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5 of my favourite data viz talks from Outlier 2021

I was given the opportunity to attend the inaugural Outlier 2021 conference hosted by the Data Visualization Society. It featured 41 inspirational talks given by people who work across different industries, each with unique and varying levels of experience in their data visualisation specialisms.

There were so many talks to choose from, but I’ve narrowed down five that will help to reframe how you think about the process of creating impactful data visuals.

1. How do we translate cultural experiences into data stories?

Hosted by Isabella Chua & Mick Yang (Kontinentalist)

The talented team at Kontinentalist create engaging data stories that unpack cultural experiences to gain a better understanding of cultural trends.

In their talk, I learnt the following tips to create a compelling data story that translates other cultures:

  • Find an angle that is proudly niche

    If you are translating your own cultural experience, do it with pride and communicate it with an urgency that suggests if you don’t tell your story about your experiences then other people won’t be able to either.

    Explore a particular angle of interest in-depth, rather than being too wide-ranging in exploring a number of angles at surface level.

    This can be something as simple as introducing one lesser-known artefact or phenomenon from your culture and communicating it in a way that educates and informs a wider audience from outside of your culture.
  • Unpack diversity within your angles to explain how certain phenomena are experienced within that culture.

    This can mean helping your audience to understand the ways in which cultural phenomena interact with the lives of different groups in that culture (e.g. What’s the big deal about chilli in Asia?).

    In this example, chillis provided an excellent window for exploring Asian cuisines and the influence that chillis have upon many dishes.

    The author began his analysis by asking ‘was spicy food popular in Asia?’. But the yes-no nature of the question provided added complications to finding a definitive answer to something not comprehensively documented, so he refined his analysis to explore ‘what ways spiciness – in particular, chillis – were experienced in Asia’, which was more open-ended and allowed for unpacking the answers in a less binary fashion.
What’s the big deal about chilli in Asia?
  • Test conventional wisdom to dispel common myths (e.g. All the shades of Lee Hsien Loong).

    It’s a common myth that the Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong mostly wears pink shirts. After collecting data on all the shirt colours he’d worn during PM speeches it was revealed that his most commonly worn colour was actually white.
All the shades of Lee Hsien Loong by Kontinentalist
All the shades of Lee Hsien Loong by Kontinentalist
  • Quantify the intangible

    Some cultural phenomena might have a concept that is quantifiable (e.g. the popularity of different noodle brands).

    But even if there isn’t an obvious quantifiable metric, you can translate the qualitative stuff by providing a rich visual experience via maps, audio or illustrations to convey the theme, atmosphere and cultural significance of your story’s topic.

    In the below example, colours were used to convey the different dimensions of flavour used in Asian cuisine. Additionally a packed circle chart was used to visualise common ingredients in chilli dishes with chords connecting circled ingredients that go well together.
What’s the big deal about chilli in Asia? by Kontinentalist
  • Balance accuracy and understanding to ensure that the data is well presented and easy to understand.

    The above visualisation of ‘ingredients that go with chilli’ is actually a condensed version of more than 100 different bubbles that had to be indexed on a scale of between 1 to 9 flavours (such as ‘sweet and sour’).

    While this is a less accurate representation of the very distinct flavours that exist within these many ingredient combinations, the authors felt this struck the right balance between beauty and simplicity. They were able to provide more detail through the illustrations and text boxes that more curious readers could explore.

Providing a clear and transparent methodology and documenting every step of the process behind how you arrived at your visualisations will help balance accuracy with understanding for your audience even more.

  • Find a common ground

    It can be easy to over-explain when trying to tell a story about one culture to an audience outside of that culture.

    Here, they recommend anchoring the angle of the cultural experience that you’re trying to analyse to a more universal sentiment.

    In the talk, they used an example of relating the cultural tradition of new year fortune telling to people’s universal anxiety about the future and our well wishes for loved ones, or of the popularity of instant noodles in Asia to every culture’s respective love for certain comfort foods.

2. 3D Geo DataViz: From Insight to Data-Art

Hosted by Craig Taylor (Senior Data Visualisation Design Manager, Ito World)

Craig and his team at Ito World create narrative-driven and cinematic-looking 3D visualisations.

Craig’s talk focused on how he and his team create insight-driven visualisations that reveal how the systems we interact with impact our lives. In his talk, he explained that producing this type of visualisation requires that you:

  • Include granular data, since it yields more interesting results. For example, for Ito World’s project Transit In Motion, the dataset for New York City included 14.8 million locations recorded per day, 4,488 unique bus trips, and 2GB of CSV files.
  • Focus on the patterns that your data is creating over time. For Transit in Emotion, this involved analysing the volume of transit usage over the period of one month.
Transit in Motion by Ito World
  • Make your visualisation’s design abstract to highlight the rhythm of your data over time. In the past, Craig has used a variety of spheres, cuboids, and meshes to portray what city-wide transit in motion looks like. 
Transit in Motion by Ito World

If you’re interested in making 3D data art, Houdini and Blender (which is free) are recommended.

3. DataViz, the Unempathetic Art

Hosted by Mushon Zer Aviv

Mushon is a Tel Aviv based designer, researcher, educator, and media activist. His talk highlighted how data viz can lack empathy, and takes inspiration from the following quote:

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

— Mother Teresa

To ensure that your work is empathetic, Mushin says you must be aware of:

  • Dark data viz, which risks tone-deafness and minimising important topics.

    In 2015, Mathew Lucas produced a series of infographics showing the impact of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima. Although the graphics were visually pleasing, this data viz also sparked debate, with some questioning how design should be used to aestheticise a horrific event.
  • How an appeal to empathy can be misleading

    Mushon cites Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom who says empathy often shines a spotlight on the individual and can be biased towards those who look like us. We find it easier to empathise with individuals, not with the masses.

    He also references a study from Paul Slovic in the talk, which further illustrates this idea with what he calls ‘statistical numbing’ whereby audiences seem to empathise more with individuals than with larger groups.

    In Slovic’s research he found that charity donations in response to descriptions about identifiable individuals earned more than double the donation value in response to descriptions about statistical lives (i.e. groups of individuals that weren’t personally identifiable). Sadly, the value of donations even decreased when statistics were presented alongside individual descriptions in the story.
  • Affective empathy vs cognitive empathy

    According to Simon Baron-Cohen, affective empathy, which is rooted in emotion, means that you’re able to feel the same emotion or feel your own distress in response to another’s pain.

