Over 1 Billion Sold

I’ve been thinking a lot about data visualization, meaning things like the Internet version of those USA Today infographics and the data you get back from your site traffic analytics group. But data viz is not just about fancy Excel charts and animation; it’s a discipline used to visualize information of any sort and it’s becoming an increasingly important way to communicate with your audience.

Its importance, I believe, lies in its ability to reach scale, that is, helping marketers get the biggest audience possible. Our business is all about scale and we have metrics to measure it. But scale is about more than metrics — it’s about having a cultural impact, having consumers feel they’re part of something larger.

Using data visualization, for instance, Domino’s makes it fun to track the pizza-manufacturing process. GE visualizes health data very well. The Internet is full of information and it’s compelling entertainment to look under the hood and see how things work.

Some data visualization is subtle, such as a number denoting the popularity of a YouTube video, which could change a user’s opinion of it. (Someone might be more inclined to like a popular video, say, than one that has very few clicks.)

Sometimes it’s a big part of the experience; Digg’s community, for instance, is entirely based on “how many, how much.”

It’s easy to have cultural impact using outdoor media; the ad is really big and usually in a high-traffic area. Users know that others see the billboards, too; they intuitively know they’re part of something larger. The same goes for doing broadcast at scale. The Super Bowl the other week is an obvious extreme of this.
Achieving a sense of cultural enormity is a lot more difficult on the Internet given its fragmented nature. It sort of works when you put an ad on a popular site, though it doesn’t carry the same weight as, say, a TV commercial. And this sense of cultural participation falls apart when you think about solo brand experiences like a brand’s .com.

Think about being on a brand’s site and how you don’t really have a sense of how many other people have been there or how active they’ve been. Most of the time brand sites are so static the sense of community is completely obfuscated; two or 2 million people could be on that site at any given moment and you’d never know.

But what to do? While you can’t expect to create an impassioned community on every brand Web site, there is a way to create a dynamic sense of scale around the experience without necessarily showing only raw metrics (no one wants to admit that only 15 people are on their site).

Enter data visualization. Using it, you can show your users how many people are doing what and how much action is going on around them within the site experience. Some sites already do this well. If there’s a real community and it’s obvious, the site keeps score for you. You’ve got data on posts, friends, views and retweets, and you get more followers. You feel like you’re participating in something big.

Let’s think about using the metric data we get about our sites and giving some of that back to the users to reinforce their sense of community. You can share most-popular pages, or that the people who visited a particular page also liked another one, that 48 percent of a brand’s fans come from the Midwest. You can ask them where they come from. You can point them to the graph and show that 38 percent of the site’s visitors would like to see your next flavor be pecan, then ask what flavor they’d like to have.

The big social sites — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. — are great at this. It helps them grow, helps their users know they’re part of something larger. But there’s an even greater opportunity to regain a sense of shared cultural experience, to reinforce that being associated with your brand means your users are a part of something larger. I think we can harness data visualization to subtly reinforce this message and give our marketing the context it has in the physical world.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group.