Pity the humble infographic. Why? Because, like a Kardashian, it's ubiquitous and it inspires strong reactions--often negative.
SaveDelete.com, a blog with tech and computer marketing tips and news, published a roundup earlier this year of the "Top 13 Infographics that Mock Infographics." (Among them: the very meta data set "The Number of 'Infographics' I've Seen This Week" and "Infographs Are Ruining the Internet.")
But, done right, infographics can be a powerful marketing tool. They're easily shareable and portable, functioning as content party favors that allow your audience to repost the material on their own blog or site, thereby spreading your message for you.
So what's an infographic? Exactly what it sounds like: Information expressed graphically, via drawings, pictures, maps, diagrams, charts or similar elements--all held together with a coherent visual theme and typically published as an image file. These days they are produced in both static and animated video forms.
This is not about self-promotion. The best infographics express rich, objective data in a way that's more accessible and engaging than a dense spreadsheet or ho-hum pie chart. Generally they take one of four shapes: an illustration of the "state of" some sort of business sector or function; a checklist or resource; a compare-and-contrast study; or the evolution of a movement, demographic or industry, says Joe Chernov, vice president of marketing at Boston-based mobile technology company Kinvey.
Infographics should be concise, creative and educational, conveying a burst of data in an eye-catching, succinct, portable package. In a world where every brand has the ability to publish blogs and webinars and photos and research as part of its marketing effort, your own content has to be top-shelf; it must stand out from the sea of sameness and not waste a minute of a would-be customer's precious time.
"Consumers today are smarter," says Leslie Bradshaw, co-founder and COO of Jess3, a creative agency with offices in Los Angeles and Oklahoma City that designs infographics and other forms of data visualization. "As they are looking for more points of information, more data about the decisions they're making, infographics convey a lot in a concise, accessible format."
Adds Chernov, "Infographics are inherently informative and visually engaging. They're expertise in a blink."
Get in the Picture
Here are some resources for producing DIY infographics
With IBM Research's Many Eyes tool, you can upload data and use it to produce shareable infographics in numerous formats.
Google's Public Data Explorer allows you to choose from neatly organized public data sets pulled from the U.S. Census Bureau and other providers.
Create infographics easily and relatively quickly at infogr.am using one of several predesigned templates that allow for customization.
Hohli is an online chart-builder that gives users the ability to create customizable Venn diagrams, bar graphs, scatter plots and other charts.
Piktochart offers a free and paid DIY infographics tool with lots of fun, flexible templates.
Visual.ly is a showcase for data visualization and a great resource for those looking to share infographics. (It's also a matchmaker for brands and infographic designers.) The "create" section has a DIY tool.
Part tool and part toy, Wordle allows you to generate a word cloud from any block of text. It's a fun and colorful way to create a picture of how a brand or industry "looks" based on the language it uses.
Let's Break it Down
The best infographics are entertaining, educational and intrinsically useful. Ask yourself: How will this help my audience? Will they find this applicable to their business? Will they be fascinated enough to spend a few minutes with it, then pass it around?
Infographics should be based on fact, not opinion. So use credible data (as you should for all content, but it's especially true here). Your ideas might emerge as part of that story, but credible infographics are rooted first in reality. If you are going to tell me what you think, give me a solid foundation for your reasoning. Your infographic should tease a larger story out of real fact, not feelings. What's a credible source? A research report from a reputable analyst or industry association is a good source; a blog post, less so.
The best infographics have a hypothesis and narrative at their core. That sounds high-minded, doesn't it? But it just means that you need to home in on the key idea you want your data to express. "Write a kind of thesis statement," suggests Leslie Bradshaw, co-founder and COO of creative agency Jess3. Then outline the main data points you want to use that support your thesis.
And by the way, when dealing with data, less is more: Don't try to cram too much into an infographic. Distill the essence of your message; if you still have more to say on the subject, link to a full report for more information. Cisco did this well with its video on cloud computing, "Consider the Cupcake," which used a baking analogy to forecast the predicted enormity of cloud computing in 2015. Cisco had a lot to say on the topic, so it linked to a landing page that allowed visitors who wanted to drill down to download an entire research report on the subject.
Lay out the narrative with an eye toward information architecture. This means organizing your information in a way that flows logically, without undue complexity. Create an outline that highlights your key ideas in a narrative form. Bradshaw says most people skip this phase and go straight to design. But mapping is the critical step to creating an infographic that tells a meaningful story and doesn't read as a jumble of numbers and drawings. "Do this [outline] stage first," Bradshaw advises. "Then get out the paint."
Awesome infographics use color, typography, illustrations, animation, video, charts and text to convey their data story. Hiring an agency like Jess3 is one option. But there are resources for DIYers as well.
Need some inspiration? Go to Pinterest.com and search "infographics." I'll warn you now: The boatload you'll find there borders on overwhelming.
Make sure your infographic is error-free. If I had a nickel for every infographic I've seen that contains a typo or a math error, I wouldn't be driving a 2002 Volvo. Check and double-check figures, source lines and text. If your infographic gets toted over to other blogs and embedded there (as you hope it will), you want it to look professional.
The goal, as ever, is to drive attention to and interest in your brand. So be sure to cover the basics: The best infographics are outfitted with social bling to allow visitors to easily share them on LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook, and with some string of code that allows them to be embedded on other sites, with a link back to you.
Joe Chernov, vice president of marketing at mobile technology company Kinvey, suggests including a call to action in the infographic as well--but nothing too complicated. "I recommend more of a stay-in-touch approach--like 'sign up for future updates' or 'get the full report here,'" he says, vs. something time- or sales-specific, like a free trial offer. That's because an infographic can have a long shelf life, and you want yours to make the most of it.