    Cognitive empathy, which is more rational, means that you’re able to understand someone’s perspective or imagine what it’s like in another person’s shoes.

    Muson relates these two types of empathy to Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between two ways of thinking:

    Tier 1 thinking: thinking automatically, quickly, with little or no effort and sense of voluntary control.
    Tier 2 thinking: allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it. These type of operations are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.

    It is said that Tier 2 often contextualises the thinking of Tier 1 to inform a person’s decision-making. In visualisation, the pre-attentive attributes (below) are how we use vision to communicate between Tier 1 and Tier 2. So here Mushon asks ‘can we think of empathy as an additional pre-attentive attribute for visualisations?’ because we do not get to control or rationalise it, but it can inform our more deliberate decisions.
The pre-attentive attributes of visualisation
  • How to scale compassion by appealing to both types of empathy
guns.periscopic.com

The above image is a powerful visualisation of gun deaths in America during a single year. It begins by illustrating the life arc of one person being cut in the middle vs how many more years they could have lived for.

Focussing on a single individual’s life being cut short appeals to the viewer’s affective empathy or tier 1 thinking, aka the more emotional response, before the impact of another 11,422 deaths are visualised in the same manner as below.

guns.periscopic.com
  • Raising awareness is not enough

    Data visualisations have the power to explore and explain important stories about the world.

    However, it’s not enough to just say something is wrong with the world. If we have built that message well, then we should also direct that message towards the path of change and actionable insights.

4. Data points are people too

Hosted by Bronwen Robertson, Joachim Mangilima, Saja Othman, Zdeněk Hynek

Data4Change is a non-profit organisation based in London that connects social change organisations with designers, journalists, and technologists to collaboratively create data-driven solutions for some of the world’s most pressing problems. This talk focused on many of their projects which have helped to deliver change in countries around the world.

An example of this is ‘A Bride With A Doll‘, which focused on the issue of child marriage. The team designed a workshop kit and a storybook that could be read from both directions, reflecting emotional experiences, based on data insights from the community.

A Bride With A Doll by Data4Change
A Bride With A Doll by Data4Change

5. Mind Games: The psychology behind designing beautiful, effective, and impactful data viz

Hosted by Amy Alberts (Senior Director, User Research, Tableau)

This talk outlined practical guidelines which can help you predict where people look at certain parts of data viz – for example, jagged lines and bar graphs are effective at drawing the user’s attention.

Amy’s team at Tableau have previously employed eye-tracking software to discover where people were focusing, gaze plots to qualitatively and quantitatively show where the eye is fixated, heatmaps to show areas of high visual tension, and gaze opacity maps to highlight areas that people give less attention.

According to their findings, the biggest attention grabbers in data visualisation are:

  • BANS (Big Ass Numbers) – Our eyes are drawn to large visual elements such as big text. Below is a gaze opacity map of a dashboard with big numbers.
Dashboard designed by Dundas Data Visualization
  • Colour ­– Visual contrast relative to other areas generates attention.
  • Humans and maps – Our brains are hardwired to notice other humans, so when we see human-like figures in visualisations, we are automatically drawn to them. If maps and humans are relevant to your data, it is worth capitalising on this to draw attention.

Design with intent and be mindful of the context that you control. Use clear titles and high contrast elements, ethically making use of the psychological phenomenon known as the priming effect. This will help to ensure that your audience clearly understand the story that you are trying to tell with your data.

Final thoughts

The Outlier conference was incredibly informative and packed with so much knowledge about how to create culturally relevant, socially aware content that’s also visually impressive and effective in communicating concepts.

If you are interested in learning more, you can watch a playlist of video recordings with all of the talks from Outlier 2021.


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The benefits of mood boarding for your clients

For this post, you’ll learn about the benefits of using mood boards to communicate ideas to clients with different types of requirements. I’ll be using real examples created by Verve Search’s designers.

But firstly…

What is a mood board?

A mood board is a type of visual presentation that consists of several design elements in one composition. It’s a way to visually communicate your imagination with the world, as well as convey a general idea or a feeling about a particular topic. 

Mood boards can be physical or digital. For example, a UI designer might find a digital version a better option for organising inspiration for a new mobile application. 

A digital mood board dominated by black, dark purple, and pink colours. There is a colour swatch, an old Space Invaders game cover, pixel art of explosions and space ships, and examples of data visualisations in matching colours.
A digital mood board presented to Paxful for the Video Game Investments campaign

Conversely, someone like a perfumer may want to use a physical mood board to include textures and objects to convey the emotion and mood of a unique perfume scent.

A selection of lilac and blue paint swatches, flowers, beads, and art materials are laid out on a plain white background.
An example of a physical mood board (source)

The benefits of using a mood board for client work

Mood boards are a valuable step in the design process as they help establish a strong foundation to the look and feel of a project and can be used to creatively align with project stakeholders early on. 

They are a fundamental transition between an initial thought and a first draft, and help save on resources and energy when maturing ideas. 

Mood boards should be a jumping-off point for discussing, refining, and trying out ideas without commitment, while also making sure that the team and the client are on the same page as the designer.

At Verve Search, we use digital mood boards in the production process to communicate the mental model of a designer who is working on a campaign. Mood boards help transform ideas into a collage of useful visual references, and there are lots of options you can explore on what to include in your own digital mood board.

What to include in a digital mood board for a client

A mood board is a collection of elements, such as colour, typeface, UI framework, or theme, that visually unifies a set of images. You might also want to include customised design elements that will be used in the final design. 

That being said, content visualised on a mood board doesn’t necessarily have to appear in the outcome of the project; the visuals could just serve as a way to describe a feeling or aesthetic.

Below is an example of a mood board I presented to our client Paxful for the Video Game Investments campaign. As you can see, I’ve included different icon ideas, a colour palette, an example of typography, UI inspiration, imagery, and a logo. 

On your mood board, you might also want to include different textures, shapes, and interactions between elements to give the client an idea of how you visualise your project’s look and feel.

A digital mood board with different sections labelled. Typography shows font sizes, imagery shows a Space Invaders game cover, UI inspiration shows data visualisation examples. There is a labelled colour palette, logo idea, and space-themed icons too.
Mood board presented to Paxful for the Video Game Investments campaign

Mood boards don’t need to appear too polished. They are not intended to show a final deliverable, but to give those involved with the project an idea of the visual direction.

Mood boarding approach

The way you should approach mood boarding at the beginning of a project depends on the type of project it is; is it a personal project or work for a client?

