Infographics – The Lindsay Lohan of Content?

I’m sick of infographics. I’m sad about it too because I used to love them. I was excited about the potential for infographics to help us get more visual in the way we communicated messages and told stories. Sadly this isn’t the way it played out. We got beautiful graphics alright. Lovely ones. But somewhere along the way Infographics became all about the look and the story was forgotten. They’ve become the web version of shouting “Hey look a rainbow!!” and we look, even though we know most of the time it’s a trick and there isn’t a rainbow there at all.

I’m worried that Infographics are becoming the Lindsay Lohan of content – People still click on the links to see the sordid photos but they stopped paying to see her movies a long time ago.

Let’s look at an example. Last week I came across this one – The Best and Worst of Marketing (if you built this, I’m sorry for picking on you but this post needs an example and unfortunately, you’re it)

infographic best and worst marketing The Best and Worst of Marketing
Infographic by Marketing Degree

 

Does it look great? Sure it does.

Now what’s it trying to tell us? It lists the “best undergraduate marketing colleges.” In terms of what, you might wonder? Most difficult to get into? Most CMO graduates? We’ll never know because in teeny font at the bottom we see the list of sources which include such specific references as www.businessinsider.com and the website for the University of Pennsylvania. I supposes that’s how they made #1.

Moving along we see a list of best and worst paying marketing jobs. The best ones are a couple of Chief Marketing whatever jobs and then there are 3 Director level titles. Where are the Vice Presidents? Obviously we’re underpaid.

Then we have the best and worst marketing campaigns, best and worst marketing slogans and worst marketing slogan translations. Like there is a way to actually measure or rank any of that.

What is the story this graphic is trying to tell me? That if I don’t go to the University of Texas I run the risk of writing a slogan that translates into “it takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate” in Spanish? I have no idea. The graphic is a set of random marketing tidbits (I can’t even call them facts or data points) prettied up by a graphics person for the sole purpose of getting me to the page. It worked – I’m here. I’m here and I’m baffled.

Has it educated me? No. Has it inspired me? No. Did it make me want to take any sort of action at all? Nope. What we have here is a hot mess of “data” that doesn’t tell a story.

We Can Do Better

Don’t be me wrong – I don’t think all Infographics are terrible. There are some great ones out there. I’ve mentioned Eloqua’s Content Grid here before and it’s a good example of one that’s really useful and informative. I’ve used it a handful of times in the past month when I’ve been trying to describe how different types of content is relevant to different prospects at different stages of a deal.

(totally random aside – I loved Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence. Here’s a post where he highlights the work of Megan Jaegerman from the New York Times that was done over a decade ago. Again, I wonder where we went wrong on this stuff)

But for every graphic like that I get a dozen like this, or this, or this.

When our content becomes the equivalent of tabloid journalism, I’m sure we can generate clicks and some short-term attention. We all like looking at interesting pictures. But great content needs to inform, educate, motivate, inspire or enrage. If our content can’t do that then we’re no better off than the scandal-prone starlet who’s embarrassing photos still fetch a fee but can’t land a movie role because the audience no longer pays to see her movies.

In marketing terms what I’m saying is this – it’s nice you can drive some traffic with those pretty pictures but I don’t believe you are driving any business.

 

122 thoughts on “Infographics – The Lindsay Lohan of Content?”

  1. Totally agree with you, and thanks for writing this. Speaking of Tufte, I always come back to his guideline to “above all else, show the data.” And those bad examples you show remind me of another Tufte quote from “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”:

    “Every bit of ink on a graphic requires a reason. And nearly always that reason should be that the ink presents new information.”

    Most infographics unfortunately don’t follow that rule.

  2. I love your analogies. This one now replaces the “Paris Hilton of websites” as my new favorite. You make a great point. An infographic (or any piece of content for that matter) should tell a story. Specifically it should help reinforce your larger positioning story. Without any substance, all it becomes is a frog saying “Budweiser”

  3. Hi April,

    Such a fabulous post. And the metaphor works on so many levels. Despite having some measure of success with infographics (thanks for the shout-out to The Content Grid v2), I’ve struggled with continuing to produce them. As you say, the medium is inching closer to tabloid journalism.

    I did a quick analysis of our most recent (at the time) infographic vs. a competitor’s (which was light on data, high on uselessness) and, refreshingly, I found that one outperformed the other across basic KPIs. Pshew. Here’s the post: http://blog.eloqua.com/infographics-jump-shark/

    Anyway, I remain conflicted because on one hand, there’s clear business value [good infographics are invaluable for inbound links and traffic (and we’ve even converted a significant amount of business from leads that discovered Eloqua through our infographics)]; yet on the other hand, everything you say is right (and hell, Jolie O’Dell cited Mashable’s fixation on infographics as one of the reasons she left the company — talk about a damnation!).

    Anyway, I’m ranting. Mostly just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for always writing colorful, thoughtful and relevant stuff.

    Your fan,
    Joe

  4. Great post, April! I love data, I love the meaningful stories and information data can tell us, and love both wrapped up in a pretty bow with rich graphics. Unfortunately, you’re right – there are so many of these popping up that have nothing to tell. Just a bunch of numbers and pretty pictures that have no meaning or context.

  5. if an info-graphic can replace 1,000 words, then it’s benefit is saving you time.

