Data Storytelling: Marrying Insights and Action

Data storytelling through thoughtful research has a special place in the entertainment industry. While it isn’t necessarily apparent to viewers, data plays a significant role behind the scenes of their favorite shows and movies.

Dominique Batiste
Dominique Batiste
Director, Marketing & Partner Insights, ViacomCBS

To understand data storytelling — the marriage between insights and creative action — we spoke with Dominique Batiste, Director of Marketing and Partner Insights at ViacomCBS. Dominique is a communications strategist with a passion for data storytelling and relationship building. Getting to the bottom of why consumers make the decisions they do is her passion. Connecting the dots and providing those insights is her purpose. She possesses 10 years of qualitative and quantitative media research experience at brands such as WeTv, AMC, IFC, Sundance Channel, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Starz Entertainment, and ViacomCBS. 

Read on to find out what we learned from Dominique about the role of research in the production process, how to best provide actionable insights to creative teams, and how to measure the effectiveness of these efforts. 

Research has a role at every stage of production 

Research plays a role in determining what’s resonating with audiences at every stage of the production process.

Pre-production, research can provide insights into the best-suited talent for roles, help creators understand their core audiences, and uncover interests in storylines, characters, and themes. 

Post-production, research gives a glimpse into exactly what audiences each character is resonating with, allows teams to determine themes audiences like and dislike, and helps content creators to figure out what needs to be dialed up or down. 

Post-release, research determines what actually landed with audiences, how to market the show or movie, and what to do next. 

Research at any stage of the process often provides surprising insights. Batiste tells us, “Research can definitely help shed light on what you thought would resonate versus what actually did. I’ve gone into projects thinking I had a good pulse on how an audience would react to a storyline, certain characters, themes, etcetera, then they would surprise me when I would read the results.” 

Her advice for facing uncertainty in audience reactions? “You just have to roll with it.” Audiences determine what stays on the air and what flops in its first season, so it’s important to listen to core audiences at every stage of the process and tailor the content based on what the research tells you. 

Timeliness and communication: the keys to merging data and creative 

If creative teams represent the imaginative right side of the brain, research and insights teams represent the logical left side. Merging expertise from both sides results in the best possible final product. 

Timeliness and good communication between the sides are elements of success. 

Entertainment industry insights teams know time is of the essence. The most valuable insights are useless if they don’t reach the production team on time. 

Batiste explains, “Insights at times are provided too far down the line to impact production. It happens. It’s not like it’s the fault of the research team or the fault of a program and development team. It’s a marriage that requires constant fluid communication. You need to get on the production team’s schedule and know when things are happening. This way you know when to plan your research so that you can get insights to them in time to impact change.” 

Good communication, too, is crucial during the entire process. Batiste says, “You have to be able to distill insights in a digestible way and make so they aren’t merely back pocket, nice-to-know pieces of information. You want what you provide to be actionable. It’s about keeping the communication clear with those teams and sometimes being a bit of a thorn asking ‘Hey, what are you guys working on? Is there anything that we could help with? Is there anything on the horizon? Anything pre-production?’” 

Reaping the benefits of data storytelling 

If the stars — and schedules — align, research can provide major benefits to production teams. At any stage of production, these insights can drastically shift storylines, character arcs, and themes to better align with audience expectations and desires. 

However, these benefits aren’t just the result of good luck or good timing. Research teams must put plans in place far before production begins to ensure that success is possible. 

Batiste tells us, “I get production teams involved in the research well before I would launch any of my research efforts so that I know exactly what questions they have. It’s important that I go beyond the scope of my own thinking and ask them flat out: ‘what were your pain points? What are some of the things you’re looking to understand from the audiences you’re targeting? If you can ask the audience anything you want at this point in the development stage, what would you want to know?’”

Asking the right questions and getting production teams involved early on in the research process has been critical to the success of Dominique’s research efforts. She recounts, “Getting them involved early on has really been a best practice for me. The more that a team is invested in research efforts, the more impactful the insights are on the backend.”

Getting production teams involved is also key to building trust between production and research teams. Batiste suggests to insights professionals, “It’s important to develop trust with the production team so that they feel comfortable enough to share those very early stage scripts and early episodes that are kind of top secret. This will make your job a lot easier. Having early access to material for testing leaves room for deep-dive analysis and painting a fuller picture.”

Measuring the effectiveness of efforts

While every insights team will have its own KPIs, a few common things help teams discover whether efforts have been effective. 

When seeking to discover whether research efforts made a real difference, Batiste looks for a few things. She says, “We want to know if people will watch it and if it’ll be worth the overall investment. Will it resonate with core audiences and bring in new audiences. We want to know if the show has life expectancy and how we should market it. And, of course, how it performed relative to other successful shows. Answering those questions helps determine if the research efforts made a real difference.” 

Audiences are the final consumer, so they will decide in the end whether a show is successful. That’s what makes audience insights at any stage of production so valuable. 

Data + creative, forever & always

As with any successful marriage, the marriage between data and creativity is one that requires a delicate balance. It requires the right timing, effective communication, trust, and good listening skills. The average viewer can’t tell how many hours of research are put into a finished movie or TV show. But, that’s what makes data storytelling so valuable. Behind-the-scenes insights mixed with top tier creative content up-level the average movie or TV show to a fan favorite. 

Interested in learning more from industry insights expert Dominique Batiste? Read this blog to explore shifting viewing habits and the role of diversity and inclusion in Hollywood.

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