The impact of infographics on marketing, journalism

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By Linda Forrest

As a marketer and as a consumer of vast quantities of media, I couldn’t help but notice the surge in the use of infographics by my fellow marketers and the media in recent months. This has inspired quite a debate about whether the rise of the infographic signals the end of journalism as we know it.

What are infographics?

According to Wikipedia, “Information graphics or infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge.” In a recent Mashable article, “How marketers can get more from infographics,” the author, Laura Hampton, added the following worthwhile addendum to that definition:

…infographics can communicate just about anything, so long as it’s engaging, relevant and more compelling as an image than as pure text.

Infographics come in a variety of formats, too. Layout, orientation and styling are limited only by the creativity of the designer. We’re even starting to see the rise of “infomotion” — infographics with moving elements and interactivity that further engage the audience.

Who is using infographics?

Data visualization is nothing new, but in recent years, this approach has gained significant traction as a tool used by marketers and journalists alike. There is significant criticism of the overuse of the tactic, and arguments abound that they are more about style than substance.

What are the criticisms?

In a recent article in the Atlantic, senior editor Megan McArdle wrote about the so-called “scourge of the web,” and squarely placed the blame for the errors and omissions conveyed in infographics on shoddy marketers:

…terrible, lying infographics, which have become endemic in the blogosphere, and constantly threaten to break out into epidemic or even pandemic status.

The reservoir of this disease of erroneous infographics is Internet marketers who don’t care whether the information in their graphics is right … just so long as you link it.

The same could be said of any market-facing materials, however. With dwindling numbers of reporters and editors in newsrooms, some erroneous information – written, visual or otherwise – is bound to make it into print, as there are fewer eyeballs dedicated to fact-checking and proofing media copy. When it comes to the veritable Wild West of the internet, there is no such watchdog and so fallacies and falsehoods – intentional or otherwise – can quickly disperse far and wide. It’s not fair to blame the medium, however.

From an AdWeek article called Infographic Overload?:

John Boitnott is the vp of business development at Hasai, a firm that once focused on promoting publishers’ presence on sites like Digg and Reddit. Increasingly, Boitnott said his company is putting energy into creating infographics.

“I think of an infographic as just another type of content,” he said. “There are some lousy picture posts, some videos that are not compelling , some articles that are not well-written. But the cream will rise to the top.”

Why the rise in popularity?

In that same AdWeek piece, a tech PR executive pointed to what he felt were the reasons for their increased popularity:

So why are they flourishing, and why now? [Josh] Jones-Dilworth [of Jones-Dilworth, Inc.] said it’s a confluence of several factors, including an increasing interest in data, the development of data visualization tools (in fact, the goal of year-old startup Visual.ly is to create these tools) and the “withering” of art departments at many publications.

An astute observation and one that considers not only the preferences of the modern marketplace to consume information in easily digested, bite-sized pieces but also the market reality of the modern newsroom (read: fewer professionals to do the work). But it’s the popularity of data itself that proves a compelling business case for the infographic:

“Look at Nielsen, look at FICO, heck, look at our favorite topic of debate these days, Klout,” Jones-Dilworth said. “Data is one of the biggest brand opportunities out there right now, and yet so few brands are thinking this way.”

How does the infographic impact journalism?

I quite enjoyed a Tweet that was making the rounds earlier this week, one that said “A journalist posting an infographic is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders.” Though I’m not sure I agree that acceptance of a more visual mode of communicating information that would traditionally be shared in a text-based format should be equated with chicken’s lining up for the slaughter, it did make for a funny image.

In reality, if done right, the infographic can be just another arrow in a modern journalist’s quiver.

A best practices approach to infographics development

It’s not recommended that journalists with no artistic ability dive into making infographics, though some of the more sophisticated infographic generators might do a passable job of turning compelling data into a servicable infographic. Joining forces with a graphic artist who can turn your coherent story into a visually pleasing infographic might be a recipe for success.

From Adweek:

Boitnott said a well-made infographic tells a coherent story, rather than just presenting a collection of facts. As for the charge that they are developed by marketers with no real expertise, Boitnott acknowledged that’s sometimes the case—but at other times, the designers do their research, or they’re created in partnership with a client who’s deeply knowledgeable about a subject matter.

Research magazine examined the role that researchers can play in tapping into this trend in an article, “The battle of substance and style.”

… journalist Andrew Losowsky criticises a recent glut of “relatively meaningless” visualisations, saying that the best examples are “inspiring, fascinating, visually interesting and easy to read, while conveying complex levels of information in an impactful way”.

But getting the right balance between style and substance is easier said than done. Losowsky’s assertion that “the visuals have to serve the data as well as the audience” is followed by plenty of examples of the visuals failing to serve the data.

Follow these best practices – develop and present a coherent story, serving the needs and preferences of the audience – and your infographics, whether you’re a marketer or a journalist, are more likely to be successful.

Image: Diagram This

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