Working on a client project often means there is less freedom to experiment with design concepts, as there might be some existing client requirements or style guides in place. This is true especially for clients that already have an established design vision. 

In this case, the mood boards should give a sense of the client’s taste and requirements while also exploring some potential design directions. 

Below, I’ve detailed the ways the design team at Verve Search has approached three different client requirements and included some examples of our resulting mood boards and final designs… 

1: Clients with a style guide and extensive requirements

In the first example, I will talk about clients that provide a style guide and have strict requirements when it comes to the look and feel of the final product. 

Below is an example of a mood board that was put together for Lookfantastic’s Instagram Emotions campaign. The mood board includes some imagery from existing assets belonging to the client that serve as design reference, and some elements from their style guide, such as colour and typography. The mood board also includes some inspiration for the way our findings could be visualised in a map and pie chart.

A digital mood board in peach, pink, and yellow colours. There are typography examples, a previous client-created chart, a pie chart, maps, and colour swatches.
Mood board presented to Lookfantastic for the Instagram Emotions campaign

Looking at the final design below, you can see how I maintained a similar layout and colour scheme to the ones showcased in the mood board.

Two assets used for the Instagram Emotions campaign. Both are in Spanish. One is a map of Spain and the other is a pie chart with an illustrated woman's face at the centre. Both are in peach and pink colours.
The final designs used for assets in the live campaign

Working with clients that have strict design requirements and style guides in place might seem like a bit of a creative challenge, but having access to a client’s style guide is a helpful way of understanding the client themselves – especially if you are new to working with them. Overall, their style guides will contribute to better communication and a mutual understanding of what will be expected from the designs.

2. Clients with a style guide and minor requirements

For The Jargon of Jobs, our client Canva provided us with both a style guide and some minor design requirements to keep in mind. We were tasked with creating a playful feel, using Open Sans as our font choice, and selecting an accent colour from the two they had provided us.

The resulting mood board for this campaign included some style guide references, inspiration for data visualisation in the form of a map, and some examples of trending design choices that we believed would work well as a design direction for this project.

A digital mood board with snippets of blue and lavender colours, minimalist illustrations of faces, a map, and random text blocks.
The initial mood board we created for The Jargon of Jobs campaign for Canva

The final design included all client requirements in terms of font, colour, and mood. On our side, we added a custom-made illustration depicting confusion (which worked well with the campaign’s theme) and a trendy radiant gradient to complement the logo.

The Jargon of Jobs campaign landing page. There are examples of jargon and a lone, minimalist illustration of a confused person with question marks above their head.
The final splash page present in the live campaign

For this type of client, I’d recommend not getting too attached to a particular style or a design vision. It’s a good idea to have a few options in mind, for example a more experimental design and also a safer design option. In the case of the first design option being rejected, you can always fall back on another design option that you have at hand.

3. Clients with no style guide or specific requirements

For our client Admiral’s campaign Home Alone 2021, the client gave us complete freedom in terms of design choices. We did however have to create a layout similar to the previous Home Alone campaign, for which this campaign served as a 2021 update. 

Since the topic for this campaign was vacant homes, we thought it would be great to reflect this with visuals like architectural blueprints. Therefore, a clean feel and accents of blue can be recognised in this project’s mood board. Other mood board elements included inspiration for the navigation aspects and snippets of the previous campaign.

A digital mood board with swirling colours, blue prints, and snippets of tables and charts.
The mood board for Home Alone 2021

Home Alone 2021’s final design featured a clean layout and an aesthetically pleasing colour scheme, with a large illustration of a lonely, isolated house on the splash page that made the interface more engaging.

The splash page of Home Alone 2021. A small illustration of a derelict house with boarded up windows is isolated in the middle of swirling patterns.
The final splash page of the live campaign

From personal experience, I have worked on various campaigns and they all differed in their look and feel. Each project had its own concept that needed to be projected through design.

There have been campaigns that required more effort regardless of it having or not having a client’s style guide in place. No project is the same, but this is why mood boards exist – to help creatives in starting a project in the right direction.

How do the designers at Verve Search approach the mood boarding process?

The steps outlined below refer to the design stage of the campaign creation process. This is the standard mood boarding process as followed by the design team at Verve Search and may be a helpful guide if you’re starting out on a design project. 

Step 1: Campaign kick-off

Campaign kick-off is the first meeting we have as a team when starting a new campaign. During this meeting we get briefed on the campaign’s concept and have the opportunity to ask campaign-related questions. For designers, this would usually be the time to ask about the client’s requirements and the creative team’s expectations.

Spending some time researching will help you visualise the ideas better during campaign-related meetings. This could apply to prior campaign kick-off or data handover.

Tips at this stage:

  1. Understand the concept of the campaign
  2. Understand the client and what they want to achieve
  3. Note down relevant keywords

Step 2: Brainstorming

At this stage, the key is to write down as much relevant information as possible. Try to combine all the knowledge you’ve gathered on the project so far and start to think about what could inspire you, products to be inspired by, colours, and anything that could impact the design. 

One way to do this is to take a piece of paper and start writing down keywords. You can then categorise them into groups like style, font, or colour. This process will help to organise your thoughts and transform mere imagination into a workable concept.

A set of handwritten brainstorming notes on a sheet of graph paper. At the top of the sheet are the words 'Home Alone Brainstorming'.
Brainstorming for Admiral Home Alone 2021 campaign

Tips at this stage:

  1. Create a word cloud using relevant keywords and associations
  2. Note initial thoughts on the look and feel of the campaign
  3. Research possible ways to visualise the data

Step 3: Initial mood boarding

The initial mood boarding process should set the mood of the campaign and define a desired emotional response. These are the emotions a viewer should feel when looking at the mood board. 

Try jotting down adjectives that define the style that needs to be achieved and organising all the images you’ve collected according to their common visual theme. It’s important to eliminate any images that look alike or unnecessary – less is more.

Tips at this stage:

  1. Analyse the client’s style guide
  2. Analyse the client’s website or similar platforms 
  3. Search for visual references and concepts on Dribbble or sources alike
  4. Explore fonts (if not provided by the client)

Step 4: Data hand-over and mood board refinement

Once the data has been handed over to the designers and the content of the campaign is clear, it’s time to make final refinements to the mood boards by adding and removing visuals where appropriate.

