Data visualization – and I hate to admit this, because I make my living from it – is not for everybody. My client work and research suggest that, loosely speaking, organizations selling ideas rather than products stand to benefit the most. Frankly, with few exceptions, if this doesn’t describe your organization, then don’t bother.
Data visualization can be expensive, especially if it involves large amounts of data and complex algorithms or deep interactive experiences. So how do you decide whether your company should invest in it? If you’re selling straightforward solutions to simple problems, data visualization is probably not worth the money. For example, consumer packaged goods firms Coca Cola and Nestle don’t need interactive graphics to explain their products, just as Playboy and Playgirl don’t need to educate the opposite sex much about their centerfolds. Such products more or less speak for themselves. (Now here’s the key caveat – sometimes product companies do have more complex and nuanced stories to tell, in which case they should be using visualization. For instance, I would love to see a data visualization explaining the environmental benefits of the Coca Cola’s PlantBottle sustainable packaging.)
On the other hand, if you’re selling a complex answer to a complex problem, you should be embracing data visualization with gusto. Non-governmental organizations, charitable and advocacy groups, and publishers have wisely jumped on board. Financial services companies have a myriad of offerings helping you see where your money is going, and companies like General Electric are devoting entire websites to visualize their data. Professional services firms are also hopping on board, offering online tools for digging into research results and making them meaningful.
Explaining a complex idea to an online audience requires a level of personalization, detail, nuance and openness that only an interactive visualization can provide. (Keep on charting, New York Times.) These organizations need to let their audience play with their data to make their findings more useful and convincing. That, of course, is the bottom line – such experiences have to give your users value, hopefully resulting in returned value to your organization in the form of sales and referrals.
Data visualization can produce big benefits, some of which are subtle yet powerful. One of the biggest benefits is personalization – e.g., enabling potential customers to estimate the value of a complex solution to their challenges. In 2010, BCG and the World Economic Forum wanted to demonstrate the economic benefits of employee wellness programs. They created an interactive graphic that lets executives calculate in 90 seconds roughly how much their companies could save by instituting such a program (based on the statistical data of other companies’ wellness programs). After filling in a few blanks – number of employees, how many are in the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific, and average regional salaries – the interactive graphic produces a series of 5-year projections for costs and potential savings from wellness intervention programs. After introducing it at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos to great success, another partner company on the project continues to use it as a sales tool to model similar savings opportunities for entire cities.
Another way data visualization can help is by enlisting your audience to do the analysis you don’t have the time, manpower or editorial space to do yourself. Booz & Company has done this with mergers and acquisitions data. It published an interactive data visualization graphic that lets companies determine how easy (or hard) it is in eight major sectors to make acquisitions that enhance shareholder value. Published alongside an article in its thought leadership magazine strategy + business, this interactive graphic revealed insights and details on all 300+ deals (which couldn’t have been included in the article, of course). Booz & Company’s web analytics show that the viewers of this graphic stay longer on the website, engage more with the content, and come back to it over a longer time period than its average website viewer.
Companies like Booz & Company have studies with deep statistical data – more data than they have the time to chart, analyze and write about in their reports. Interactive graphics (when designed well) shift some of the data crunching and analysis to viewers who want a layer of depth that the company can’t provide through traditional publishing.
Data visualization can also help organizations whose products or services involve numerous steps to implement or many comparisons to consider that may differ from person to person. For example, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently sponsored a data visualization challenge, asking entrants to visualize hospital pricing data to bring transparency to a highly opaque market. An article summarizing this data would have to concentrate on statistical averages and give at most one or two examples. But in an interactive experience, you can click into any of the 300+ regions of the U.S. and look up pricing averages and per-hospital pricing for 100 conditions. In other words, you can quickly and easily browse over 165,000 rows of data to find out where is the best place to get a procedure done based on price, quality and experience at over 3,000 hospitals across the country.
Lastly, data visualization can also help organizations whose solutions go against conventional wisdom. Allowing your online viewers to plot the data lets them come up with the big “ahas” themselves. For instance, using the hospital pricing visualization above, you will find that pricing for most medical procedures in Boston, despite having among the top median incomes in the country and a reputation for some of the best hospitals as well, is actually well below average. While an article on the subject might have revealed this, unless Boston were the focus of the piece, odds are it would not have. Would an article reveal that Birmingham, Ala., has eight of the top 100 hospitals in the country that treat kidney infections, measured by overall quality scores from Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services? Perhaps not. And a Birmingham journalist, coming across this interactive, might naturally examine local pricing, discover this gem and write about it, spreading the word beyond the initial reach of the organization – all because of insights that would have otherwise been buried.
Companies selling complex solutions to complex problems should embrace the power of data visualization. Marketing and sales executives need to decide early whether their companies need it, because the learning curve is steep. And getting really good at it takes time, skill and money — for technology, training and high salaries to attract professionals with currently rare skills. For some companies, the investment is worth it. The rest should avoid the bandwagon altogether.