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What Keeps Brilliant Visual Content From Being Shared

infographic segment-submersible
Image via The Washington Post

Almost all content is visual in some way. Numbers themselves are visual — they can even be quite beautiful in the hands of a talented designer. Yet many of us are stuck in a traditional mindset of treating numbers like they are supposed to be dull.

Visual content, like infographics, can strap a jetpack to your data in ways never before possible. It provides the ability to tell both static and interactive stories that help increase the depth and understanding of data, analytics, and even math.

Learning to share numeric information

In our social culture, we discover content through sharing. A powerful story designed as an infographic can attract people to your website or mobile site. It can also serve as a digital ambassador across multiple social sites.

Consider your morning routine. Like many people, you probably check your email and your preferred social network for the latest news. The actual professional news organizations may get a click, or you may listen to NPR or your favorite radio station on the way to work. In that morning rush, do you go to the website of your favorite brands to see if they bothered to post something new to their website? Me neither. But if someone shared an interesting link on, say, Facebook or Tumblr, I might see it in one of my news streams.

Infographics are capable of providing this newsworthy social content by conveying a range of data-focused stories that might otherwise be missed by your target audience — but only if they are supported by solid content marketing best practices that will optimize their potential to get shared.

Let’s review a recent infographic that tells a great story (win!), but isn’t positioned in the right way to maximize efficient sharing (fail).

Telling a data story with pictures

As of this writing, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which dropped off the radar and was lost in the Indian Ocean, is still missing. It’s a tragic, yet intriguing news story that has dominated many headlines over the last few weeks.

Where’s the black box? Why can’t the authorities locate it? Were aliens responsible for the crash? Was the plane shot out of the sky? Did something happen like on that television show, Lost?

The Washington Post shared an infographic titled, “The depth of the problem,” which attempts to show why locating the black box has proven to be so difficult. It’s not just that the ocean is huge; it’s also incredibly deep. Movies like The Abyss and Pacific Rim make the bottom of the ocean seem like some sort of convenient and well-lit place to retrieve this elusive, beeping black box.

It’s difficult for us to fathom the fathoms, but the Washington Post put a visual spin on it that’s both informative and as scary as a sea kaiju (aka: sea monster).

For starters, the infographic is attractive and offers a nice, brief introduction. It’s just enough to get us to understand what will come, but it also offers some basic keywords for search engines. Check.

By explaining the size of the plane, we get an immediate mental picture. It gives us perspective as we scroll down the length of the infographic. At key points, it offers some key details that show where certain sea creatures (all real, no kaiju) live. Numbers along the edge tell us that we’re getting deeper and deeper. The pale blue at the top of the infographic slowly changes to a darker, more ominous hue.

Deeper and deeper still, it’s the data that grabs us. They show that the Titanic sank in a part of the ocean that was significantly more shallow… and then remind us that it took 73 years to locate that ship when it went down! An amazing fact, coupled with crisp, lean storytelling.

When we hit the bottom of the infographic, we not only realize why this location effort has been so difficult, we also realize that Hollywood has made it look so ridiculously easy to find submerged vessels. The Post could have given us a statistic or ocean depth or any other number, but those would have been mere abstracts. The pictures brought the story to life.

The story was the numbers and they didn’t just tell us why they were interesting. They showed us why.

This was a fantastic infographic, to be sure. But while the content itself has succeeded, the Washington Post has missed opportunities to maximize the engagement potential of its infographic through social media channels. Big kudos to the Washington Post team for designing a fantastic visualization tool; but in the end, a visual content strategy is more than just making an infographic.

What the Post could have done better

The landing page: First, the landing page is okay, but not great. I mean, it’s fine to have ads, but the Post should have suppressed that top ad — it distracts the eye and pushes down the content in a negative way. Audiences have “banner blindness,” and this is an ad that will just get ignored.

washington post landing page

Now, let’s look at that landing page in more detail. See anything missing? How about some hyperlinks? This page — like all pages on a website — is a landing page. I landed here through a socially shared link.

If you go to the Washington Post website, you’ll discover a wide range of content choices. There are straight news stories, opinion pieces, links… it’s really good stuff, but it’s not linked from this landing page.