Tips at this stage:

  1. Refine the mood board according to the campaign’s content
  2. Refine the mood board according to the campaign’s data

The takeaway from all of these steps is to organise your work, even if you are just brainstorming. Doing prior research and making a note of initial ideas could really help you later in the project. You will be able to go back to the initial ideation process and understand why you made a certain design decision. This is also helpful when presenting your work to clients or your team.

Final thoughts

Mood boards are an uncomplicated way of communicating a design concept that minimises any misunderstandings that might arise from trying to describe a concept verbally.

A good starting point for any designer is research, including reading through the client’s style guide, looking for the market’s standard in colour psychology, typography, and overall design. 

Since mood boards are usually shared with non-designers, it’s important to arrange them in a way that will make sense to viewers who are new to design as well. 

Further reading

Take a look at the below resources for further mood boarding inspiration:

Dribbble

Behance

Awwwards.

Typewolf

Muzli


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Figma vs Adobe XD: which tool should you design with?

With remote working presenting new challenges to our creative process and our production team wanting to experiment with new design features, we’ve recently switched to a new design tool. But which option would work best for you?

In 2016, Figma introduced an innovative browser-based interface design tool. The same year, Adobe Inc. released its own version of a UX design tool: Adobe XD.

Alongside other popular editing software options such as Sketch, both Adobe XD and Figma have evolved into competitive design platforms, and our production team decided to investigate the pros and cons of each. Here’s what we found:

Platform and performance

The most obvious difference between the two platforms is that Figma is browser-based, whereas Adobe XD is a downloadable desktop application.

Adobe XD allows users to work with local files offline. It also allows users to share and get feedback on their design, thanks to its cloud capabilities. In its recent update, Adobe took a step further and XD now integrates with apps and services across the Creative Cloud suite. This means that sharing assets between apps and users with Creative Cloud Libraries is now easier.

Some might assume that Figma’s browser-based approach to designing is limited to internet connectivity. However, Figma allows its users to work offline on a pre-opened file via a desktop app (available for both Mac and Windows).

When comparing the two, it all comes down to individual preference and work style. However, working on a browser-based platform like Figma definitely has some advantages when it comes to collaborative work and live updates.

Pricing

Both Figma and Adobe XD offer free and subscription-based pricing options. XD’s single-app plan for professionals and small teams costs £9.98 per month (without a trial) and is free for personal use. Figma’s pricing options break down as follows: free for personal use; $12 per editor/month on the Professional Plan; and $45 per editor/month on the Organization Plan (annual billing only).

It’s worth mentioning that Figma’s free version allows unlimited editors on 1 project and 3 team files, as well as a 30-day version history, unlimited cloud storage, and unlimited viewers. Adobe’s free starter plan only allows for collaboration on one shared document and one additional editor, limited cloud storage (2GB), and a 10-day version history.

Here a more detailed view on the price differences between the two:

Click to expand table

Features and functionality

Figma and Adobe XD are becoming more similar in terms of features and functionality. Each platform seems to adopt something new with every update. For example, Adobe XD has been working hard to achieve something similar to Figma’s game-changing collaboration features. On the other hand, Figma only recently introduced its Smart Animate feature, which is very similar to the Auto Animate feature that Adobe XD introduced some time ago and changed the prototyping experience completely. However, there are still some visible differences in workflow. Let’s discover them below:

Figma Pros:
Free unlimited viewers without registration
Free collaboration with live-work updates from team-mates
Unlimited cloud storage
Browser-based (no installation required)
Observation mode makes it easy to follow team-mates
Overlays capability
Export assets (PNG, JPEG, SVG, PDF)
Gradient Smart Animate transition
Border gradient feature
Dynamic overlays allow multiple layers of an interactive content
Deep selection tool makes the workflow more efficient
Sketch import
Pages in file capability
Custom frames
Multiple shadows capability
View prototypes on device placeholders

Figma Cons:
Safari version bugs (e.g. cursor doesn't update)
It takes time to create a set of repeated elements
It is time-consuming to design scrollable UI elements (e.g. image carousel, interactive maps)
Projects need to be opened in a browser or Figma app online before working on them offline
Interactive components not yet available
Interactive components not yet available

Adobe XD Pros:
3D Transform (shapes, text, groups)
Repeat Grid makes it faster to create a set of repeated objects
Scroll Groups makes it easier to design scrollable design elements
Voice prototyping (e.g. voice commands, build-in speech playback, sound with the voice-enabled feature)
Component states (e.g. hover state, selected state)
2 video exports (Unlimited until June 2021)
Adobe Fonts Access (Basic Library)
Export assets (PNG, JPEG, SVG)
Import from Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch
Record videos for prototyping and interaction previews.
Custom passwords to Share Links and Design Specs for enhanced security.
Share individual boards
Collaborative plug-ins (Workfront, Asana, Monday.com)
Toggle state shortcut

Adobe XD Cons:
10-day version history (free plan)
Registration required to view documents
Limited cloud storage
Co-editing feature fee for corporate use (£9.98 /per month)
Cannot Auto Animate gradient transition
No border gradient feature
Not as intuitive when selecting multiple elements
2 PDF exports (Unlimited until June 2021)
Pages in file capability (upcoming feature)
Collaboration on a separate file
Click to expand table

What are we using at Verve Search?

At Verve Search, we’ve chosen Figma over other prototyping design options.

Here are the five reasons we decided to go with Figma:

1. Figma is free

Team accounts are paid but individual accounts are free and include all the same key features as the paid version.

2. Simpler developer handoff

Our developers can get dimensions, styles, and download icons and images from the project URL. Resources such as images and SVGs can be exported globally and locally.

Image illustrating development stage. A design is overlaid with a box showing CSS code being edited.

3. Easy collaboration

Co-designing alongside your co-workers is no longer a fantasy. Our team can now edit files together in real-time, leave comments with mentions, and follow along via Observation Mode. This has been particularly useful for remote working.

Image illustrating collaboration. Multiple users' cursors are hovering over a prototype design

4. All-in-one platform

It’s an all-in-one platform that does not require switching from one system to another in order to complete or share the design process. Designing, prototyping, reviewing work, and sharing feedback are all in one place.

Image illustrating user hovering over Figma software window, prototype view window, and a selected design element

5. Design features

Tools like ‘deep selection’ provide more control over design elements and save time during editing. Other features that our team enjoy working with are instant arcs, overlays, gradient borders, smart animate gradient transitions, and much more. Figma helps our designers to expand their creative ideas and showcase their visions throughout the design process.

