Analyzing the Top 30 Infographics on Visually

by Paul Van Slembrouck 1 year ago Filed Under: Design

Ever wonder what makes an infographic successful? Why do some infographics accumulate more than 1 million views and others, barely 100?

We’ve talked about viral infographics before, from a creative process standpoint: the story, data and design of an infographic all play a role in whether it will appeal to the masses, as does the way it is promoted.

But what does viral content have in common? There are more than 16,000 graphics and visualizations on Visual.ly, so comprehensive analysis would take some time. A good place to start is at the very top. Looking at the top 30 pieces of content on the site should yield some clues that will guide more analysis in the future.

The primary statistic used is unique pageviews accumulated since the Visual.ly website launched in July 2011. Each of the top 30 graphics received more than 23,000 unique pageviews. Most of the success of a properly promoted graphic happens within the first week or two of being published, so the length that a particular piece has been on the site will not make a substantial difference in performance here. Also, note that none of the most popular uploads are interactive graphics or videos.

The graphics can be grouped into buckets based on four dimensions:
1. Content Type
2. Content Domain, or topic: food, photography, sex, etc.
3. Design Type
4. Contains Data Visualization? – Yes or No

We’ll look at content type (1), design type (3), and data visualization (4) in this post, and leave a study of content domains, or topics, for another day.

Four Content Types

(The SVG charts embedded below link to the individual graphics, but may not appear in some browsers).

1. Observational Humor

This bucket includes graphics that pick up on trending memes or long-standing social phenomena to make them visible by illustrating what we already know, or by combining observations in a new way to come up with a humorous result. The graphic about popular Halloween costumes is a simple illustration of a trend with which we’re already vaguely familiar. The Future According to Films and Advertising vs Reality take ideas presented to us in media and compare them to what we know to be true in our daily lives.

54,097 avg. unique views per graphic (excluding outlier)

2. Novel Insights

This bucket includes any new way of looking at something, whether by presenting research that uncovers new information, or by combining existing information in a new way. To qualify for this bucket, the graphic must contain some new insight that has not generally been common knowledge before it was published.

45,440 avg. unique views per graphic (excluding outlier)

3. How To

Any instructional guide would fall into this bucket. Encyclopedic and “How It Works” graphics are included, too. The information is generally not time-sensitive, potentially providing content value for years to come. These designs are not particularly good from an aesthetic perspective, but that doesn’t matter much, as the value of the content lies in addressing questions that large audiences are interested in.

41,287 avg. unique views per graphic (excluding outlier)



4. Timely Issue

This bucket includes graphics tied to news events or significant dates, such as graphics made upon the death of an important person, the release of a video game, an upcoming holiday, a public offering of stock from a hot company, or the growth of a popular civil movement.

36,724 avg. unique views per graphic



Six Design Types

You can think of these six design types as differing by the way they are consumed. A process graph, like a flowchart or decision tree, is read differently than a single chart or a timeline. If we analyzed more than 30 graphics, we might come up with different buckets, but these serve the given sample nicely.

The average unique pageviews for each type are listed below, including the high-performing outliers. Should I Text Him? is the only process graph in the sample. We find that the two most viewed types do not contain visualizations of quantitative data (the process graph is a visualization of relationships).

Single charts are likely successful because they are easy to consume; the viewer only needs to learn how to read one “chunk” of visualization to get the whole story. Simplicity lends itself to quick understanding and sharing, whereas complexity can prevent a viewer from reaching those points. Curiously, mixed charts, which is what we commonly think of as the typical form of an infographic, is the least successful here, perhaps because they take more mental work to consume completely, again pointing to simplicity and brevity as strengths in visual communication.

The Three Outliers

There are three graphics excluded from some calculations above because they would heavily skew the resulting average. Why did these particular graphics perform so well?

What Are The Odds813,334 unique views

This is the single most viewed graphic on Visual.ly. Ali Binazir, the author of the study on which the graphic is based, strung a variety of statistics pertaining to mating, survival, and particles in the universe to come up with the probability that you are alive. Mathematically, it’s a nonsensical mishmash of stuff, but that doesn’t deter casual readers, because emotionally, it’s aimed directly at the ultimate question of existence that nearly every human has pondered. Here, the details of the content are less important than the uncommon moment of reflection and awe that this graphic creates, which inspires heavy sharing.

Should I Text Him?537,770 unique views

The second most viewed graphic on the site combines the content type of Observational Humor with the content domain of sex, something that’s on everyone’s mind whether they like to admit it or not. The graphic represents a situation that many people (male and female) can relate to, and the overall complexity is a sly joke about how women can over-think dating and romance.

Formal Dining Setting213,990 unique views
Apparently a whole lot of people want to know how to set the dinner table properly. This graphic is pure utility, with no humor, visual style, or marketing objective. One could make some incredibly successful graphics answering simple questions like this (hint, hint).

Does Data Visualization Matter?

Data visualization certainly matters when it comes to conveying information effectively, but when it comes to sharing, the answer is no: having data to represent is not a critical ingredient in infographics. More than half, or 53%, of the top 30 graphics do not contain data visualization. And by data visualization, we mean visual objects that are sized, colored, or positioned to represent numerical values.

The X-Factor: Social Promotion

An important caveat: the success of any content on the web is heavily influenced by how well it is promoted by blogs and social media power-users. Quality alone will not yield viral graphics. We see that the quality of visual style seems to have little importance, whereas the quality and simplicity of the idea represented has much more weight.