As a content marketer, your content must ultimately serve a business purpose — above and beyond the benefits it offers to your audience. If you create an infographic, it needs to be linked to the next thing that you want your viewer to do. Your conversion goals may be as simple as increasing registration, or as challenging as driving a completed purchase. No matter what the goal, your landing page needs in-line hyperlinks to guide users to the next step in their personal user journey.

Social sharing: Moving beyond the landing page, we can see that this infographic isn’t exactly shareable. Actually, that’s being charitable. It’s only going to display nicely on the Washington Post website.

I might want to post the image directly on my Facebook page, or on Pinterest or Tumblr, but I can’t. Right click the image. It’s not a JPEG, so there’s nothing for me to grab.

What happens when I try to share it to Facebook using the social sharing buttons on the page? Glad you asked. I get the Washington Post “WP” logo. Huh? This is a real problem. I don’t want to share the WP logo. That’s not what I am trying to do. To make matters worse, I am not even getting a good metadata description. Instead, I get the headline, “The depth of the problem” and some stuff about the people who made the graphic. To share this, do I need to write my own description and provide my own graphic? Forget it.

wp logo-facebook sharingInstead of taking a triumphant victory lap, the Washington Post was also probably wondering why this infographic wasn’t trending on Twitter. The reason: It’s because the metadata and OG tags aren’t keeping up their end of the story.

You’re probably wondering what “OG tags” are right about now. OG stands for Open Graph and refers to metadata that allow for better, richer sharing across social platforms. You can find some useful resources out there on Facebook, Twitter, and at the Open Graph Protocol website.

This is how it looked when I tried to tweet the link:

share link-twitter-depth of problem

No hashtag. No compelling description that tells me how interesting this infographic is. The headline that made sense when I was on the website now seems vague and uncompelling. “The depth of the problem”? What problem? In a Twitter stream, that wouldn’t make me want to click.

Let’s take it one step further: The headline should have had a compelling subhead, like:

The Depth of the Problem [Infographic]: Why Authorities Struggle to Recover the Black Box from Flight 370

Throw a hashtag in there and you’re starting to talk to the people actually searching for this story. The #MH370 tag was popular, and here’s how it would have worked in the headline:

The Depth of the Problem [Infographic]: Why Authorities Struggle to Recover the Black Box from Flight 370 #MH370

At least they had the @washingtonpost in the tweet. Here’s how it could have worked together:

The Depth of the Problem [Infographic]: Why Authorities Struggle to Recover the Black Box from Flight 370 #MH370 via @washingtonpost

That’s how it’s played for the win.

What they should have done

It’s easy to criticize after the fact, but this is an educational discussion. To maintain content marketing best practices, it’s necessary for us to learn from real-world examples — and not just the epic wins. Let’s just take a moment to deconstruct this from a content marketing perspective:

The first thing the Post needed to do was to create a shareable image. From a captured JPEG, you can’t really get the impact of the complete image (it’s just too tall for the screen). That’s fine, since it’s an infographic designed specifically to live on the website, but it’s not helping the publication attract readers who will want to see more.

The shareable version of the image should have just been enough of a teaser to show readers that this was something timely and special. Imagine a teaser that was just compelling enough to tell you that (a) this is really good, (b) you can visit the Washington Post website to see the whole thing, (c) there may be more great content pieces like this on our website (hint, hint), and (d) you can share this discovery on your social stream in a variety of convenient ways.

examples-sharing attempts-wp infographic

At the very least, the Post should have done testing to ensure that this image was going to share well for people who curate content. In terms of web content, the heavy lifting was done when the infographic was created. The easy part should have been how to share it across social platforms.

Getting meta for searchability

Metadata: Now let’s move on to another big sharing consideration — SEO — and consider how metadata supports the story. The Post team populated parts of the metadata description supplied for social sharing, but it didn’t do enough to help the story get noticed when it was shared across platforms. In other words, it didn’t contain enough “content data” for it to really get indexed effectively.

Some (not all) of these problems could have been solved using metadata. In fact, the template on the Washington Post website appears to use a template that accommodates these metadata elements.