Image showing the user's cursor selecting a design element.

Final thoughts

Figma made the right choice to focus on collaborative work and the ability to access files from the browser without installation, while I find that XD’s strength is in finding new design processes, such as Scroll Groups, 3D Transform, and Repeat-Grid features.

Only time will tell which platform will gain more recognition among designers. So far, Figma and Adobe are doing well at listening to user feedback and transforming it into real features, bringing visual design onto another level.

Features and images presented in this article are extracted from the official websites of Figma and Adobe. Figures for both are correct as of May 2021.


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6 questions that turn numbers into newsworthy stories

Digital PR campaigns regularly build stories out of statistics, and the questions that we ask of numbers to arrive at those stories are quite consistent.

For this post, I will explore examples of news headlines, coverage for our campaigns and content from elsewhere that can be constructed from asking the following types of questions:

1. What are the highest and lowest values?
2. What’s the grand total?
3. How much or how little has something changed?
4. What’s the proportion?
5. What are the averages?
6. How many are there?

Data is as good as the questions you ask of it

Ideas for data-driven stories often start with asking: ‘what data can I find to answer my question or to create my intended headline?’.

But even once you or your team have sourced and cleaned the data you think you’ll need, you’re unlikely to find a dataset that is ready to outreach to a journalist without also examining all of the potential stories that lurk within it.

In a similar way to how a journalist asks different questions of their sources to gain different sides to a story, why wouldn’t you ‘interview’ the data that you’re working with to consider all of the ways in which you can tell your story?

Whatever your job title (asking questions of data isn’t reserved for data analysts), remembering to explore one dataset from different dimensions can be incredibly useful throughout the process of producing content and earning linked coverage — here are some of the ways in which it applies:

  • Ideation: the difference between producing a new idea for a campaign from one that already exists can sometimes involve calculating a similar dataset in a different way. The idea that you already have in mind may become even stronger by considering what further steps you need to take to apply a calculation that hasn’t been applied to it before.
  • Production: before committing to kicking off a campaign’s production, you should have some idea of the type of story that your research is going to produce. However, properly interrogating the data that you work with ensures that no important contextual layers of a story are being missed, and it may even reveal a stronger angle than what you originally set out to find.
  • Execution: uncovering new trends worth visualising helps to tell a more comprehensive data-driven story. Even if certain trends don’t go on to be your headline statistic, they can supplement your narrative for users of your content and for journalists who are going to write about your findings.
  • Outreach: applying different calculations to a dataset can diversify the number of angles you have to outreach — more angles generally means more potential for linking opportunities. At the very least, it will provide a journalist with more context around the story that you are telling them.

Not every team follows the exact same creative and outreach process, but the following examples will provide a useful framework for anyone stuck on what to do next in their quest to find stories within numbers.

1. What are the highest and lowest values?

It’s no secret that superlatives make great news stories. The maximum and minimum values in a dataset often translate as being the outliers, or the unusual, or the best and worst of something.

In 2020, two in every five headlines that had been published about Verve Search client campaigns contained one of the words: ‘most’, ‘best, ‘top’, or ‘highest’ — the majority of them referring to the highest rankings in one of our data-driven campaigns.

For example, when we analysed the details behind more than 6 million new business creations on Companies House, we were able to rank and reveal which UK cities and towns were enjoying the biggest boom in new start-ups in 2020.

Source: forbes.com (2020)

Ranking the highest and lowest values may often be the final step in a method of producing a story after asking other important questions of data. In the above case, we created a ranking-driven headline after our analysis also counted the number of new businesses registered on Companies House, and measured the year-on-year change in those figures.

These calculations also produced another headline figure by revealing the grand total of how many new businesses were created across every town and city in what was estimated to be a record-breaking year for UK startups forming. Summing together the key sections of data in your sample is another way to make a great headline…

Follow the links for how to find the highest and lowest values in a spreadsheet with Google Sheets, Excel or from sorting tables.

2. What’s the grand total?

How many times does a headline catch your eye with the size of the number it uses? One reason that the below headline from The Financial Times works is that behind the figure of 4,000 is a story about 4,000 humans who have lost their jobs from a single company during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: ft.com (2020)

The human element behind a total value can help to sell it in as a headline figure, but an important consideration is whether its scale can be understood as a standalone number by the average person without needing further context. Although, sometimes, a large, eye-catching figure does do the job of providing a shocking headline before anymore context is given.

A campaign we produced called Influencer Investors analysed the scale of finance misinformation that was circulating among TikTok’s #stocktips from influencers with massive followings.

After mining through videos to calculate how frequently misleading content was appearing on the profiles of popular finance influencers, we also revealed the scale of the issue by summing together the total number of followers (28.4 million) and likes (3.6 million) that the misleading influencers and content had received.

Source: techradar.com (2021)

If you can uncover grand totals to answer questions such as ‘how much something costs’ or ‘how many people were affected’, then you could be revealing a dataset’s most newsworthy statistic.

Even if this kind of figure doesn’t become your headline, it’s important to cite overall sample sizes as part of a transparent methodology. Add up all of the values and show off the scale of your analysis for whichever parts of your data make sense to. Journalists will usually mention this in their story along the lines of:

[Client name] analysed [sample size + metric] to discover [statistic]

Total values can become even more newsworthy when they represent a significant change

Follow the links for how to calculate sums in spreadsheets through Google Sheets or Excel.

3. How much or how little has something changed?

Change is an essential part of storytelling. When important things change dramatically, or don’t change as expected, they often make the news. In the below investigation by the BBC, revealing how many students sought mental health support was essential to the overall story, however, the headline focuses on that fact that more students were using mental health services than in previous years.

Source: bbc.co.uk (2019)

A campaign we produced called Priced-out Property revealed which locations in the UK and around the world have seen the greatest change in property affordability, based on the growing gap between earnings and property prices over recent years. Using change as our key measure meant we could consider every location with comparable historic data to produce a ranking of both positive and negative changes in affordability.

Source: hertfordshiremercury.co.uk (2021)

Another common way of converting change into a story is when a decreasing number is highlighted to indicate a ‘risk of extinction’ headline. This type of story often emerges from the Office For National Statistics’ Most Popular Baby Names dataset.

Source: flowercard.co.uk via mirror.co.uk (2020)

You may be working with data that isn’t longitudinal (i.e. doesn’t consider different time periods), such as cross-sectional survey results. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t suggest a change is taking place in the broader state of things.

