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Visual Storytelling: Why Data Visualization is a Content Marketing Fairytale

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Visual Storytelling: Why Data Visualization is a Content Marketing Fairytale

On average, your readers will only read 28% of the words on a page.

Can you tell your whole story in 2-3 sentences? Probably not.

The best content marketers start with research and gather great data that supports their message. That data could be customer satisfaction percentages, product ratings, testimonials, reviews, etc. They then use those facts to support their message in a way that generates conversions.

We’re told “Content is king.” and that having great online content is THE marketing miracle to driving sales. And it is. But nowadays, there’s so much clutter on the web that simply having great content isn’t enough. The sad truth is that your content can’t rule solo over your marketing kingdom anymore. But never fear – there’s a way to enhance your content and make it more engaging to your audience.

That way is data visualization.

Why Data Visualization?

Turns out, humans are designed in a way that makes data visualization a great strategy for content marketing. By conveying your message in a visually appealing way, you can make people more likely to support your cause, share your message, or buy your product.

Here are three reasons why people are so attracted to visual content, and why data visualization may work for you.

1. We love to consume data, especially data about ourselves.

Nowadays, there’s apps to track your sleep patterns, apps to keep track of your daily calorie intake, and apps to track the number of steps you take. There’s even an app that tracks how much time you spend on your apps! It’s pretty clear that we enjoy consuming data that helps us better improve and understand ourselves and the human experience. If you offer a product with some sort of emotional appeal (since emotions are what make us human) or a service that makes life easier, you might really benefit from presenting your data as an emotionally appealing, “human” visual.

2. We love to see that data represented visually.

Visual content is huge online right now. It’s increased 9,900 percent on the Internet since 2007, and for good reason. Visual data provides us with relief from today’s era of information overload.

We receive five times more information today than we did in 1986 – about 100,500 words outside of work every day. People get exhausted from consuming plain black text on a white background all the time. It makes sense that we crave color and design, because we’re programmed to. Almost half of your brain is involved in visual processing, and that half is pretty good at what it does. You can make sense of a visual in less than 1/10 of a second.

Instead of hoping that your viewers choose your content as part of their 100,500 daily word count, create a chart or graphic that appeals to their visual wiring.

3. Humans are scientifically designed to love stories.

More of our brain is engaged when we listen to stories. They cause our neurons to act as if we were actually doing the actions we hear in the story. Stories also have that human element we were talking about earlier, which makes them more entertaining and engaging.

If you do it right, you can use your data to tell the human story – and how it can be improved through the use of your product or service. In fact, the best content visuals do just that. They introduce viewers to a concept or situation (the problem you address), walk them through the main information about that concept or situation (how you’ll address it), and then provide a conclusion in the form of CTA (converting).

In summary, people are interested in learning about themselves, but they’re sick of learning through plain copy, and they’re programmed to desire visual content that tells a tale. Visualizing data is an effective strategy for giving them exactly what they want – information that is more visible and less difficult to digest.

5 Steps to Telling Your Story

Now that you understand why you need to make your data more visible, you need to understand how.

Your content design is super important, because design will be one of the first reasons that people start reading. But what’s more important than the design is the story it tells. Here are the five main steps for using data to craft your content into a visual story:

1. Understand Your Data

The first step to telling a story with data is to know the data you’re working with and understand where it came from. Being able to understand and convey your information gives you a sense of authority and credibility, both important factors for gaining your customers’ trust. Ask yourself these important questions to make sense of your information:

  • Who collected it?
  • Why did they collect it?
  • What audience was this data gathered for?
  • What is the best way to present this data?

This insight is crucial in laying the foundation for a story that is both meaningful and human.

2. Identify Your Story and Create a Good Structure for It

Now that you have the hard facts, you need to decide the story you want to tell with it. Once you know your narrative structure, you need to figure out how you’re going to lay out your information to tell your story most effectively. A well-structured visual provides clarification, reveals trends, and highlights your key findings. You should set up your data in a way that brings your story to life, but doesn’t make your viewer work too hard.

3. Guide, but Don’t Push, the User Experience

Your content should guide, not push, the user throughout your story. The facts should encourage a thorough understanding and learning of your information that allows users to create their own experiences. This kind of visual seems less advertorial and more trustworthy. Some of the best data visualizations are really insightful, yet give people the flexibility to interpret the data in the most meaningful way to them. After all, a personalized experience is a memorable one – and it’s one that people will most likely share with others.

4. Keep it Simple

There is a fine line between presenting the most effective facts that convey your message and putting your viewer under more information overload. When crafting your story, you need to focus on simplicity. Make it as easy as possible for your audience to understand your message, and make it captivating to do so. Play to their eyes with the visuals and their minds with the facts, but don’t overstimulate either.

Figure out which facts are the most important in telling your story, and transform them into tangible, organic chapters. And your product is your story’s conclusion.

5. Use Viewer Psychology to Your Advantage

You don’t have to invent a brand new data visual that the Internet has never seen before in order to gain an audience.  Most times, it’s better to understand existing behaviors around data visualizations and design yours accordingly.

There are tons of research out there on consumer behavior, from eye-scanning patterns to color psychology. Understanding these trends will help you optimize your content so it’s more understandable and more accessible to the broadest range of people. By tailoring your data to your audience, so you can craft a story that relates specifically to their own.

Case Studies

From a nationally acclaimed journalism piece to a small brand’s dynamic video message, the following case studies illustrate how brands both big and small can create a storytelling experience through their own visual content.

