Research & Insights

Strategic Communication

What We Need: Analysts Who Can Tell Stories and Solve Problems

According to various industry reports, 90 percent of marketers consider themselves under-skilled at digital marketing, and 93 percent of digital marketers report that it is harder now to recruit people with the right skills. If you are fortunate enough to be able to hire data analysts, what does today’s ideal candidate look like? What skills should he or she possess? What traits are critical versus those that are “nice to have”?

We asked some of the top consumer/audience research executives those questions. Interviewees were from organizations such as Google, ESPN, Univision, Starcom MediaVest, NBC Universal, The Nielsen Company, the Media Rating Council and members of the Council for Research Excellence. Here’s what they told us.

The Ideal Audience/Data Analyst Hire

Audience analysis is part art, part science. Similarly, the ideal candidate’s makeup is also a blend of art and science. The ideal candidate could be described as “someone who has the skills and technical/analytical know-how, but who can also translate the data and extract meaning,” according to one of our sources. Many described this critical skill as the ability to “connect the dots.”

Connecting the Dots. Persons skilled at “connecting the dots” are able to translate and interpret data and findings into actionable insights. Analysts who connect the dots will synthesize the data in order to tell end users and clients what matters and why. They have an ability to distill the often vast findings, see implications and tell executives what they need to know in a succinct, usable form, e.g. “Here are five things you should do right now, based on the findings.”

When connecting the dots, today’s analytical hires need to be able to see trends and patterns. The best analysts, after analyzing a data set, decide what questions to ask next, based on the insights found in the first round, to see what other relationships and variables might make sense to explore. Today’s ideal analysts are not just analytical thinkers, but also problem solvers.

Storytelling and Presentation

Clearly communicating findings and their implications all leads to one essential skill: storytelling. This theme rose above all others in importance. While many analysts know their way around Excel and can build tables, many lack the critical ability to clearly communicate these implications to others. Storytelling involves not just translating the numbers, but communicating what they mean, including their relevance and implications.

Various communication skills are needed to effectively tell these stories, including effective public speaking, being a persuasive and engaged communicator, data visualization and telling the same story to different audiences (e.g. lay audiences versus top executives). Many stressed that, increasingly, effective storytelling cannot be done with just a “traditional” PowerPoint presentation. Low text and high visuals are more compelling, with meaningful data visualization where possible. Analysts must be able to connect with their audience and tell a high-impact, memorable story.

Taking a Stand. A final step for today’s data analyst, after connecting the dots, is to take a stance and defend his or her opinion. Some described today’s youngest hires as timid and not wanting to tell a client to do X or Y. However, part of an analyst’s role is to take a position that is based upon conclusions generated from the data, defending one’s findings. Analysts should make recommendations to clients and have confidence in these recommendations.

Types of Data Analysis Skills

While soft skills can ensure that our story is heard, hard skills are not to be ignored. In addition, both primary and secondary research skills are important for today’s ideal analyst job candidate. And in an age of increased access to digital data from a wide variety of sources, data literacy and evaluation of data quality are essential for today’s analyst.

It is also important for today’s data analysts to understand how to approach and utilize both structured and unstructured data, and how responsible fusion of the two can provide fresh insights.

Some interviewees cautioned that, in the age of “big data,” it’s important not to lose sight of core methods such as focus groups and surveys. Qualitative insights are becoming increasingly critical — particularly for understanding the psychographic traits that drive behavior. Qualitative research also often provides the necessary context for quantitative findings.

Hard skills. We asked about the computing and statistical skills essential for today’s analytical hire. Respondents agreed that a grounding in statistics is essential. Some said multivariate analytical capabilities would give today’s candidates a “leg up,” but at the very least, hires need to be statistically conversant. Advanced Excel knowledge is a must; SPSS or SAS can be helpful.

Executives also said consumer/audience analysts should at least be conversant, but not necessarily fluent, in computer programming and coding skills. Programming languages such as R and SQL were recommended. Most organizations use a team approach (media analytics personnel + data scientists) to extract needed findings from large, complex data sets, or use either an analytics person or data scientist, depending on the problem or query.

Soft Skills and Personal Qualities. Because being an effective analyst is part art and part science, here is the “art” that our interviewees said makes for the best analyst: natural curiosity. This curiosity drives them to ask new, original questions, and allows them to see things that others don’t — and then to analyze something because they just want to know. The best analysts are initiative- and risk takers, not waiting for “permission from above” to explore a new question or try something out.

They are also adaptive and open to change. Our industry is a dynamic one that is constantly evolving, along with the data and the ways we analyze it. Executives valued analytical hires’ ability to anticipate, see new directions, plan accordingly, and pivot.

Leadership in general is highly valued and project leadership and management are particularly valued in new hires. Team work is the norm, so good collaboration skills and being able to work well with others are essential. This includes the ability to work with persons “across” groups — engineers, ad sales, programmers, the left-brained and right-brained.

Where to Find the Next Generation Analyst

So where do employees find this ideal consumer/audience analyst? Some analysts are developing new skills on the job or through various one-off training programs. For employers, that means a needle in the haystack hunt for the ideal candidate.

Another option is to identify prospects with formal training in a range of data mining, research and storytelling skills. The University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, for example, is creating an online master’s program in Audience Analytics. The program is intended to prepare students in both applied and theoretical foundations to ask new questions, to see trends and patterns; to train them to synthesize these trends, to extract meaning, relevance, and implications; and finally, to clearly communicate these insights and stories to stakeholders in the marketplace.

Our College, and others, acknowledge that the next generation analyst will have to master the art and science of data analysis and help usher in a new era of advanced and actionable insights.

Amy Jo Coffey, Ph.D., is director of the new online master’s program in Audience Analytics and associate professor in the Department of Telecommunication.

Posted: August 15, 2016