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5 solutions for common visualization hurdles

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Data visuals perform well on social media. Really well.

In an analysis of social media accounts from over 150 associations, those who used data visuals saw double the engagement over the average. That’s not surprising when you consider that in 2015, 63% of respondents to our Washington in the Information Age survey said they sought out associations for useful industry data.

pictograph showing rate of engagement for groups posting data visualizations on social media
Data visualizations significantly increased engagement on a post, but only 65 groups posted any form of chart, graph, or map to social media. (Visual Strategy in the Information Age, National Journal Communications Council, 2016)

Unfortunately, what our audiences seek out isn’t always easy to find. Our research on visual communications found that in the first quarter of 2016 only 2% of advocacy organizations’ social media posts contained a data visual of any kind!

chart showing usage of data visualizations on social media
Health associations and think tanks were most likely to post data visualizations out of all sectors analyzed. (Visual Strategy in the Information Age, National Journal Communications Council, 2016.)

Luckily, that 2% of posts provides inspiration for the rest of us. Whether your organization’s challenge is a lack of data or uncertainty about how to visualize it, the tips below illustrate some innovative ways to overcome common obstacles.

1. Illustrate Public Data

If your organization doesn’t conduct research, consider visualizing other groups’ data. Many industries and governments publish open source data that can be repurposed by others, for example, Data.gov lists federal data sets and the United Nations maintains international lists. Businesses, nonprofits and news organizations also have data sets open to the public. FlowingData.com archives interesting public data sets, from Jeopardy! clues to bike share information.

2. Redefine “Industry Data”

Unfortunately, some organizations may be too niche to use external resources (I’m looking at you, professional Santa associations). In these cases, it may be more useful to reconsider what existing resources your organization can quantify. For example, does your organization take donations? Perhaps you can boost contributions with a simple visual tracker.

United Cerebral Palsy contributions "thermometer" tracker
https://www.facebook.com/unitedcerebralpalsy/photos/a.487755895627.289716.10599445627/10153972662450628/?type=3&theater

Are you hosting educational events? Map out their locations or the cities and states of your registrants (with permission).

Appraisal Institute map of seminars
https://www.facebook.com/AppraisalInstitute/photos/a.10150186247922390.326855.325755437389/10153790019082390/?type=3&theater

3. Use Data for Humor

Data visualization doesn’t have to be clinical or scientific. Professional Photographers of America posts data visuals that are more novelty than data. While this may not be the content policy wonks are seeking out, members may appreciate the gesture.

Professional Photographers of America chart of time spent by a wedding photographer
https://www.facebook.com/OurPPA/photos/a.10152791048058234.1073741936.79279853233/10153926890818234/?type=3&theater

4. Try Telling a Story

Some of us have data, but simply don’t know how to use it. To get started, remember that great data visualizations typically tell one of three stories.

Story 1: X is rising/falling.

Story 2: X is greater than/less than Y.

Story 3: X and Y intersect.

These stories don’t share all the details, but they don’t have to. Power users will click through to read the full research.

American Association of University Women analysis of workforce breakdown by gender, from 2011 U.S. Census data
Example of Story 2: X is greater than Y. https://www.facebook.com/AAUW.National/photos/a.313148526486.157483.116426366486/10153532117831487/

5. Open up Microsoft Excel (or a Free Web App)

Often, organizations don’t visualize data because they think they need a graphic designer. Data doesn’t have to be visually stunning to impart information. In many cases, a pie chart or histogram will still be more engaging than nothing at all. Of course, if you want to get creative, services like Infogr.am, Silk, and Piktochart offer customizable templates.

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