Just before Thanksgiving, Rand Fishkin blasted infographics on his ‘Whiteboard Friday’He did make some really good points in his video, but I believe his reasoning is flawed. 

The discussion revolved around format choice as the defining factor of success, an opinion which pops up time and time again and that I wholeheartedly disagree with.

In my experience, if you let format rule your content, you may miss out on some major opportunities. Here’s why.

Dealing with the BuzzFeed effect

Back in 2009, I spent days and nights producing image-based articles including pictures sourced from all around the web, with the aim to make it to the front pages of Digg.com.

As this practice grew more popular, the competition increased and thus it got much tougher to gain links from Digg as an outreach hub and link sharing site. Following this, the SEO community began to criticise the format: It seemed that image-based articles were no longer a good means to gaining links. 

At this point I decided it was time to stop producing content in this format, a decision I will regret every time I visit BuzzFeed.com.

BuzzFeed has proven to the world that image-based articles done right can spread like a virus, garnering 1,141 domain links. The lesson here is that the format itself was never flawed, it just got harder to create visual pieces that would stand out from the crowd. 

Looking back, the mistake I made was to rely on the format doing the work for me while keeping the same old content process. This process never evolved as the game changed, and the results were simply not strong enough to compete. BuzzFeed succeeded by ensuring the content within the format excelled. 

Think beyond and you will go beyond

Could infographics completed in 2010-style catch on today? The answer is no. The more common a format becomes, the less the curiosity and enjoyment that will translate into shares and links. So what do we do then? Let’s go back in time for a minute. 

When newspapers first arrived, the public was so enthralled by the format that the papers used to print any story sent in to their newsrooms. Now to keep their audience, newspapers have significantly improved their content whilst keeping the format pretty much the same. There’s a lesson here: it’s not so much about the format as it is about the content.

It took our agency nearly three years to get to a point where pretty much every infographic we produce generates editorial links from across the web.

Learning from my early mistakes of not evolving my content and relying on the format, we have now spent a large amount of time analysing what makes quality content and putting this into action.  

By accepting the viewpoints of SEO experts who tell you to constantly change the format, you miss out on taking the time to understand the fundamentals of what makes people link to content.

How to create contagious content people will link to

concept breakingbad

I have found a framework that works not only for us but possibly for everyone. Part of its success can be pinpointed to using Jonah Berger’s acclaimed book 'Contagious: Why Things Catch On' for analysing the potential success of our ideas.

Berger based his concept on research carried out by his team into what makes people share things via word of mouth. He studied the fundamental factors behind the viral spread of content and defined the key drivers of content sharing: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories (STEPPs). Interestingly, all refer to the content and none of them to the format. 

As someone who has spent five years creating link-worthy image-based articles and infographics and vigorously tracking their results, I can say that the STEPPs framework is spot on: If your content has useful information, hooks up with high-profile topics, tells interesting stories and sparks emotion, then it will spread.

Each of those ‘bad infographics’ Rand Fishkin dislikes so much fails not because of a wrong format but a flawed concept, a concept lacking any of the key STEPPs elements. 

So if you’re not getting much luck with infographics, don’t blame the format. Instead, take the time to make sure your concept is something that people will care about. If you look behind the SEO headlines, you will find a whole collection of people generating a ton of links and captivating an audience with supposedly “failed” formats like infographics and image articles. 

I would love to know your thought of format versus concept. Which one works best for you?

Danny Ashton

Published 3 December, 2013 by Danny Ashton

Danny Ashton is Outreach Director at infographic agency Neo Mammalian Studios and a contributor to Econsultancy.  He can be found on Twitter and Google+.

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Comments (6)

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Richard Baxter

Hm, my interpretation of that particular Whiteboard Friday was that Rand was making a good point but with weak alternative examples to the infographic concept.

A medium for the sake of a medium is wrong. Stories should be told in the most appropriate format. That's where that particular post fell short for me.

I really like the point you make: "If your content has useful information, hooks up with high-profile topics, tells interesting stories and sparks emotion, then it will spread."

As search marketers, we all should understand that creative content and creative development is the future of our content marketing strategy and that unique combinations of those elements, delivered appropriately and in a relevant format is what you need for spread.

There's obviously huge scope to combine aspects of what we're doing already (good copy, good design, good development, video and animation, full on web development) into the most appropriate medium to tell a particular story - and I think next year's winners will be the creatives who can achieve unique, noteworthy and valuable new approaches.

Thanks for the food for thought,

Richard Baxter

over 4 years ago

Simon Dunant

Simon Dunant, Owner at NewRise Digital

It's definitely not the format that speaks, it's the value of your story to it's reader or viewer.

Ultimately writing and producing content in any format on any medium that is focused on the pain, passion, needs and wants of your audience will get the most attention.

If you can engage on this level your tribe will be guaranteed to share it with like minds.

over 4 years ago


David Aldred, Web Manager at The University of Nottingham

In tying the concept of infographics to the STEPPS framework, you confirm the view that most infographics are basically a fraud.

Most of them claim to provide information in a graphical format - hence the name. However most of them are so statistically incompetent that they actually portray the designer's agenda, story or desire for emotional appeal, whatever violence they do to the facts behind the story. The information is distorted, not illustrated.

If the maths is wrong, or the portrayal of the maths is wrong, then they are simply lying propaganda, and don't merit the 'info' part of their name.

over 4 years ago


Sue Rizzello

Good post. I agree with Richard - appropriateness should drive format decisions. But above all there should be a point and purpose ... In business communications especially: far too much graphic and other content out there is created to fill the content pipe rather than transmit a message, convey insight, educate etc. I'll allow stuff that sets out to amuse, horrify, stimulate reaction as meeting the same criteria, though it's not as common with B2B ... Such content has an aim, albeit often a purely social and slightly wicked one ...

over 4 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

Good post, thanks Danny. After watching that Whiteboard Friday twice (the first time, Rand's shirt overloaded my senses and I absorbed nothing) I don't think Rand would disagree with anything you're saying here.

"Infographic" is now almost a byword for a specific type of badly thought out, overused, lazy piece of content. There are even fonts and design elements that are associated with them. But if pressed, most marketers will still say they like the good ones and there are constant examples among the mess. Concept is often the reason for them being good.

I've banned the use of the word infographic in my team as it narrows thinking too much. It's a simple thing but it has led to more varied concepts for content so far and even designers behave differently where before some would slip into a sort of autopilot, infographic mode and produce mediocrity.

over 4 years ago


Louis Rix

Great post Danny!

I totally agree that concept is far more important than format. There has to be a purpose behind the piece of art/material produced.

I like Paul's comment in that he has banned the word "infographic" within his team as it can limit the imagination to "lets create a graphic with information" leading to a crappy piece of work.

It all comes down to the planning too. Seeding ideas to the top dogs in a particular industry to gain feedback is really important - it'll set you off on the right foot. Once you have an idea in mind it's imperative to nail the data / imagery / artwork 100% to prevent getting slated too.

Any piece of marketing content in my mind has to strike an emotional chord. It has to suck you in and grab your attention to work.

over 4 years ago

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