If you don't know what an infographic is by now, you really need to update your Facebook profile. Throughout 2012 (at least), infographics have been a popular fixture online, especially on social networks, where brands, publishers, and everyday folks post them like they're going out of style.
But, they're not going out of style -- not yet anyway.
Part of what makes infographics so popular -- and powerful -- is that they leverage two things that the web does especially well. On the one hand, infographics are incredibly visual, which is great because the web is an increasingly graphic-heavy visual medium. But infographics also play to -- and off of -- our love for big data. The web, after all, is swimming in data, and infographics are probably the best way to turn that data into a meaningful message or story.
But building a great infographic isn't as simple as data + picture. There's an art to creating great infographics, which is why I asked several industry leaders to share their best advice for creating great branded infographics.
Good data is a must
There's an old saying that pretty much defines the Information Age -- "garbage in, garbage out." That's good advice for any endeavor, but it's something marketers should keep top of mind when building an infographic, because it can only be as good as the data you put in.
"Data is the very foundation upon which any infographic should be created, and if the data you're working with is untrustworthy, than your infographic will be too," says Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez, information design director at JESS3. "By visualizing unreliable data, you have the potential to mislead your audience, but by using trustworthy data you can create a graphic that is both valuable and informative."
For many brands, compelling data can come from internal sources. We are, after all, at the dawn of what some have called big data. From a marketing perspective, that means that all brands, regardless of category, are already data-rich (or at least they should be). But there are plenty of good sources for data, and many of them are freely available. And while the onus is on each brand to vet the data it uses, a little bit of common sense can go a long way.
At the same time, it's also important to remember that trustworthy data is transparent data, which means brands that use infographics need to be as transparent as possible in the sourcing of information by linking back to the source so that users can check for themselves.
According to Farrant-Gonzalez, those tasked with building branded infographics would do well to remember Edward Tufte, a Yale professor who has written extensively on issues of information design and data visualization. "[Tufte says that] the presentation of information in any form should be treated as a moral act, and as a data designer you ultimately have a responsibility to your audience to present something accurate and truthful," says Farrant-Gonzalez.
Balance the rational with the emotional
An infographic may be about numbers at its core, but they shouldn't be dry. In fact, they need to be emotional if they are going to resonate with an audience.
"The best infographics strike a balance between the rational information that needs to be conveyed (through numbers, charts, etc.) and the emotional attachment an audience has to the visual depiction, and that audience's reaction," says Adam Keats, SVP of digital for Weber Shandwick.
Of course, emotional resonance is a highly subjective topic, which is why creative directors get paid the big bucks. And while there are no hard and fast rules for emotional resonance, Keats does believe marketers need to start by making sure their infographic is relevant to their core audience and then present an engaging picture first and tell the story second.
As a guidepost, Keats believes marketers need to constantly ask themselves if the infographic they are creating is something people would want to share with their network on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Pinterest.
Keats offers this infographic that Weber Shandwick created for the national "'Got Milk?' Milk Mustache" campaign as an example of one that strikes a balance between emotion (the feeling we got as kids when we saw chocolate milk) and a rational story (data that shows overall milk consumption among school-aged children drops when chocolate milk is not on the menu).
Hierarchy of information
While it may be obvious to say that infographics flow from left to right, top to bottom, it's critical that marketers understand the importance of hierarchy when creating infographics, says Laurent Bourscheidt, executive creative director at STC Associates.
In a nutshell, good infographics have multiple hierarchy levels. At first glance, the reader should get the overall message. But as they drill deeper, the infographic should give up multiple levels of the story in greater detail.
"Good infographics work like a website or newspaper layout in most cases," says Bourscheidt. "There is an unconscious hierarchy that is well organized for the eye to scan and understand what is important and what is less important to capture. An infographic compiles one single visual with information in a striking way that makes the difference between the big story with the three points you need to remember for the day and the background news that supports the big picture."
Of course, there's also a balance to be struck between text and visuals. "One element shouldn't overwhelm the other," says Bourscheidt.
Make it shareable!
By now, marketers should know that social media needs to be, well…social. But it's not unusual to see branded messages out there that lack the necessary tools for social sharing.
"Any infographic you create should be shareable so people can post the graphic on their own blog or social network sites," says Jason Squardo, managing director of ZOG Digital. "This means that infographics should have an embed code that readers can utilize to repost your infographic. Within that embed code you should always include a plain text link back to your website, ideally to relevant content on your website or blog."
But there's a catch. Or maybe there will be a catch down the road. According to Squardo, marketers need to understand that the current practice of using embed code to create back links to your website is a good one, but there's been talk from Google about eliminating this tactic because it's been abused by spammers.
For marketers concerned about the possibility that Google may devalue links in their infographics, Squardo points to a recent Search Engine Land blog post on the topic.
The bottom line: Google is concerned about the proliferation of misleading infographics. But exactly what the search giant will do about those infographics down the road remains unclear. Nevertheless, it certainly behooves your brand to produce high quality content and share it in the meantime.
When it comes it sharing, it's also a good idea to do some basic syndication of your infographic to get it in front of people. Beyond Facebook and Twitter, Squardo advises marketers to push infographics through channels like Pinterest, Digg, Delicious, and Reddit. Stumbleupon is also a good option, according to Squardo, who points out that the Stumbleupon platform also has a paid syndication program that can help get your infographic an immediate audience.
Get ready for the infographics 2.0
Right now, most infographics are static. In a sense, that's a little surprising because the web today is anything but static and infographics are clearly hot. But pretty soon, the web's thirst for the dynamic is going to catch up with infographics. And when it does, marketers had better be ready, says David Clarke, CEO and co-founder of BGT Partners.
"The trap that people fall into is that infographics provide point-of-time data instead of dynamic information that updates with the theme," says Clarke. "Pulling data from multiple sources and providing up-to-date analysis will be the future of infographics."
It sounds obvious, but so far it's fair to say that the majority of the infographics out there -- including most of the ones that the industry points to as best in breed -- aren't dynamic. But that's not to say that there aren't examples of dynamic infographics. Click here to take a look at a dynamic ADT Security Services infographic.
Don't jump the shark
While infographics are great, they aren't necessarily a great solution for every marketing problem. But unfortunately, because they're hot right now, it's tempting to see them as your team's silver bullet for any problem. Don't!
Instead, take a look at your own Facebook feed and see how your friends react to infographics. Looking at my feed, I saw that infographics are incredibly common and really well liked. But on the fringes, there's a small backlash brewing. I've seen quite a few posts in recent months saying that they'd had enough of infographics, and quite a few posts expressing doubt about the reliability of some of the data.
While there are always going to be haters out there, it's important for marketers to understand that as the infographic craze shifts into high gear, they could be posting content for an audience that might be losing interest. That's not to say that infographics shouldn't be used -- they should! But infographics should be used sparingly and only if they fit into your overall marketing strategy.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
"Factory in lamp, vector illustrator" image via Shutterstock.