From saber-tooth tiger-bait to link-bait, infographics have come a long way. Here’s a guide to their invention, how to use them effectively, and how to avoid infographics that add to the “contentification” of social media rather than offering real insight.
A Brief History of Infographics
There have been infographics in one form or another from the time human beings first applied paint to cave walls. The earliest probably promoted the best hunting grounds: number of wildebeest at the watering hole, likelihood of being devoured by a saber-toothed tiger, mysterious monolith sightings…your basic caveman data.
Before there was writing, there were maps, as humans spread across the globe, traveling by land and sea. Then there were symbols signifying crops and livestock, illuminated church manuscripts, and the presentation of scientific data in graphs, histograms, bar and pie charts (which Florence Nightingale did not, as many have reported, invent).
As the 20th century got going, infographics became ubiquitous. We used them as subway maps, street signs, in the morning newspaper, on PowerPoint slides at meetings, and to attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials.
Full of Visuals and Fury, Signifying Something or Other
People take in and learn information differently; some are more attuned to visual presentation, others find graphical information helpful for solidifying concepts they’ve read about. Richard Edelman, president and CEO of public relations firm Edelman, notes in a blog post on infographics that today’s PR person “must be as comfortable telling stories visually as we are with the written word.”
Edelman’s statement is as true for any profession as it is for PR, so it’s unfortunate that infographics have become an easy target for ridicule. But there’s no reason you need to suffer the slings and arrows of critics, if you follow some sage advice:
- Be sure of your facts
- Don’t distort data
- Get a great graphic designer
- Dive deep into details using links
- Share rather than promote
- Get all “CSI” on infographics before passing them along
Be sure of your facts – The best way to be sure of your facts is to do the research yourself, according to Tom Webster in his inspiring 2011 BlogWorld Los Angeles keynote, “Drowning in Numbers: Turning Social Media Data into Insight.”
After all, what you share in the social sphere reflects on your reputation as a reliable content provider. Unfortunately, social media is engendering what he calls “contentification” rather than insightful content, a “terrible torrent of bad data and infographics.”
Webster is vice president of Strategy for Edison Research, which handles exit polling during U.S. elections. He understands that finding the right answers requires time (and money, too, if you need to hire a benchmarking firm to gather and crunch the data).
“Data generated for the purposes of content creation is inherently incurious,” he says, “because it seeks to prove or show something, and not to learn something. Finding the real truth is a painstaking process of disconfirmation. You have a hypothesis, and you seek to prove it wrong.”
What he’s describing is the scientific method, which provides objective, measurable, repeatable standards and techniques for investigating and gleaning information. Yes, this takes time, when all you wanted was a clever-looking infographic to share on your blog and Twitter. But advocating for what Webster only half-jokingly calls the “Slow Data Movement” isn’t about meeting a deadline on an editorial calendar, it’s about finding “better answers,” data you can be sure is credible when it’s out in public representing you, your brand and your company.
While you’re at it, make sure you present the source of each piece of data on your infographic.
Don’t distort data – Social media already amplify the “truth effect,” notes Webster. When you see the same information retweeted and shared to Facebook and LinkedIn, it starts to feel true simply because of amplification.
Sketchy or overstated data in infographics can add a second layer of distortion.
Embellishing findings to make an infographic look more newsworthy, profound or sexy isn’t ethical, emphasizes Richard Sambrook, Edelman’s chief content officer, in that same Edelman blog. “We should engage with graphics but not exaggerate.”
Edelman’s blog goes on to quote artist and visualization expert Edward Tufte: “It is wrong to distort the data measures in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme.”
Remember that the recipients of infographics often are journalists trained to be skeptical of taking things at face value and well-versed in asking for data and details to back up assertions. You want to be able to stand – not hide – behind the work represented in your infographic.
Get a great graphic designer – Not as simple as it sounds. “The best visualizations use comparisons to make the case, with a central graphic contrasting specific data points,” explains Edelman. “They engage an audience by using a popular metaphor…Colors are used to show data patterns and enhance understanding, not as decoration.”
You don’t need someone who knows how to draw, you want to work with a designer savvy enough to translate concepts into compelling images.
Dive deep into details using links – I’m not sure why so many infographics are static images. They’re designed to live on websites, blogs and social media, so why not capitalize on interactive capability and offer your readers links to far more detailed information – and log more page visits on your site?
What you’re aiming for, as Edelman says, is an “interactive infographic that enables readers to control and explore data that has layers of complexity.”
It’s this ability to show readers the complexity of your research that enhances your credibility. And, while you’re embedding those links, connect readers to more information about yourself, too.
Share rather than promote – When you focus solely on content churn to feed an editorial calendar, what you miss is the purpose of social media. Conversation is the goal here – and that includes listening. Self-promotion is the byproduct, not the point, of good conversation.
One of the best instigators of rousing two-way conversation is insight, with its power to grab attention, make the mind race, and challenge assumptions. This is what happens when you take the time to put real research behind an infographic; this is “turning data into insight, instead of chartjunk,” affirms Webster.
On the technical level, make sure you offer an easy way for people to share your infographic and embed it into their own blogs and websites.
Get all “CSI” on infographics before passing them along – Once you understand the difference between good research and chartjunk – and consider the fact that members of your audience distinguish these, as well – it may give you pause before hitting Retweet.
Some helpful questions to ask yourself before sharing infographics:
- Can you verify the facts? Are you even given the option (i.e., does the presenter provide data sources)?
- How sound is the study methodology?
- How large is the study population?
- How recent is the data?
- Is this something designed to promote rather than inform?
- How would I feel if I shared this infographic and then saw reputable sources refuting the data in the social media universe later?
Insight drawn from verified data creates valuable visual information for your infographics, enlightens the social conversation, and enhances your own reputation as a content provider worth following.
Further reading on writing about statistics and research: “Statistical Significance: Making Sense of Numbers”