By Joe Chernov published October 12, 2011

A Content Marketing Autopsy of a Popular Infographic

Let’s start with a challenge: Without mentioning other colors, describe the color orange. Seriously, try it. Go on.

Impossible, right?

Now imagine describing not only what an infographic is but also what makes a good one. Because it’s uniquely difficult to do this in the abstract, examples are key. So let’s channel our inner Jack Klugman (Quincy, anyone?) and perform an autopsy on a recent infographic, dissecting it to see what worked, what could have been improved, and what features might have made it truly epic.

For this exercise, let’s examine “The 50 Richest People on Earth,” a popular infographic published by CreditLoan this past summer.

intlwealthmap6

The topic

Killer. Its parameters are clear (50 people); it’s enticing (they are worth how much?); and it’s relevant to the publisher’s business of wealth and credit management. Moreover, it’s not a one-off piece of content. A few months earlier, the brand published another provocative infographic titled, “Is Walking Away From Your Mortgage OK?” The lesson here is that serializing content can contribute to scale and continuity.

The visual

The image itself it refreshingly simple. Too many infographics seem to be complex for the sake of complexity. Not this one. The 50 Richest People on Earth overlays the names and net worth on top of a world map. Doesn’t get more straightforward than that.

But then the designer pulled up a bit short. The infographic does little to go beyond the source data (an article in Forbes). In many ways, it doesn’t contain anything that the original article lacks. It doesn’t add to, challenge, remix or offer commentary on the content in Forbes’ list. It simply overlays the names onto a map. Great infographics are faithful to the data while providing a relevant perspective. This visual is, in many ways, too faithful to the data and too literal a translation for the medium.

The design also misses the opportunity to engage readers with more compelling visuals. Data in the infographic is visualized in three different ways:

  • A circle surrounds each ranking and the line weight corresponds to placement. The higher the rank the thicker the line. Initially, this seemed superfluous but then I realized the utility: It makes it easier to find the top earners with a quick eye scan. Since this is reasonably useful, it’s a nice touch.
  • Up/down arrows depict whether the individual’s wealth is static, rising, or falling. This is a quality element that adds a dynamic layer to the information.
  • A bar shows how close each mogul is to a $100 billion net worth. This visual element is useless. For one, the wealthiest person on the map (Bill Gates) is “only” worth $40 billion, so why should the bar extend all the way to $100 billion? That’s $60 billion in “dead space.” Further, 43 of the 50 names are clustered between $9 billion and $20 billion, making fine gradations in the bar difficult to detect at a glance. Lastly, the mogul’s precise net worth is listed alongside the bar, making each of these items redundant in the context of the other one.

What could CreditLoan have done differently to make the quality of the visualization consistent with the quality and relevance of the topic? Here are some ideas:

  • Iconography: Rather than writing the name of each billionaire’s industry, the creator could have used iconography to have some fun with sector identification. (A syringe, for example, could represent “Pharmaceuticals”.)
  • Illustration: Since the true stars of the infographic are the leaders themselves, CreditLoan could have created a caricature of each person. (Imagine if one of the featured billionaires happened to love his illustration? What would that endorsement have done to the spread of the visual?)
  • Context: Data is far more interesting in context than it is as an absolute. Since each magnate is already mapped to a particular geography, why not compare the individual’s worth relative to the median income for families in his or her home country? That addition would have contextualized the data for the audience, providing the type of nuance that is essential for remarkable content
  • Interactivity: Each capsule could have linked to the corresponding billionaire’s Wikipedia entry. This step is neither labor- nor cost-intensive, yet it would have gone a long way toward engaging the viewer more deeply.

Data

CreditLoan deserves, well, credit, for selecting a reliable data source: Forbes. Nobody in publishing does lists better than Forbes. That said, I cross-referenced this ranking against Forbes’ own “Richest People on the Planet” list and was surprised to find that the order and net worth numbers varied greatly. The lifeblood of an infographic is data reliability, and this particular visual leaves me questioning its accuracy. Linking the citation to the source article would be a swift and easy fix so no one would question where they are getting their data (and it would protect them should their data be challenged).

Taking this a step further, even though the creator selected a trustworthy source, infographics tend to benefit from multiple data sets.  As information designer Edward Tufte wrote in Beautiful Evidence, “Too often diagrams rely solely on one type of data or stay at one level of analysis.”

It also would have helped to have included a brief paragraph that characterizes their definition of “richest” (Total net worth? Liquid assets?).

As a side note, it’s worth noting that comments are closed in the blog post that hosts the file. Allowing comments is essential because it permits viewers to ask questions (such as the source of the data) and to suggest areas for improvement (so they might be able to reimagine how they depict the information for the next year’s version).

What do you think of the infographic? What, if anything, would you prescribe to improve it?

Author: Joe Chernov

Joe Chernov is the CMO of InsightSquared, a revenue intelligence company. He has been a VP of marketing during two successful IPOs, Eloqua and HubSpot. The Content Marketing Institute named him “Content Marketer of the Year” and AdWeek named him to their Creative100 list. You can follow Joe on Twitter @jchernov.

Other posts by Joe Chernov