A survey-led campaign we produced called Between The Sheets asked Brits numerous questions related to their sexual activity, including what sexuality they identify as. Our insight revealed 24% of 18-24 year olds identified as either homosexual or bisexual.

Source: bustle.com (2018)

Although our data only accounted for one point in time, coverage by publications such as Bustle and The Mirror reported on this as an increase in young people identifying as gay or bisexual. They referenced a similar survey that was included in our outreach email from four years prior, which showed the figure was lower at 21%.

As well as calculating change, those headlines also incorporated proportion into their story…

Follow the links for how to calculate relative change and absolute change in spreadsheets.

4. What’s the proportion?

Alongside other calculations, almost every campaign that I have referenced so far has included a proportional angle. Proportions tell you how large or small a number is in its relationship to a whole.

As neatly explained in an excerpt from Content hubble’s Ebook (2020), proportions provided a different perspective to the data in our Movie Mortality campaign, which revealed the actors who had been killed the most in their film roles:

“Without considering things proportionally, to some degree, the actor who dies the most will be a factor of who’s been in the most films. In another context, cities like London or New York will always over index for everything due to their financial power and population numbers.”

James Barnes, ‘Content hubble: 31 content campaigns that earned 11,882 links’

A campaign we created called Remake My Day analysed what the best and worst movie remakes were in history. This ranking of remakes according to critic and audience scores revealed little change in appetite for movie reboots, because they were consistently reviewed as worse than their original versions.

Source: Remake My Day (2019)

Based on the consistently negative reviews of remakes, we asked a broader question: what proportion of all remakes do audiences and critics actually prefer? Just 13% among critics and 9% among audiences was the answer. This angle – also indicated by the cluster of purple dots in our graph above – became the leading statistic that was covered in top tier publications, such as VICE and The Washington Post.

Source: washingtonpost.com (2019)

Our methodology for Remake My Day also relied on the movies in our dataset being pre-measured on a weighted average score, according to critic and audience reviews….

Follow the links for how to calculate percentages in spreadsheets through Google Sheets or Excel.

5. What are the averages?

Average occurrences don’t always stop the press, but the average can be used as a benchmark to calculate who or what performs above or below it, or whether the average itself is wayward of what you would expect over a certain period of time. For example, when the average house price in the UK changes significantly, it hits the headlines.

Source: guardian.co.uk (2020)

Averages can also be useful for ranking large samples of different data points. A campaign of ours called Pioneering Women considered a sample of more than 6,900 female founders to rank universities on metrics such as how many female start-up founders had attended them and the average amount of funding raised by founders for the companies that they went on to launch.

Source: wustl.edu (2019)

Average earnings are a particularly useful benchmark for comparing to society’s richest and (often) most talked about people. One of our most successful angles for a campaign called Pay Check revealed how much more world leaders earned compared to the citizens who paid their wages.

Source: businessinsider.com (2018)

Remember to also read between averages, especially by looking at the mean and median values.

This analysis by CNN picked apart the assumption that the average American is one of the world’s wealthiest. In terms of mean net worth, which can be heavily skewed by a country’s super wealthy citizens, Americans were the fourth richest in the OECD (2014), but when you line up every individual’s net worth, the US median was actually one of the lowest.

Source: cnn.com (2014)

And such a vast gap between the mean and median values of a dataset may lead you to ask how many super-wealthy people in the US there actually are.

Follow the links for how to calculate averages in spreadsheets through Google Sheets or Excel.

6. How many are there?

The same year that CNN published their analysis of the net worth of Americans, the LA Times took a different angle by counting how many households with a net worth of $1 million or more existed in the US, which turned out to be 9.6 million – a record number at the time. This is also a headline that highlights a significant change for the most recent time period.

Source: latimes.com (2014)

Counting how often a text or numerical value appears in a spreadsheet is often used to deliver a ‘best seller’, or, in the case of our campaign below, a ‘most borrowed’ type of angle. For a campaign called Well Read, we analysed three decades of lending data from UK libraries and counted which authors, novels and genres were borrowed the most.

Source: inews.co.uk (2018)

Unlike the data source we used above, you may be collecting information from multiple organisations, with the aim of comparing their data against each other. This means there could be missing data or inconsistent collection methods that can have implications, either as part of the story you’re trying to tell or in terms of whether the different datasets can be fairly compared at all.

By counting the data that was missing rather than what was present, VICE’s Broadly channel analysed and reported on 86 percent of universities failing to make any mention of stalking or abuse in their policy documents (2019).

One example of overcoming the nonuniform data collection methods that are typical of UK universities when responding to freedom of information requests came from an FOI-led survey by Uswitch. They counted UK University responses to uniform ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions about their commitments to renewable energy to score them on a straightforward index.

Follow the links for how to count data in spreadsheets through Google Sheets or Excel, or by counting cells for specific criteria.

Compiling your metrics into an index

Coming full-circle to the highest and lowest values again, many data-driven stories can be constructed by an index that considers multiple indicators to rank a group of data points.

Ranking locations within indexes is a common method for outreach campaigns, as it provides local journalists with stories that are targeted to their area, and because comparable towns, cities and countries tend to record all sorts of interesting data that can be spun into a story.

This is a creative approach to creating a headline out of many statistics where one statistic in isolation wouldn’t do the same. For example, there is no single metric that can determine what it means to be a hipster, but this index created by MoveHub compiled metrics such as the number of record shops, vintage boutiques, and vegan restaurants proportionally to the size of the local population to determine it was Brighton, UK.

Source: independent.co.uk (2018)

Indexes may be considered more comprehensive than trying to make the jump from one individual statistic to a headline, and indexes can sound impressive when a brand produces one about a topic within which they are considered an authority to name ‘the best’ or ‘worst’ or ‘capital’ of something.

However, indexes can also mask certain stories that exist behind individual metrics, which could have quite easily produced a headline on their own. We have previously analysed a similar metric to the one used in the above ‘Hipster Index’ to name the world’s most vegan-friendly capitals, based purely on the percentage of restaurants in a location that serve vegan food options. With a surprising result revealing Dublin, this is another example of the strength of one statistic built out of one question creating a strong headline.

Source: joe.ie (2019)

So be sure to consider how each data point or statistic that you’ve worked hard sourcing and analysing can produce its own outreach angle, even if it was originally intended to support an index’s methodology.

