Insights from the Clouds

>> Tuesday, March 30, 2010

No, it’s not an ancient Phoenician technique for divining the wisdom of the gods. It’s one of VP Planner Jacob Braude’s favorite trends: the use of data visualization techniques to help us transform information into actionable insights that help drive business for our clients.

Take it away, Jacob!

A couple of months ago a blog post from the NY Times caught my eye. It was a short post about the clever use of data visualization by a TV studio to help ensure consistency despite their use of many authors on one of their most popular shows: CSI.

The technique they use is word clouds. If you haven’t heard of word clouds before, they are a way of visualizing the most commonly-used words in any piece of text. They are especially useful for pulling out the most important points in really long texts, like speeches, legislation or Web sites. The NY Times has been using the approach themselves to dissect speeches – especially useful during campaign years. If you want to see a great free gallery or word clouds – or even make your own – click here.

Here’s how a word cloud works: the program combs through whatever text you choose and counts the number of times each word appears. You then get a “cloud” of words from the text. In the cloud, the larger the word is, the more frequently it was used. This allows anyone to quickly grasp the dominant themes of any text – no matter the length – in just a few seconds.

The folks over at CSI use it to quickly analyze the script for an episode and see at a glance what the dominant themes are. They can then ensure that authors working on other episodes are able to pull those through effectively, creating a nice, smooth narrative experience for the audience.

In the marketing world, word clouds are useful in any number of situations. I’ve personally used them to analyze what patients write on social sites like about taking different medications. It quickly assembles an easy-to-read picture of the dominant words patients use to describe what it’s like to take a certain drug.

They can also be used to assess a competitor’s Web site, provide a quick way to pull out key themes in TV scripts, or analyze responder data from clinical trials.

Ultimately data visualization techniques like word clouds are another tool to ensure that we continue to pull insights out of information. Information is everywhere, but insights are what lead to ideas that drive brands forward.

Hope this finds you well!


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