From Data to Narrative: Leveraging Digital Maps as a Storytelling Medium

March 10, 2020 by Sam Slater

It’s time for a story. Not the bedtime story that you might tell your kids or a gripping novel, but the kind of story that helps to bring in customers and revenue. It’s a data-focused story that leverages a surprising medium: interactive digital maps.

Stories have been around as long as humanity. They’ve also continued to play a crucial role in marketing, building emotional connections with the audience that cannot be replaced by hard data and statistics. Marketing storytellers win awards and drive global brand success

But it’s not just about following basic plot points and telling a video narrative. Modern storytelling is about much more, pulsing through the entirety of digital marketing and leveraging unexpected channels. Data, it turns out, is not diametrically opposed to storytelling; it can strengthen it. 

Let’s dive in. Beginning with an explanation of the importance of data-focused storytelling in modern digital marketing, we’ll go in-depth on how interactive maps can help you tell your stories and elevate your brand above your competition.

The Importance of Storytelling in Modern Digital Marketing

We’re living in an age of information saturation. The average person comes across thousands of brand messages every day. They only pay attention to a few, and it’s worth examining exactly what sets those few difference-makers apart.

typing on laptop with interactive digital map

Put simply: they tend to be story-based. A few reasons are responsible for that discrepancy:

That’s what makes stories so crucial for any digital marketing effort. As Celinne Da Costa puts it on Forbes.com when making the argument for storytelling being “The Future of Marketing,”

Brand storytelling is no longer a nice to have. It is a need to have, and what will ultimately maximize your business’s visibility, profit, and impact. Treat it as a compass for your marketing strategy, and the result will be a brand that is as profitable as it is captivating.

Leveraging Data to Tell Better Stories

It’s not just about the story, though. It’s about making sure that story couches crucial facts and figures about your business. 

At its most basic, that means data visualization. It means avoiding raw numbers, but couching them in a larger format that allows the audience to more easily understand both the data and the context. We’re more likely to remember numbers when they’re visual and they make intuitive sense in the greater scheme of things.

Findings like these have led to the infographic trend that is now impossible to avoid. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Google’s famous 2015 Lookback campaign, for instance, took its search data and turned it into a compelling two-minute video that evoked emotions, nostalgia, and subtly emphasized just how much the search engine syncs up with what the larger population is talking about on an overall basis.

That video is way more powerful than simply mentioning how many people searched for what terms during a given year. It’s not about overwhelming people with data; it’s about using that data to inform and improve the stories you tell on an everyday basis.

How Interactive Digital Maps Can Tell Your Story

That final point gets us to interactive maps. It’s important to realize that data-based storytelling is not limited to infographics and videos. As Gartner points out, there is no single visualization that works in all situations. Other media can be just as, if not more, effective, depending on the story you want to tell and the engagement you want to drive.

Interactive digital maps, in fact, can and should play a major role in that storytelling effort. If you’re looking to break through the noise and maximize audience attention and consideration, you have several opportunities that are worth exploring in more detail.

Letting the Place Drive Your Narrative

Great stories are driven by a great narrative. But they’re also grounded in a sense of place, an exact idea of what’s happening in that space over time. Done right, interactive digital maps can build that sense of space in a variety of ways.

holding phone with interactive digital maps

Consider the example of an interactive university map. Sure, it helps to guide your audiences around campus on a given day. Its opportunities, though, expand much further. They tell the story of:

  • Your research, by highlighting the places where it occurs and showcasing some of the outcomes of that research.
  • Sustainability, through highlights of your most eco-friendly buildings and initiatives including public transportation to replace cars.
  • Change and growth, by highlighting both historical sites around campus and construction sites where new buildings will benefit students.
  • An important day like commencement, showing the journey a graduate takes through family parking, where grads need to line up, etc.

Of course, storytelling in interactive mapping goes far beyond higher education, as well. It’s easy to imagine a hotel map that shows the story of the region or the ways in which your business embraces customer service. On a larger scale, a neighborhood map may show how it’s zoned, what walking paths and fitness trails are available, or what common areas (like playgrounds) are especially fun and worth a visit.

Each of these examples shows a specific narrative that you can expand on throughout the map. It allows you to always bring it back to that sense of place, the map of the physical space that drives all that collaboration, movement, and enjoyment.

Connecting Your Media Efforts in an Overarching Framework

At its basic, an interactive map is yet another marketing channel that allows you to tell a story by letting the place drive your narrative. Like videos, blogs, and social media, it can be the vehicle to tell your business story and make it easily understandable to your audience. Of course, it doesn’t have to stop there. 