Recap

Keep an eye out for how often news stories are constructed by:

1) rankings
2) grand totals
3) change
4) proportion
5) averages
6) counting

As part of your creative process, consider whether each of these methods can reveal more interesting angles about the next dataset you work with, or whether they can even form the crux of your next idea’s methodology.

There’s no guarantee that a dataset will contain a headline-worthy angle, and you may find that there is more data to source before you can build a story.

But when you do find yourself interrogating a particularly fruitful set of numbers from all of the dimensions we’ve discussed, then you could uncover numerous stories to tell as part of your content and outreach strategy, or at least be confident that you’ve found the most newsworthy statistic.

Further reading

  • A broader look at the process of turning data into a content marketing campaign: [1]
  • As well as your calculations, there are other ways to diversify your angles and ideas during the production and outreach stages of a campaign. This post discusses that process through considerations about topics and journalist sectors: [2]
  • 3 useful resources for finding data and hunting for stories: [3] [4] [5]

Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.

6 UI design principles you need to know

For a designer, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of UI principles. UI principles are high-level concepts that serve as guidance when designing a user interface, which is the point at which human-computer interaction occurs. The hierarchy in the UI design is fundamental in determining what the user will take away from their experience when using the interface. 

The goal of a UI designer is to anticipate what a user might need to do by producing an interface that naturally encourages exploration and avoids confusion. 

For this post, I’ve designed a simple landing page for a fictional learning platform. This landing page design – that in its current state follows all of the UI principles correctly – will be used as a point of reference to demonstrate six key design principles.

A website page for a fictional company called 'Learnify' that successfully demonstrates all of the design principles in this post.

I’ve accompanied each section in this blog with a version of the above page that demonstrates how a bad design decision could affect the overall image and the usability of your design. 

So, let’s get started…

Typography

Typography is one of the most important principles in user interface design. It’s the technique of arranging text to make it readable and visually appealing. The arrangement of the text includes selecting typefaces, font sizes, line lengths, line-spacing, and letter-spacing, and adjusting the space between pairs of letters.

Good design doesn’t need to feature lots of different typefaces. Unless the typography is a core design element, you simply don’t need to use lots of typefaces to convey a message.

More often than not, simplicity is key, and a strong design might only feature one or two typefaces. The typography principle is there to lead the reader’s eye to the right place at the right moment. It sets the tone of your page and helps to establish a visual hierarchy in your design. 

For example, a larger font size and bolder font-weight have a higher chance of being seen by the user, but if we were to compare…

this lightweight text in a bigger font

with

this bolder text in a smaller font

…the chances are the first example would stand out more.

One way to improve a website’s readability is to increase leading (or line-height, in other words). This spacing between the two lines of text has a key impact on legibility; correct line-height helps the reader’s eyes travel from one line to another.

Although the standard leading is 120% the point size of the font, the leading can be set to automatic adjustment and can be modified according to the typeface needs. The body text in the example below illustrates poor use of leading.

A website page for a fictional company called 'Learnify'. The text on the page is cluttered and there is no clear sense of flow when reading the material.

The text is clustered which makes it difficult to read. Overall, this page does not give its viewers a sense of flow when reading the material from start to finish. The various alignments and improper use of fonts does not convey a story, nor does it urge users to take an action.

Select typeface for the headers only after you are confident with a typeface for the body text.

Scale

Scale in design refers to the sizing and the proportion of the elements on a page. Every element, whether a piece of text, a shape, or a line, has a weight.

The weight is created from the size, colour, or texture of an object. A symmetrical, well-balanced design is formed by aligning equally weighted elements on either side of the centre line. With the scale principle in mind, the designer needs to make sure that the page doesn’t look either overcrowded or empty.

One way to achieve this is with the use of padding and white space, or by simply adjusting the scale of an element. Scale can be used to direct viewers’ attention from the most to least important elements.

Objects of a bigger scale tend to attract viewers’ attention more, so the scale principle can be used as a way to rank design elements and influence the order in which users view them.

Below is an example of badly scaled design. The scale principle should help in guiding the users through their experience, but on the page below, the viewer can’t focus on any of the elements. The header is too big, the action buttons are too small, and the social media links (already highlighted enough with colour) are unnecessarily large.

A website page for a fictional company called 'Learnify'. The objects on the page are all the wrong size. The heading is too big compared to the small action buttons and the social media icons are very large.

It’s good practice to apply the golden ratio in your design. The golden ratio can be applied to spacing, composition, and layout; try using a golden ratio template. Plugins such as Font Scale can help establish a typography foundation.

Alignment

Alignment is the arrangement of elements in a straight line or correct relative order and is recognised as one of the core UI principles. Any two connected points are referred to as a line.

When executed correctly, alignment creates a hierarchy within a design and helps direct the user’s attention towards specific information. Arranged content is easier for the user to scan through which increases readability and the viewer’s engagement.

Alignment can be achieved with a clearly defined boundary or a division. A defined boundary can be perceived in a group of elements that share a common area. When the elements are close or proximate to each other they tend to be visually grouped.

In the example below, an excess of misaligned elements strips the viewer of a clear visual path. It’s now unclear where the viewer should start and finish navigating the page.

A website page for a fictional company called 'Learnify'. At the top is a navigation bar with options for different pages. The options are not in a straight line. Other objects on the page are misaligned with each other creating an uneven feel.

As the human eye naturally seeks perfection, an intentional misalignment of an object could sometimes be used as a way to attract a user’s attention. One way to do so could be by increasing the y-axis of a navigation bar link of a selected page as a way to highlight the user’s current location on a site.

Enable a predefined grid or customise one to make sure elements are aligned and visually organised.

White space

For a design to work, it needs to have an adequate amount of space between its objects. In our example below, the area around each object is white space, which also happens to be the negative space and another key UI principle.

Unlike positive space, which is the area of interest on a page, negative space is the background area around the subject of interest. The right amount of white space can simplify and break a design into chunks of information that are easier to comprehend.

A larger white space around the text helps improve readability. A design that has a very minimal use of white space could overwhelm the reader’s eye.

A website page for a fictional company called 'Learnify'. The decorative elements on the page overwhelm the buttons and text. The button text is too large for its borders.

In the example above, it’s obvious that the design lacks white space, making it heavy on the eyes.

Here are a few reasons why this is happening. First, although the CTA buttons are emphasised with boxes, the text inside of them lacks padding and subsequently looks too big. The visuals on the right side of the page are too large and too close to the top navigation bar and the text on the left side of the page.

