Blog How the Houston Chronicle Adopted Data Storytelling Technology

I sat down with Stephen Weis, Executive Vice President Digital Revenue Development at Houston Chronicle Media Group on our Leading with Data Podcast to discuss how he spearheaded bringing data storytelling technology into the Houston Chronicle Media Group. 

What really stuck out to me is how relatable Stephen’s journey at the Houston Chronicle is with so many other leaders across a wide range of industries. We have an industry and company going through a massive digital transformation, one arguably tied to the company’s survival. There is the recognition that data and analytics is foundational to this transformation and the company’s ability to grow and retain customers. Last, there is a strong belief that there is a better way to use data and analytics to create more value than what is available in terms of the status quo coupled with the desire to drive this change forward. I have much admiration for visionary leaders, and enjoyed hearing from Stephen on his vision and plans for data storytelling.

I recommend reading below (or listening) for those going through their own digital journey and specifically sales, marketing, and advertising leaders looking to scale your ability to tell stories from data during your customer engagements.

A few of the highlights:

  • The Chron’s successful journey to providing a wide array of digital solutions to a diverse range of advertisers.
  • Great storytelling from data is how you retain and grow your customer base.
  • The key inflection point being with today’s solutions, storytelling stopped at the reporting part of the conversation with clients.
  • Insights into finding new technology, creating buy-in with leadership, and implementing across stakeholders.
  • The role of technology is to “save time” so your team has more time to think vs. do.

My takeaway is that true innovation is measured in business results and that innovators are always innovating.

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Cassidy: How does the business operate and tell us about your role?

Stephen: The Houston Chronicle, like many traditional publishers, has three sides to the business. So you’ve got your editorial side which does incredible work that you know needs to be done in our country. And our circulation side of the business or the consumer side of the business. And then you have the marketing side and this is where I spend the majority of my time – providing full digital marketing solutions to local, region and national advertisers. Those three are the core pillars that drive our business – what’s changed is how we connect our advertisers to those consumers. 

Cassidy: What does data storytelling mean to you, how do you think about it in this role and what is your vision for how you would like to play out?

Stephen: Years ago in our business, you’d run an ad in the newspaper and you can see the foot traffic at your store and you knew that there was a connection between what you did and what just happened. As things move to the web, it becomes more difficult to track that. What got me started was years ago when I was the general manager of Chron.com and we were looking at how we could cover high school sports in a very broad and deep way. There was a company that was using machine learning to take scoring and data from a game and create stories out of it. That was my first thought process into taking that concept and bringing it to the advertising part of our business. Omni channel reporting tools were the hot thing and you could bring all of the data together and synthesize it to see what is happening with the program that you are running. The challenge – there were a lot of screens, there was a lot of data to go through and you had to analyze it all. Hopefully, your analysts were reading and writing it right and then could craft the right story. Sales is all about storytelling. You’re prospecting and storytelling from day one right all of the way through the end of the cycle or campaign. Storytelling was stopping at the reporting part of the conversation. And so I saw an opportunity – could we take data and frame it in a way that we can create consistency in the storytelling to help a large sales organization?

Cassidy: It kind of stops at the report for both audiences. For the sales team being able to communicate the value of what you’re providing to the advertiser and also on the other side as an advertiser or a customer. They get the reports and then have to decipher it and call up your sales team.

Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. In the early days of creating data reports and putting them into nice looking dashboards and then giving a password to an advertiser and saying you can log in and see the performance of your campaigns. I think less than 5% actually did that. 

Sales people who are prospecting are sometimes creative people, they have to convey the reporting and then resell that, creating the cycle over again. I don’t think we were able to hit the mark often enough, both with getting the reporting to the client in a timely manner, number one, and then number two, being able to explain to what happened and show the value on why they need to either continue or sign up for a new campaign.

Cassidy: So you had an epiphany. What did you do next and how did you decide to tackle it?

Stephen: It came down to having conversations with our campaign managers, analysts and account managers. What kind of reporting dashboards do we need, what is the information that we need to display? What is the narrative that we need to write? Once that’s done we had to have a conversation with the client. I felt like something was missing here. We couldn’t get better fast enough even as we refined the process. For me the epiphany was saying, wait a second. Is there a way that technology can really help us here? This is when the search for a partner began. The particular challenge was about finding the technology to help us on the storytelling side to bridge the gap between time and space as it relates to when a campaign starts and stops and the reporting gets into the clients hands. We have a wide spectrum of clients. The folks at the top end have departments and a bunch of folks that know how to interpret this and determine whether or not what we are doing is working for them and if they want to continue, but that group in the middle, all of the way down to the end. Those are the ones that we have to be the educators, as well as the storytellers and the sellers at once. 

Cassidy: I suppose on your side, your teams are probably spending the majority of their time being able to understand and communicate.

Stephen: There was a timeline factor to it. And then there was, do we really have the confidence in our sales organization that you know they are able to go explain that? You also have new sales folks that you’re bringing into the organization that you’ve got to train up. So part of this was for training and development perspective if we had a tool in place where we could really help them tell that story more timely, faster. 

Cassidy: Where are you on this journey? Are you down the path of implementing it? And what have you learned along the way for others to identify if this is a path to go down?