Case Study 1 – New York Times, Slopestyle

NY Times Slopestyle JournalismScreenshot taken 2/25/2014 of

The New York Times is the storytelling authority of the Internet. They bring stories to life better than anyone. NY Times recently published a news graphic about the 2014 Sochi Olympics Slopestyle event. Naturally, it is an excellent example of visual content marketing.

This online visual showcases different snowboarding tricks showcased at the 2014 winter Olympics Slopestyle event. As you scroll down the webpage, you see alternate sections of video footage and supporting text that clearly show how snowboarders achieve these super tough and super technical tricks. You see step one for the backside triple cork 1440 and then when you keep scrolling – the webpage background turns into a video that shows you how to accomplish step one.

This graphic does a lot of things right, but here are my top 3:

1. It’s a step by step, interactive story.

There is no doubt that this graphic tells a story. The Slopestyle event is the setting, the snowboarders are the characters, and the trick progressions that they perform are the plot. As you scroll down, you read about the tricks and how difficult they are to execute, but more importantly – you see them and experience them as if you were there.

2. The graphics really support the text and make it literally come alive.

Without the videos, the text wouldn’t be nearly as captivating. It would be interesting to read, but how many people can accurately visualize professional snowboarding tricks just by reading about them? Unless you’re a professional snowboarder, you probably can’t.

By accompanying the stats with the images, viewers get a complete idea of just how difficult and awesome these tricks really are. They can see the tricks and understand the concepts behind them.

3. It’s human.

There’s no greater story of human success and perseverance than the stories of Olympic champions. By consuming this story in such a visual manner, it overwhelms our senses. We feel fascinated, intrigued and inspired by it. And when we feel all of these things, we want our friends to know about it. So we’ll most likely click that share icon.

Case Study 2 – Mashable, Crafting the Perfect Modern Resume

Mashable Visual for Modern ResumesScreenshot taken 2/25/2014 of

Not everyone can visualize their stories as successfully as NY Times, though. If you’re not quite up to the big leagues yet, don’t worry. Other, mid-sized companies like Mashable have had great successes in data visualization as well.

In 2011, Mashable published a really well-designed visual on creating a modern resume. It discusses how to incorporate social media, how to make a video resume, how to format your resume to have a more modern feel, and some common mistakes to avoid. There are three ways that this piece really nailed it for me:

1. The graphics provide a great human component.

One of the reasons the design was so great was because it involved humans. There were several cartoon humans throughout the content, displaying confusion, confidence, worry, and joy. This was a smart design decision because it makes the topic more human – and we love learning about humans. Also, by making the information seem more personal, it gave it a nice emotional element.

2. It has a modern look and feel to match a modern topic.

Another reason it works so well is because it has such a modern feel. The topic is about modernizing your resume, and the design is modern to match. It would have been easy to create a quick graphic with the traditional copy paper and cover letter images. Instead, they took a fresh approach with cartoons, computer screens and social media buttons to make the piece look and feel more relevant.

3. They KISSed it.

That’s right. They Kept It Short and Simple. This visual does a great job of providing information with going overboard. The numbers and statistics are nicely blended in with the rest of the content, so that they stand out well and make their point without overpowering the graphic.

Case Study 3 – Clarity Way, America’s Public Health Crisis

America's Big Fat Health Crisis VideoScreenshot taken 2/25/2014 of

This isn’t only a strategy for the nationally recognized. Individual companies have also used data visualization to tell their stories and broaden their content marketing reach.

In one of my early attempts at visual storytelling, I created this video for Clarity Way, which has a great example of a motion graphic telling an important narrative. This video infographic explains all of the statistics and trends related to American drug abuse, including obesity risk, health impact, federal costs, and treatment options. Here’s how this video graphic is so successful:

1. It’s clear and simple.

This graphic stands out because of its simplicity. Throughout the video, you see basic graphics and numbers that portray the facts, but are mostly surrounded by white space. The result is an infographic that looks clean and professional and is easy to follow. This visual simplicity puts the data up front and center in a way that’s not distracting.

2. It literally tells you the story.

Another reason this visual works is because you are literally being told a story. By turning the infographic into a video, with a person physically reading the information, Clarity Way did the following three things:

  1. Cut down on unnecessary content. By listening to the data, the viewer isn’t taxed with having to read it, freeing up room for graphics and other important visuals to support the data and engage the viewer.
  2. Added a human element. The infographic shows generic stick-figure people to accompany its statistics, and for good reason – it’s a lot easier to think of drug addiction as a national problem if you don’t give it a unique face, but make it more of an “everyman” concept. However, since viewers listen to a real person tell them the information, the infographic still has that vital human component.
  3. Played up the storytelling aspect. This infographic literally tells you the story, so it’s easier and more engaging to consume.


People are programmed to seek out visual content, and they’re drawn to content that tells a story, especially one about the human experience. This human psychology provides a great opportunity to market to your audience through compelling data visuals.

The best content marketing publications pair data and statistics with the right graphics to tell a simple, but interesting story. They guide the viewer to a general meaning, but allow room for interpretation along the way.

By following the basic principles listed above, you can tell your story visually to engage as much of your target audience – and drive as many of those coveted conversions – as possible.


Featured Image from Luc Legay via Flickr

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Shane Jones

Director of Earned Media at WebpageFX

Shane Jones is the Director of Earned Media at WebpageFX, a Pennsylvania marketing agency. Additionally, Shane is a Reporter at ... [Read full bio]

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