Maps are unlike the channels mentioned above. In fact, they act more than a framework than “just” another channel. In other words, they can tie a number of channels together in a cohesive effort to tell the story more comprehensively.

Think about it from the perspective of your favorite book or movie. Multiple characters, settings, and story arcs all come together in the overarching threads. At its best, that’s what your digital map can become. It builds that framework that ultimately brings your other media together.

Storytelling means taking complex ideas in an effort to condense them down into digestible, relatable narratives. But that doesn’t mean they become simplistic. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Think of the university research example above. You might have videos, articles, and social media contests all highlighting the same thing. When they feed together into a single map, they allow your audience to skim over it, digest it, and understand the connections. 

Story Mapping as a New Digital Opportunity

The process to bring interactive maps to life doesn’t stop at the typical map. In fact, story mapping is a relatively new opportunity that’s worth exploring. More than any opportunity before, it quite literally brings the two concepts discussed here together. We’ll allow Geospatialworld.net to make the argument for us:

Story maps are a recent breakthrough and they are being widely used by journalists, scientific institutes and media organizations to convey their point lucidly, make the story more interactive, easy-to-comprehend and reach more readership… As opposed to conventional reporting and highly complex, inscrutable data, story maps not only simplify the data but very effectively ensure that the crux is reached to everyone who is interested.

In other words, story mapping is not about building a map of your physical space and then looking to build a story on top of it. It’s the reverse: building a map specifically to tell a story. In journalism, that might be global crisis topics like food scarcity and climate change, or simply the demographic distribution of population demographics or development in a related region in the world.

Through maps, journalists can easily make their points of comparison and emphasis, ensuring that even those not deeply familiar with the topic at hand can easily grasp it. The same effort, generally speaking, applies to business applications as well.

Here, businesses can build maps to make their case for anything from expanding the physical footprint to explaining the evolution of a business or its context within the greater industry. Interactive maps, built to support a specific story, can visualize the point and play a major role in convincing the audience of its merits.

Building Responsive, Interactive Narrative Devices

Let’s focus, for a bit, on the interactive component inherent in digital maps. All of the above would be true whether or not the maps are static, set in stone by the company publishing and hosting them. In reality, interactivity is an almost inevitable component of the entire process.

Modern digital maps are responsive. They can drive specific user actions, then change and adjust based on these actions. Of course, they can also record the same actions and show the results to future audiences.

At its most extreme, the result can be something akin to a ‘choose your own adventure’ game. Based on the information presented on the screen, no experience is completely identical to the previous one. Instead, each member of your core audience experiences a different variety of the story you’re trying to tell.

That sounds abstract at first. Elaborating on one of the examples above helps to clarify it. A day at commencement is different for families, students, and staff. A well-built map allows each of them to experience the day differently, finding what they’re looking for while always keeping the big picture in mind.

Expanding Your Digital Stories Over Time

Finally, interactive maps are unique in that they allow for a storytelling technique of continuous expansion. This is not a medium in which you have to map out your entire story, and full narrative arc. Instead, you can tell a core narrative and trust that, as the area you’re showing expands and evolves, so will the story you’re telling.

That might happen through new layers, new data integrations, or new rich media. It might just be the natural evolution of the space you’re setting your story in. Either way, this expansion comes with several benefits for your audience and marketing success. It keeps:

  • Stories engaging, adding new facets that allow for greater depth and credibility.
  • Your audience coming back over time, thinking (rightfully so) that they’ll miss something if they stay away after the first visit.
  • Your marketing efforts active, with a constant requirement for new content and considerations leading to an output that never grows stale.

That last point is especially relevant in a world of digital marketing that’s defined by constant change. By expanding your digital stories over time, you build a steady stream of content that can be shared on your other digital channels, as well.

Interactive Maps as an Innovative Storytelling Medium

Storytelling is as integral to marketing today as visuals. It’s been around for hundreds of years, and yet still continues to evolve. That’s because you’re not the only business looking to leverage the power of stories. Almost every brand uses it to some degree, leading to new requirements in standing out through more innovative storytelling.

In other words, it’s no longer just enough to tell a powerful story. You have to tell it in a way that no one else has, as well. In competitive industries like higher education or hospitality, that uniqueness only rises in importance.

Digital maps, in that sense, offer a storytelling medium that has been underutilized in this respect. Too often, they’re simple wayfinding tools. And yet, as the points above all combine to show, the potential of interactive maps goes much further. In fact, they allow businesses to think outside the box, leveraging interactive digital maps to tell better, more comprehensive, and more relevant stories.

Getting to that point is not always easy. It requires both the right technology and a shift in mindset from maps as a wayfinding tool.

Topics: Interactive 3D Map

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