Stephen: We’ve had the platform in place for about a month and what we are learning right now is that it was so crystal clear to me and some of my leadership that this was a really good solution for us. But you have to take a step back and say, wait a minute, is this crystal clear to everybody? And so I think there is still some internal education going on with some of our digital specialists, all the way down to the salesperson. What’s interesting is those clients that run multiple channels with us see the value right away. Those that have a handful, not so much because there isn’t enough data yet. To really help inform and tell the story we want to tell, we have to educate them and say this is a really good outline for you to fill in some blanks. So we are learning internally that there still has to be a lot of education done from an internal perspective and getting everyone on the same page and how different this could really be for them – from using all of that data and receiving it in a storytelling perspective versus just getting a data dump in an Excel spreadsheet using a flashy dashboard that’s aggregating all of that data that still somebody has to interpret and feel confident in the interpretation. 

So I think we are still early in this but I’m bullish. And I think a lot of the team members are bullish that this will eventually take off both internally and externally and will be, frankly, a differentiator in the marketplace for us as it relates to performance reporting communication to our advertisers. I’ve been on a mission for years to try to figure out how to do that better than anybody else, and who has the best dashboard out there and there are a lot of great companies out there that provide business intelligence tools that you can build upon. But what I’ve always found is that the delta between is not that big. So I wanted to figure out a way for us to be different. And not just different to be different, but to be different with a purpose that has value at the end of that equation. 

“A lot of the team members are bullish that this will eventually take off both internally and externally and will be, frankly, a differentiator in the marketplace for us as it relates to performance reporting communication to our advertisers.” 

Cassidy: Is there anything that you have stubbed your toe on, or that people can learn from or look out for?

Stephen: Even though it was crystal clear, you really do need to bring in bottom leadership down to the frontline and I think we did that for the most part, but not all the way down to the final level. So my advice would be don’t be shy and bring people into the conversation, maybe even people who might not even be using it. So they’re going to give you your litmus test and say wait a second, I don’t get it. Why would I ever use that. That would be the sort of the one thing that I would encourage folks to to make sure you have a really wide spectrum of eyes and ears on the situation before you deploy anything. 

Cassidy: What’s your recommendation for when to bring in a customer?

Stephen: We’ve been communicating with advertisers and clients and getting feedback. I think that you should be careful about doing that too early because they’re only going to view it through their individual eyes and depending on the type of client that is that that’s going to give sort of one view of the world, and we’re trying to solve for something that can actually give us a broader scale. So I would maybe wait until you’re 75% of the way there before you start and then do that. Be careful and understand the use case and bring folks in from the different pockets of the use case.

Cassidy: How do you get your peer group and management chain on the same page with regard to this type of project?

Stephen: Well, anytime you can tie anything back to revenue performance. You’re probably looking at a handful of KPIs that any executive, all the way down to a sales director will be looking at – in our case – revenue growth, number of clients, churn rate, retention. That’s a good place to start – how do you tie it back to the core KPIs to your business as a sales organization? 

We’ve also had use cases where potentially we have lost business because we haven’t had the most robust reporting so we look at retention and why people leave. So looking at all that and using those data points to have a conversation around how we might be able to continue to solve and do better. That’s how I start all of my conversations when asking for investment from senior leaders. 

Having those conversations weekly, some monthly or quarterly regardless of the frequency, the conversations need to be had. There needs to be consistency in how we deliver it. That consistency will give confidence to both our account managers and our frontline sales folks so that they can really speak to the performance of a campaign leveraging storytelling. We have to have a 100% hit rate, meaning we can’t have a client that we never get to, it’s important they always have to get a report. And not only do they have to get it, they have to get it in a timely manner. And plowing through the data doesn’t have to happen anymore. Now we’re confident that when a campaign ends we can run that report and immediately have that data and that story ready. And frankly for sales reps, shortening that creates confidence, in which we are able to now deliver reporting, whether it’s weekly, monthly or quarterly and I think we’re starting to remove some of those barriers.

Cassidy: Where do you see this space going or what solutions would make your life easier as a revenue leader two or three years down the road?

Stephen: I would say post sale, maybe some pre-sale process. Leverage technology like this to help automate any step of the way as much as we can. When you have a positive outcome and the positive outcome could be a new relationship with the client. Talk about that program that they ran, give the time back that an account manager or a salesperson gets so that they can have more of those conversations. At the end of the day, we need account executives and sales people to do what they need to do best, which is close business and the more time we can give them to close business, the better off. We’ve got to continue to figure out ways to remove all the hurdles in between before and after that and I think something like Narrative Science’s platform is really going to help us do that on the reporting side.

“We’ve got to continue to figure out ways to remove all the hurdles in between before and after that and I think something like Narrative Science’s platform is really going to help us do that on the reporting side.”

Cassidy: Anything we didn’t discuss that is important for the audience?

Stephen: I think the value of storytelling and how people start the sales process – you pick up the phone prospecting and tell a story, and that story, that’d better be great in 10 seconds or the story’s over for that particular opportunity. We’ve got to be really good storytellers. It’s interesting, given the time that we’re in right now, having this conversation between the unfortunate pandemic that we’re all trying to work through and the election. There’s just a lot of data out there. A lot of data that confuses people and so figuring out ways to synthesize that and be able to put that in smart stories, because I think people remember stories, more than they remember a great looking reporting dashboard. We want them to retain and remember. So that when we come in the next time to have a conversation with them about the performance of a campaign, that conversation is a better conversation. 

“I think the value of storytelling and how people start the sales process – you pick up the phone prospecting and tell a story, and that story, that’d better be great in 10 seconds or the story’s over for that particular opportunity. We’ve got to be really good storytellers.”

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