Why we hired a data scientist

Paul FrickAugust 25, 2016

Paul Frick | August 25, 2016

Why we hired a data scientist

It’s not often you’ll scroll the staff list of a communications firm and come across the title “data scientist.” In fact, I’ve never seen one before this week when we announced the addition of Eric Newburger — a data visualization and analysis expert — as Subject Matter’s first Chief Data Scientist.

Adding a person with “the training and curiosity to make discoveries in the world of big data,” as the Harvard Business Review described data scientists, makes all the sense in the world for most any information-oriented company, particularly a Washington-D.C.-based one like ours.

Our decision to bring Eric on board reveals something about how we all need to think about communication in today’s digitally driven marketplace. Think of data today — the volume and the speed with which it arrives — as water gushing from an ever-expanding spigot. We see Eric as the person to manage that water flow and to divert it into a form that serves our clients.

Most enticing for us is our new ability to harness data as a tool of persuasion. Here’s how data can change minds and inspire action:

  1. Delivering Evidence: Data, when effectively interpreted and presented, provides the evidence that can help a message break through. Instead of just telling, data allow you to show. This is particularly important when reaching an audience that is by nature skeptical. Our proprietary focus group research of policy influencers in Washington, D.C. — a skeptical crowd if ever there was one — shows definitively that data and infographics make the content more persuasive and believable. This makes sense. After all, if you can show the facts are on your side, you have a better chance of winning the argument. But you can’t just do a numbers dump, of course. The next challenge is presenting the facts — the data — in a memorable way. This gets to my second point.
  2. Captivating the Audience: The sheer amount of content bombarding our inboxes every day is overwhelming. Our research shows that policy influencers, in particular, are drowning in information. Their spigot is like Niagara Falls. That being the case, it’s much more difficult to get their attention over the sound and the fury. The focus groups told us that memorable, useful and well-designed data — such as infographics and interactive tools — are effective in catching the attention of these influencers. Other forms of content — even video surprisingly — didn’t measure as effective.

There are many more reasons why it makes sense today to integrate data into digital communication and to bring on a top data scientist. (By the way, that same Harvard Business Review piece called the data scientist “The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.” You can ask Eric about that). The right person can make data that looks ordinary do things that are extraordinary.

For us, that right person is Eric, who spent the past 18 years at the U.S. Census Bureau where he was the key statistician behind the 2010 Decennial advertising campaign. He helped pioneer the Census Bureau’s use of data visualization and has served as a statistician in a variety of surveys, including ones that touched on immigration, education, voting, computer and Internet usage, and income data.

We believe we’re on the cusp of an entirely new facet of communication, one in which data is helping us tell stories, explore new terrain and add a layer of sophistication to campaigns that would have been impossible not all that many years ago.

Eric is already digging in to help clients uncover and interpret the kind of compelling data that can turn a smart campaign into a brilliant one – a memorable one.

So yes, you’ll see a Chief Data Scientist on our staff listing. Now the real fun begins.

Paul Frick Paul is a Subject Matter founder and partner. He has more than 30 years experience designing and executing communications strategy in both the public and private sectors. At Subject Matter he directs work for a wide range of association, corporate, government and non-profit clients, and helped lead legacy firm Home Front Communications' expansion into content and digital development and engagement. Paul learned the value of integrated strategic communications from working on political campaigns and for members of the U.S House of Representatives. He was chief of staff to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Senior Communications Strategist for House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt. During the 1998 election cycle he was political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.