    But this in-flop-graphic WASTES your time, because you have to read every little piece of text below the icons, to try to figure out what it is saying. then you get to the bottom and realize it’s not saying ANYTHING important, and you just wasted your time looking at the smoldering piece of info-graphic pron.

    death to the lame info-graphic! we need to license designers, and lock the rest away in a room with a broken etch-a-sketch 🙂

    1. LOL – thanks for the comment Steve!
      I think bad infographics are usually a failure of marketing. I’ve seen a lot of them that look great – like, really great – but there isn’t any story to tell so it ends up ALL design and ZERO story. Which is pointless in my opinion. But that said – there are tons of them that actually look bad too. In which case you wonder why folks set out to design an infographic at all.
      April

  6. Other than stimulating off-website conversations about other examples of any of these, I don’t see a purpose, either. Completely lost the plot, if it had one at all. Jeff Goldblum’s opening line in Jurassic Park applies here, too, “Just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD.”

    Pictures are a fabulous way of telling a story (think Hollywood, Norman Rockwell and Life Magazine) but this is just a waste of time.

    BTW, I don’t even click on the stories about Lindsey anymore. I suspect I’m not alone.

  7. And what’s with the graph lines in the best/worst jobs section? They signify nothing! (That’s like putting fish random words in a bookbinder sentence because you think they look good.)

    It’s not surprising that something great, once popularized, would draw shallow imitations by the truckload – mainstream entertainment is practically built on this.

    Thanks for your reminder not to make this stuff, and to keep looking for the good stuff. Really, it just makes good blogs more valuable for saving us time and drawing our attention to the things that are worth our attention.

  8. This is an example of a direct marketer throwing up an infographic in order to drive traffic to their lead generation site. They have little interest in creating informative information – all they hope for is that some small proportion of the traffic that they receive might be thinking about going back to school and will fill in the lead form which is on the home page. Anyone who completes that form will subsequently be transmitted to a for-profit higher education school and will be monetized for $30 – $70 per lead. The economics can be compelling as an infographic can cost very little to produce and can generate a reasonable payback quickly even with a very small conversion rate.

    1. Hi Steve,
      Yeah, I get what these guys do but I would argue that something that was executed with a bit more thought would have been more effective. There wasn’t much there to inspire me to take the next step and that is the point of all of this stuff. Traffic doesn’t guarantee conversions (as much as spammers will tell you it does) and even if it does some, the potential payoff for a bit more effort is big (I believe). Direct marketing shouldn’t HAVE to be crap – at least for the sake of my eyeballs I hope not 😉
      April

  9. Great blog post and poignant reminder when I’m in the middle of creating an infographic! Thank you! I only hope my infographic turn doesn’t end up in court-ordered rehab…

    I agree that they can make for very good marketing collateral, but bad examples have proliferated recently. I find that the best infographics surprise you with their findings in some way, and are usually based on primary research or surveys. Still, I take even the most informative infographics with a grain of salt. I used to be in the “infographics industry” and if I learned one thing, it’s that data can *always* be bent to the marketer’s purpose.

    1. HI David,
      Thanks so much for the comment. Oh it’s so true – you can make the data say a lot of different things. In my opinion though, I would at least like the data to say SOMETHING, rather than just sit there as a jumbled up confusing mess of numbers all prettied up to look nice.
      April

  10. These infographics are symptomatic of a larger problem with regard to online content consumption. Yes, bad content creators deserve to be blamed but they seem to be pandering to particular type of content consumer. The rise of infographics parallels the rise of content aggregator sites such as Digg/Redddit etc. They are similar to the “Top 10 lists” kind of articles that you see often on these sites. They produce great results for what they were meant to be: link baits. If you are in the business of selling ads based on number of eye balls, then such articles are perfect. If you are not in the business of selling ads and you produce such content, then most likely the only metric you are reporting to your boss is the number of visits your blog post generated.

    But why do such articles work so well? The flood of online content has turned most online content consumers into impatient link-hoppers. Most people seem to expect to scan a page in a few seconds and gain valuable wisdom. Infographics are perfect for such people. It leaves them with a feeling of gaining some knowledge by simply gazing at an image. It is surprising how even on good discussion sites such as HN, so many people post statements such as “tl;dr; anyone with summary?” Its gotten to the point that many people begin their articles with a “tl;dr” at the top. How in the world does someone have the time to troll around the discussion, but insist on a ‘tl’dr’ for the original article?

    In short, people seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle: content consumers don’t have the patience and the producers pander to them.

    I’m sure someone is working on the next great version of the infographic: an infographic that can be split across multiple pages. An overnight doubling (or tripling, depending upon the number of pages across which the graphic is split) of Ad revenue!

    1. Awesome comment Vinay (and sorry you got stuck in my spam filter so I’m slow to post it).
      I don’t believe that infographics will continue to perform like they do today. I think partly people are still clicking because they used to be better. It will only be a matter of time before we begin to NOT click because of the word “infographic”.
      But that said, I’m an optimist 🙂
      April

  11. LOVE this – although I would have said the Megan Fox of content. With Lindsay, it’s more of a morbid curiosity (like the need to slow down to see the car wreck at the side of the road)…with Megan – people flock because she is spectacularly beautiful – but can she act? In any case, I completely agree that infographics can diffuse and confuse the message.

  12. > Does it look great? Sure it does.

    That is the only statement I disagree with. I think that not only is this so-called infographic uninformative, it is also hideous from an aesthetic point of view.

    Great post, and super-awesome headline.

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