4 Steps to Viral, Or How to Create Infographics That Blow up the Web

Jess Bachman
Written 2 years ago
in Storytelling

Infographics have been growing like weeds in our content garden for the past few years. Some are beautiful and enlightening works of journalism and analysis; others are about boobs.

Whether you think they are the love child of data and journalism, or the bastard child of SEO and link bait, it doesn’t matter: the medium of visual communication is here to stay.

So how do you make an infographic that’s not only good, but ends up doing what you ultimately want to it do: resonate with people and blow up the web?
 

There are three main components to an awesome infographic:
story, design, and data.

 

Depending on your purpose, you likely don’t need all three. The most important one, at least to the viral end, is the story. And the story is usually where most of the “fail” happens. Below, I’ll give you my top four strategies for finding and telling good stories with infographics.

But before we get into the details, a little history. Newspapers – remember those? — have been publishing “infographics” as graphic companions to articles for decades. But infographics, in their current form, became popular in 2009 as a different and fun way to present and consume information on the Web. People began to share and link to them and, soon enough, all these links began to elevate the sites’ Google rank on related searches — and even more companies and services  began to get into the game. Some – such as Mint.com and its popular blog, MintLife (where most of my early work was published) – made good use of infographics, thanks in part to their focus on money and finance, where interesting topics abound.

What’s the Problem, Then?

The problem is, if you are a law firm specializing in mesothelioma, you need to produce an infographic about mesothelioma, in hopes that people will link to you with the proper anchor text. Virality requires a broader appeal — but that doesn’t stop every infographic producer from trying to push their niche content onto mass appeal platforms and blogs.

That’s why so many niche infographics suck: they simply don’t have any hooks in the zeitgeist. Take this one about mesothelioma. Are people talking about asbestos these days? No, that ship sailed decades ago. This doesn’t mean asbestos is not an important topic, just that the story is cold and will have no viral legs. There may be a new angle, but that would require some real research and these types of SEO-related infographics are often done with a minimal budget.

Instead, you get the typical “collection of facts” infographic done with a rushed and insulting design. You see it with every holiday. Producers looking to cash in on a predictable event, like Valentine’s Day. There is no new angle, so producers make an attempt to ramp up the other aspects with superfluous design.

So how do you get a great story?

Find the Gaps

The easiest method is to try to identify holes in the zeitgeist. These are often disconnects between what people are talking about, and what people are comprehending. Back in 2008, everyone was worried about the financial crisis, but often the media were just talking heads with no context… Just what was this crisis all about? It was an excellent opportunity to fill that hole with an infographic and myself at Mint.com, as well as numerous others, produced some big winners.

Make People Angry

Another tactic I use is create an infogrpahic to expose scams or otherwise make people angry. Many people have personal and emotional reactions to subjects like student loans, for example. But it doesn’t have to be a huge, serious issue.

A big win can be achieved simply by outlining the case against overpriced HDMI cables. Why did it work? Because at the time, many people were buying HDMI cables and the shopping experience often involved some sales rep steering you to a $50+ cable. There was something wrong there and even though the pain point was low, it was broad.

What pain points are you experiencing these days? Large corporations preying on the poor? Gold buying scams? You can bet others are angry about those things as well, and would rally behind an informative infographic.

Find a Compelling Story — or Let It Go

Producers often start with the data or a “collection of facts” and try to fabricate a story from it. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and while it may have worked in 2009 when infographics were novel, it’s pretty much a non-starter today.

If your data is real data — not factoids — then you have to find the angle and story in there.  You have to do some digging into that spreadsheet. Sometimes the story isn’t there, or it’s just not worth reporting. You need to move on. If you don’t, you will end up jazzing up weak data with over-the-top visuals and other chart junk to make an impact. Trust me, I’ve been there, it’s a lonely place.

You Don’t Need to Change the World

That’s last point I want to make about the story. Not everything on Digg and reddit is life changing. People flock to sites like LifeHacker for simple and useful bits of information. If you come across something along those lines, and you think it might work better as a visual, then visualize it! I came across the mathmetical formula for validating a credit card and thought it was cool, but also complicated. Turns out a visual presentation was all that was needed to bring some old nugget of info to the forefront. These graphics should take less time, so if you fail at making it go viral, learn and move on.

About That Mesothelioma…

Can that subject be saved? It could, if you take the an opposite angle. What’s the deal with this personal injury or class action legal process anyway. Why are so many lawyers looking for mesothelioma cases? There is a disconnect between what people hear and what they understand. Turn that into an infographic, while maintaining a standard of ethics, and you will have a winner.

So, there it is, the first step to making your infographic blow up: Find a story. News sources, blogs, data sets, API’s: they are overflowing with stories that could use the visual language of infographics. Let the rest of the linkbaiters have the bulleted lists. You are a designer, analyst, and journalist. Put all those skills to use and virality is often a nice side effect.

Jess Bachman knows a thing or two about creating viral infographics. His work has been featured on high-trafficked blogs, national publications and network TV. He has hit the front page of social sites like Digg and reddit 50+ times and has designed graphics that have hit more than 1 million pageviews… along with some that have failed completely. He is now a Creative Director at Visual.ly.