The world is getting more visual every day. See the meteoric rise of Instagram and Pinterest and the explosion of infographics as recent proof points. People want to see information, not simply read about it. This is, in part, due to the ever-expanding amount of information we are processing on a daily basis. We have trained ourselves to scan things quickly, seeking nuggets of interest upon which we will focus our limited time. If you are presenting complicated information that includes data, you must make it visual to transform your audience from slightly interested bystanders into active consumers of your content.

Every two days, humankind generates more data than was created since the dawn of time through 2003, according to Eric Schmidt. Think about that for a second – from civilization 0.1 through 2003…we’re not talking about 1900 or even 1990. This is a staggering statistic. And that quote is from mid-2010 – I’m almost afraid to hear it updated now, 2 ½ years later.

Data is abundant (understatement!) and to understand it – for it to become knowledge, not simply information – requires we can clearly and simply analyze and reflect on it. The old way of presenting this information isn’t good enough. We need new ways of communicating data to allow our audiences to truly learn and make decisions from it, including whether to hire you for that consulting gig or to do additional research, to buy your product, etc.

Data Tangibility (Interactivity) Works

Infographics, which seem to have become ubiquitous in 2012, are a good start, but aren’t enough in many cases. And the question facing researchers, thought leadership marketers and communications professionals generally, is when is a visual display of data enough and when do you need to take it to the next level and make it truly tangible? When and how do you turn those formerly passive bystanders who are now interested consumers of your content into active participants in it? There are two primary ways to think about why going interactive makes sense:

  1. Cognitive Fit Theory is the result of an academic paper that, in a nutshell, proved that to help people solve problems, it is critical to understand the nature of the task itself as well as the problem-solving skills of the participant and to present the challenge in such a way so that it maximizes the match between them. In other words, if you want your audience to learn something, take an action, change their mind, you need to present your data in a way that takes advantage of what you know about how they think and interact with your information. Iris Vessey, who co-authored this study, did more research that found that adding interactivity to information presentation leads to better decision-making from participants. Simply put: making it interactive makes it more impactful and powerful.
  2. People are, to varying degrees, narcissistic. I don’t say that to be flip. It’s just that we naturally tend to ask “so what – what’s that got to do with me?” Hearing a story about someone getting eaten by a tiger is nothing compared to the visceral reaction upon seeing a tiger bearing down on you from 30 feet away. When you make your data interactive, you are empowering your audience to make the data about them. Rather than limiting your audience based on the editorial decisions made when preparing a thought leadership article or even an infographic, an interactive data experience allows them to click and filter and select the data stories most relevant to them. By empowering them with open access, you are allowing them to use your data to tell their own stories, in the context of the argument you’re presenting.


One great example of how empowering interactive data can be is from the New York Times, which creates many such experiences. In 2011, the United States was facing a loud and boisterous debate about our national finances. (Sound familiar?) The Times created an interactive titled “Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget”, which allowed users to make choices – from cutting earmarks or defense spending, to increasing the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security and raising taxes on the wealthy. All in all, there were 20 choices. As you make selections, you see the budget imbalances cured (or not.) More effective than a pundit blaring the party line at you, the tool makes it immediately clear that this is a debate with impossibly difficult decisions and no easy outs. You can make it about you and your own priorities – see for yourself.

Booz & Company came out with an interesting report last year about M&A showing that deals done for capabilities fit (as opposed to market share grab or geographic reach, for instance), return 12% better results to shareholders than those that don’t. It was an interesting study but the interactive piece we created for them revealed much more detail than could be covered in the Strategy + Business article. For instance, by clicking through the data, users could see some important details – such as how this research applies to their industry, not just those highlighted in the study. IT, for example, clearly reflects the overall trend, whereas the data was less aligned for Electric Utilities. The interactive also revealed some things the report wasn’t intended to cover – such as the overall terrible performance of M&A in the Media sector, and how Healthcare deals seem to be done almost exclusively for capabilities fit. And you could look at all 320 individual deals to see how an individual company appears in the study, which I regularly do when meeting with companies who have done M&A in recent years.

Not only does using interactive data experiences create better outcomes than static (even visual) data, it also drives better web analytics. We’ve worked for many years on interactive experiences and regularly see much better performance on those projects than their static thought leadership article counterparts. Bounce rates and exit rates (the percentage of people who leave your site after viewing a particular web page) go down significantly (25-50%), social sharing goes up (usually at least doubling the number of shares) and even the long tail of visits looks much better. An article will have a spike and then traffic falls off quickly and somewhat permanently, whereas interactive pieces have ongoing traffic for a longer period of time – likely due to the amount of social sharing.

To Interact or Not To Interact?

It can be daunting to decide whether to make your data interactive. Budget and time investments need to be weighed against the upside potential. The biggest barrier tends to be inertia – the “we’ve always done it this way, so why change?” argument. But keep in mind that budgets don’t have to be big, and if you’re focused and smart about which pieces you make interactive, the benefits are clear and compelling. Interactive tools also have an advantage over their static counterparts in that investments made can be often repurposed for pennies on the dollar for other data experiences. Reusability and phased development are a smart way to test the waters and build tools that can have a long shelf life. As data continues to grow exponentially and your audience’s attention grows ever more scarce, you have to be visual to break through the clutter. And once you have them, take a targeted approach to making your data tangible and your audience will be more likely to learn and act based on the real knowledge you expose to them.