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29.01.16 / Architects of Next: Telling stories with social data / Jake Steadman, Twitter

Great stories rarely begin with “He opened the spreadsheet…”. Jake Steadman, who leads international research at Twitter, sees a different world – one where a 21st century fairytale might be powered by R, SQL and visualisation. Data and story telling might be less alien than you realised.

Data and research jobs used to be seen as the preserve of the geek. Hard-working, well meaning individuals who prepared the admittedly important, but rarely consulted stacks of documents every marketing and customer service team commissioned but rarely utilised. Its safe to say Jake doesn’t fit the traditional image – a sharp dresser who wouldn’t look out of place as a Head of Brand, he wears his computer science degree lightly. Having begun in market research roles, he was one of the pioneers for serious brand social data use during his time at O2.

Then again, perhaps he is simply the face of an evolving research industry. Social media exploded the potential scope and applicability of communications skills, and the same can be said of research. With more easily-accessible data, at far lower-cost, research has become more prevalent than ever before. Yet it’s much less frequently presented by someone who designates themselves as a research professional.

Steadman has the answer to this – story telling. “If I were advising the 22 year old me on what to do with their career, I’d tell them there are 3 types of people in research.”

“First there are the data scientists, the people mining the ever growing and complicated data sets available to us. They’re a vital part of the industry, and for me are most powerful when partnered with qualitative ethnographers to bring out the texture and contrast of a story.

“The second group are the aforementioned ethnographers. The more data we have the greater need there is to add a human layer to our analysis. I see more and more qual, or high-quality ethnography, than ever before. The point between these poles, general panel research, is being challenged.

“Third is where I would tell 22 year old me to focus: data storytellers. It represents a critical point, as tech evolves, and we move away from 100 slide PowerPoints that no-one listens to. How we extract an actionable narrative, and convince an audience, becomes key if we are to add value to organisations. This is ultimately the purpose of research – to help decision makers make decisions.”

Powerful stuff, and a reflection of the unique perspective you get working at organisations (O2 and Twitter) which sit at a unique point in history in fuelling the explosion of human communication, and therefore opinion sharing, through mobile data channels.

Unsurprisingly, he sees further yet for social data to go “it remains a big untapped opportunity for brands. At a micro-level, the ability to personalise experiences, and at aggregate level drawing large scale insights to spot opportunities and trends”

What about the surprises in the evolution of social media, to date? “There are lots. Sheer scale aside, social media has been truly transformative for the way brands communicate with their customers. Customer service has fundamentally changed, for example. And 15 years ago who would have predicted that brands would be using custom emoji’s or gifs?”.

Much of this can be drawn together in where he sees brands deploying social data, and social media more broadly, doing well: “Proper audience understanding, grasping opportunities, then empowering teams.”

It sounds like a powerful story, alright. You’ll also note that none of this conversation relied on statistics for impact. Where traditionally the route to being a CMO has been where that organisation’s power lies (P&L or brand), perhaps the architects of next are as likely to be those with the data answers, who can tell the stories well.

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