compares answers with industry benchmarks
  • Spontaneous – infographic with high-impact statistics and graphics
  • Methodical – long-form, research-based white paper with lots of technical data
  • Humanistic – case studies or first-person testimonials that highlight how others have solved similar problems