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?