Data’s Right Brain: Calling all Storytellers

I had the pleasure of attending last week’s IBM Insight conference in Las Vegas as a retail-focused social VIP. The following is the second in my series of articles recapping the retail takeaways that surfaced from the event's data dialogs. 

Retailers’ appetites for tech talent have become insatiable as they attempt to quickly evolve from places that sell stuff to technology-driven platforms that seamlessly satisfy consumers’ demands for products, brands, solutions, and services. The rush to recruit STEM talent (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is in full force, placing retailers in the unenviable position of having to compete with perk-lavishing technology companies. Major retail players including Walmart, Target, Tesco, and Home Depot have also established independent technology labs and innovation centers, further escalating the need to attract and retain top-notch tech hires.

Several conversations and presentations given during the conference confirmed my ongoing belief that, despite these trends – or perhaps because of them – another skill set will soon take center stage. Data storytelling should emerge as a major differentiation-driver for retailers and for any company competing in the technology space going forward, for several reasons.

Photo by scanrail/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by scanrail/iStock / Getty Images

1.       Stories will trump transactions The world of “user-declared” data is exploding, as are the accompanying advances in visual data interpretation and social listening, including advanced Twitter analytics. Therefore, the stories that consumers tell about their lives, not just the data about the purchases that they’ve made, will become more visible and actionable. Consumers’ stories and multi-touch-point journeys will inform retail decision-making and brand creation as never before. Retailers will have an unprecedented opportunity to gain a multi-dimensional view of their customers, and there will be innumerable angles from which to approach personae creation and other segmentation strategies. In a world of seemingly endless insights, stories will unify and crystallize opportunities.

Photo by Mike_Kiev/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Mike_Kiev/iStock / Getty Images

2.       Internal evangelists will be needed – You would be hard-pressed to find a more data-positive event than the Insight conference. That’s why it was surprising to hear so many mentions of the need to sell the value of data to internal stakeholders. Mike Weaver, Coca Cola’s group director of data strategy, emphasized the need to remain “resolute” against internal opposition to data insights. Holly Devine, Urban Outfitters’ executive director of planning, spoke of her organization’s “disbelief” upon seeing the “real nature” of some of Urban’s customers uncovered, to include their ages and locations. She spoke of the need to “trust data that contradicts” one’s intuition and, at the end of the day, to be more focused on winning the war than individual data-driven battles. Clearly, it takes more than numbers on a spreadsheet to win teams over regarding data’s dividends, and the ability to articulate these benefits in a way that resonates with multiple functional areas is critical. In the end, resistance to data may prove futile, but progress can be delayed if teams aren’t on the same page.

3.       Data-sharing will be subjective – Remember when retailers forked over their data and let suppliers run their businesses? Soon, the days of “vendor-managed” operations will be a bygone era as retailers build ever-more-valuable stockpiles of data, leveraging the many tools showcased at Insights. It’s already happening. My supplier, brand marketing and solution provider clients tell me that they are having to “earn” access to retailers’ data. Retailers tell me that when they do divulge their data insights, they expect immediately actionable, above-and-beyond takeaways in return. Simple analysis and observation won’t cut it. The data stories that suppliers deliver to retailers will impact their future access. Ultimately, the data-earning arguments that suppliers craft will make the difference between having a competitive advantage and losing it.

One of the more popular guest appearances during the conference was that of Pepper the robot, powered by IBM’s Watson, as she deftly conversed with IBM Vice President, Mike Rhodin, on the main stage. Clearly, as “embodied cognition” gains steam, not all stories will be told by human beings, but that won’t make story-telling any less important as the cognitive era marches forward.

Check out Carol's first article from the Insights conference, Power to the People: A Surprising Retail Shift in the Data-Driven Era.