Without getting too deep in the weeds, you can see that the metadata here is… not here. Take a look at the empty spaces where content should have been populated. For example, if it says content=”” that means something was supposed to be populated in those open and close quotes.

The yellow highlighted areas are the tags that they populated. The red text is what was missing*:

metadata examples-infographic coding

Somebody at the Washington Post included space for meta-tags — but they were never filled out.

And it’s not just the text tags that were done poorly. I’d argue that the biggest fail was the JPEG file that was set as the anchor image.

See this piece of code:

That’s this:

partial infographic image-plane

If you see that picture, what does it say? I might be able to guess, but some text treatment would have taken this vague image and turned it into something that enticed me to read more.

For example, take a look at my quick-n-dirty treatment, below. This is a mock-up that I would have forwarded to my design team, which would have created a few different versions that made it easy to share the image on different social platforms.

depth of problem-infographic example

Sure, this mock-up ain’t pretty (because my design skills are limited), but it does tease the actual story. Text and images must work together in social media. You can’t assume that the next time this is shared that your metadata is going to travel with it. Sometimes the image gets separated from the website, so you have to build an asset that can stand alone.

The fail of it all

Curated content may be cheap (in the grand scheme of things); but making content that people want to share isn’t.

You can’t force a message or image or video to “go viral.” You can spend advertising dollars to put it in front of more people, but that’s a costly proposition, and it doesn’t scale efficiently. As soon as you stop spending, people stop seeing your message.

Shared content is borrowed influence. Your shared content attracts a savvy reader with clout in their social circles. Their authority drives distribution, and this is something that holds true value to content marketers — at any price.

Your message has a chance of breaking through social media filters if it gets curated by your peers and other followers. Infographics can pass seamlessly through the permission-marketing barriers and reach your target audience without a dime of paid advertising. That’s why now, more than ever, infographics need to be part of your visual content marketing strategy.

The example shared featured well-designed content assets that told an effective story. Let’s be honest here, the Washington Post infographic wasn’t exactly a “fail” by measurement standards. With over 13k shares on Twitter and some 132k on Facebook, it’s doing pretty well, and the team that created it should be very proud. Seriously.

But… it could have been better. The success this infographic achieved owes some credit to timely editorial judgment and the overall strength of the Washington Post brand. This may not have been nearly as successful on a smaller website, or even on a site. It also may not have been quite as successful if the news circumstances were different.

For the Washington Post, it was the right content at the right time, and an editorial director or art director needs to step up and take a bow. This is a story that transcended international borders to become one of the defining news events of early 2014 and the Washington Post was there to communicate it through A-level content creation.

The teachable moment here is about maximizing your asset for sharing. Could that infographic have enjoyed even more views and shares if it was tagged and formatted properly? What if it had a shareable anchor image? I believe so. You decide, and consider what this means for your infographics.

Looking forward, your content marketing must include a comprehensive visual content strategy. Just making an image and hoping for the best is not an effective strategy (not to say that’s what the Washington Post did). You are competing with millions of pictures, movies, and stories every day, so you need a smart, flexible social strategy to reach your targeted audience.


Before submitting this POV, I went back to see if the article and infographic had changed. I was amazed to find that the Washington Post had updated its content and fixed one of the most troubling problems.

One section in the page source appears to have been appended as part of a news update. (It’s possible that it was there the whole time, but most likely it was just an update.)

coding example-wp infographic

Facebook is smart and picked up that updated text and thumbnail image when the article was shared from a phone. Other sharing platforms were less generous and shared the regular meta-tags. The tall JPEG may have been added at a later update.

Of course the Washington Post is a smart news organization. The fact that it continues to update its content just shows how much we can learn from quality publishers and apply those lessons to content marketing.

And even if you don’t get it right on the first try, you can still rally back for the win.

Special thanks to Jessica Mataya, Martha Walz, and Chris Cullmann for their valuable input on this POV.

Looking for more details on the best ways to deliver content on social media channels?  Read CMI’s eBook: Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Internal Processes and Content Marketing Strategy Tactics.