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  • Jason Lucey

Analytics Storytelling and the Ladder of Abstraction

“Analytics storytelling” is a very popular topic. Lots of people talk about “storytelling with data”, but rarely have I ever seen true storytelling with data in a standard marketing performance review. I’ve been involved in analytics for a long time and the concept of “storytelling” has always appealed to me (and based on the number of other articles written about it, lots of other people are interested in it too).

One thing that I haven’t seen much discussion of is how to know what the right information for the right audience really means and how it works. This concept usually comes up in conjunction with KPIs, but not much else, which is unfortunate because it’s really important and deserves more exploration.

There is a concept in storytelling called the “ladder of abstraction” that fits this issue perfectly. It’s not hard to understand, but it is critical to do right.

Here is a basic form of the Ladder of Abstraction:


A better exploration of the Ladder of Abstraction is found in Storycraft by Jack Hart. Storycraft explores what makes great narrative non-fiction and how to do it. While reporting is rarely narrative, there are some lessons that can be learned to make reporting better. One of the most immediate is the Ladder of Abstraction.

“The ladder…rises from the most concrete level of any concept through an increasingly abstract series of categories…As you climb the ladder, the classes of things represented reach further across time and space…You gain comprehensiveness as you climb the ladder, but you lose the ability to form concrete images.” (p55-56)

Of course this is easy to apply to reporting. The highest level is the most abstract (i.e. business impact, shareholder value, market share). These are all derived concepts, not actual counts of things. It’s at the ground level, in the execution teams, that we measure “concrete images” (i.e. ads) directly–impressions, clicks, actions, etc.

But he goes on and this next part is a bit tricky, but it is important because it gets to the deeper reality of how low-level tactical reporting and high-level executive reporting are different.

“If you can generalize about a larger class, you have knowledge that you can apply in a variety of situations…greater meaning resides on the ladder’s upper rungs.” (p56-57)

Meaning is a powerful word. For Hart, meaning is the central theme the author is trying to communicate and it carries a lot of emotional, universal impact.

Meaning == Theme == “What does this all mean”

This may seem trite, but there is a real benefit to exploring this.

“Theme gives the audience a sense of time well invested” (p137)

Or, to appropriate this for our own purposes, “Theme gives the Vice President of Marketing a sense of resources well invested.”

How can this be? Actually it makes a lot of sense. Let’s look at what makes a good theme, and things become obvious.

"A true theme…must, of course, contain a verb…I want transitive verbs…because they answer the question ‘what?’ Sentences built around transitive verbs show causality. And causality is the essence of a theme that tells readers how the world works and how they can influence it." (p144)

In the analytics world we call this actionable insights. To rise to the level of Theme, a report must contain some kind of learning and that knowledge must be converted to insights. Now we are back on solid analytic ground.

Examples: At the creative level: “Green ads get more clicks.” At the channel level: “Weekends are better for Facebook.” At the director level: “Facebook drives more repeat purchases.” At the executive level: “Data driven marketing improves profit margins.”

An example of how revenue might be understood at each rung of the ladder:

Each theme statement utilizes data appropriate for the ladder rung to express knowledge that is converted into insight. Those insights will inform future action, and those actions make things better.

The audience feels fulfilled because their [time | dollars | resources] have not been wasted, in several ways. The marketing activity was purposeful and the meeting where they reviewed the activity was insightful. All in all, time well spent.

In summary, it is easy to see the importance of understanding abstraction as a basic tenant of building any report. If you want to communicate the appropriate insights to the right people, then knowing how to bubble up or drill down is critical.

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