The Infographic Is Suddenly the Media Uzi of Choice

In War for Attention

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Just beneath the surface of the digital landscape, yet in plain sight, a raging war is brewing.

Like a big global conflict, this digital one too involves many players: the media, brand marketers and social networks. Mirroring other great battles of historical significance, it's being waged for control of a precious resource that 's in short supply: consumer attention.

Unlike real wars where weapons are used and lives are lost, this conflict is completely virtual. It leaves us unscathed -- our bodies, at least.

I can't say the same for our eyes and our minds.

The web is starting to look like a virtual Times Square. To drive traffic, everyone, it seems, is increasingly relying on a gaggle of colorful, visual weapons. These include bulleted "listicles," slideshows and, more recently, the almighty information graphic, or infographic.

Infographic explaining the U.S. debt went viral (Source: http://usdebt.kleptocracy.us/)
Infographic explaining the U.S. debt went viral (Source: http://usdebt.kleptocracy.us/)

The latter has become the digital Uzi of choice in the war for your attention.

At times helpful, other times just plain gratuitous, charts, graphs, visually formatted lists and cartoon explainers are popping up everywhere. They're being heralded by marketers as "content marketing" -- the new new thing. That's great but it's time for a wake-up call.

The reality is that information graphics and its more interactive cousin, data visualizations, are hardly new. USA Today first pioneered their use nearly 30 years ago. And McPaper was preceded centuries earlier by the ancient Egyptians and cave dwellers.

What has changed in the past 18 months is that suddenly infographics are hot. They're seemingly everywhere. The format's most notable proponent? Bloggers. They have quickly embraced visuals as they realize Twitter and Facebook users find them so irresistible, they can't help but click through.

But they're not alone.

Many brand and corporate marketers are embracing the format.

Now don't get me wrong. There's a lot to be said for information graphics. I am one of their biggest proponents. I recommend them to lots of clients. The tactic, when used appropriately, has virtually unlimited potential. They can help many businesses stand out in the clutter. They inform, inspire and entertain. And they prove that content is indeed still the reigning king.

It's just that there's a dark side, too. Their misuse threatens the format.

Yes, information graphics are in danger of being overexposed. My hope is that marketers and media soon realize the appropriate time to pull the Uzi out of their bag of tricks and not just do so because they own one.

Here are three pieces of advice as you consider integrating infographics into your campaigns. In the sprit of the topic, I have packaged them all using the same mnemonic. (Feel free to convert these into um, yes, an infographic.)

First, infographics must make the complex simple, not make the simple complex. Far too often we make a doodle just because we can, rather than when we should. The result is that we inadvertently convey information in a visual format that would be just fine or even better in text. Use infographics to help people understand complex information.

Second, such visuals should have a strong consumer message, not be used to strongly message the consumer. This may mean that it's better to develop a multi-brand, topic-oriented product rather than one that is used to deliver a single brand message. Make the infographic story about your consumer, not you.

Finally, don't just think about how graphics can become social but about how social can become graphics. There's gold in your Facebook walls. Mine the comment stream for common themes and convert this flat information into a rich graphic. It will make it easier for your community to understand and follow the conversation in your digital embassies. Help us visualize the feedback you are hearing.

Will marketers and media get the message about infographics and at times lay down arms? Let's hope so. Otherwise, we'll maybe one day need an infographic to explain why we didn't.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Rubel is exec VP-global strategy and insights for Edelman.

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