Elements on the left-hand side don’t have enough space to breathe and are overwhelmed by the size of the visual element. Header one and header two seem to be too far apart – despite them being part of the same group, they seem isolated from one another. The same issue can be seen with the CTA buttons, which once again are too far apart.

Button borders usually work well when the padding ratio is 1:3 for the top and bottom, and 3:3 for the right and left.

Colour

Users often perceive an aesthetically pleasing design as a more usable design, and they’re technically not wrong. More and more brutalist-inspired websites are receiving recognition among younger users. Their ruggedness and complete lack of usability is what makes them unique and memorable.

Sometimes the simplest, most intuitive, and most accessible user interface is not as popular as a modern design that has scarce consideration for usability. By and large though, if a website lacks aesthetics, it will most likely drive away visitors too.

Colour is another hugely important UI principle. Colour can establish the right tone, whether it acts as the main standalone component or is used as an oomph in other design elements. Colour can set boundaries, define shapes, and give emphasis to an area of a page.

A website page for a fictional company called 'Learnify'. The page colours have been altered to bright pink, orange, and red, making it overwhelming to the eye and difficult to read the text. The colours do not seem to match and are unattractive as a whole.

In the example above, the colour selected for the design doesn’t reflect the brand nor enhances usability. The colour combination looks tacky and lacks contrast, creating difficulty when reading the page and identifying the navigation elements.

Apply the 60-30-10 rule. That’s 60% to the dominant colour, 30% to the secondary colour, and 10% to the accent colour. Consider using colour palette plugins, as these are predefined colour sets that can speed up the process of choosing the right colours for a design project.

Contrast

Contrast is the state of something being different from something else. For elements to contrast, there should be an evident difference between the two. Colour, scale, or a combination of both can be used to contrast two or more elements and create space.

RGB, hexadecimal, and HSL all have an impact on whether a colour will have enough contrast. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2 – the international standard for designing for accessibility – is a good way you can learn more about the specifics. WCAG 2 expresses the brightness differences between colours in a form of a ratio, which ranges from 1:1 (e.g. white on white) to 21:1 (e.g. black on white). If we were to check the contrast of RGB values on white background, the ratios would look like this:

Red = 4:1

Green = 1.4:1

Blue = 8.6:1

(*the ration value will remain the same even if the text colour is reversed with background colour)

According to WCAG 2, the minimal requirement of the AA level of contrast ratio is 4.5:1, though this ratio requirement drops to 3:1 if a large-scale text is used. This requirement can be avoided altogether when referring to the contrast in decorative text and text in logos, as these do not affect the accessibility of an interface.

It is important to note that there are many colour hues and shades out there and the ratios cannot be rounded. If the colour contrast is 4.2:1, it automatically does not meet the minimal contrast requirement.

Below is an instance of how contrast should not be used:

A website page for a fictional company called 'Learnify'. The colours on the page are dimmed and the background is grey. The text is very hard to read as a result.

The above design is an example of ineffective contrast use because the elements are difficult to read and identify. Lack of contrast strains the viewer’s eyes and can result in users experiencing frustration.

Using images as backgrounds can reduce text visibility. To make sure the text is adequately readable and meets WCAG 2 contrast requirements, use a coloured overlay on the image before placing the text on top.

Final thoughts

The different elements of a design should all work together as a team to tell a story and guide viewers through their user journey.

To all budding designers, I would strongly recommend familiarising yourself with UI principles before taking on a design project. The proper use of these principles will contribute to the flow and the outcome of your design, and significantly enhance the accessibility of the page.

Take a look at some of our previous campaigns to see how the design team at Verve Search have used design principles in their award-winning work.


Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.

SEO in journalism: how can we use it in outreach?

After five years working as a journalist and more than a year working in digital PR and outreach, I have seen SEO in operation from both sides – here’s how they can be used in combination to secure coverage.

My background

When I first started doing my degree in Journalism at Kingston University in 2012, SEO was a mere afterthought in my Multimedia News Writing course. Yes, we were told to hyperlink or  to include keywords in our copy, but we were never fully educated on its purpose or importance, nor did it ever dictate what we were writing about. 

Eight years later, I was working for a publication where the content we produced was almost entirely driven by SEO strategies. It was prioritised on the same level as editorial integrity and quality, which I found surprising and intriguing. As much as I love writing, I felt myself being drawn to this ‘behind the scenes’ world of SEO more and more, to the point where I decided to pursue a career in it. 

I started working at Verve Search nearly 18 months ago, where I was introduced to a whole new and more technical side of SEO. This, in combination with my journalistic experience and my knowledge of how SEO is applied in journalism, has really strengthened my ability in outreach. I want to share this knowledge so you can too. 

So, how can we learn from the way journalists and publications use and are motivated by SEO as part of their day-to-day runnings and editorial planning and apply it to outreach and ideation?

What motivates journalists in terms of SEO?

letters spelling out SEO, each decorated in a different multi-coloured pattern
SEO is an integral part of a journalist’s day-to-day in the same way as it is an integral part of a digital PR’s daily routine. How can we capitalise on these strategies in outreach?

Traditionally, the way journalists and newspapers measured their success was purely down to how many newspapers they sold or how many quantifiable readers they had. For some publications, these metrics still come into play, but it’s not farfetched to say that today, SEO metrics have replaced the way we measure a publication’s success. 

But what are SEO metrics? Metrics such as ranking, search traffic and engagement are what motivate publications the most in terms of SEO. What these metrics have in common is that they focus heavily on keywords. 

Ultimately, publications want to rank as high as possible on search engines for the topics (AKA keywords) they cover, whether niche or broad. If you type “news uk” in your Google search bar, the BBC ranks in first and second place in the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages). This is where every publication would love to be. Additionally, publications want to rank for specific keywords relevant to the topics they cover. For instance, the BBC would also want to rank high for keywords such as “TV”, “weather” and “sport”. 

How do journalists use SEO?

seen from above, a person writing on laptop with stationary and cup of coffee next to them on a white desk
Journalists and publications use SEO as a way to measure success and readership as well as a guide for future development.

So now you know what motivates publications in terms of SEO, it’s time to see how journalists and writers apply this in their day-to-day roles, and crucially, how this can benefit us in outreach.   

This quote, lifted from Moz’ Beginner’s Guide to SEO sums up pretty well how journalists use SEO on a daily basis:

“It’s about understanding what people are searching for online, the answers they are seeking, the words they’re using, and the type of content they wish to consume. Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to connect to the people who are searching online for the solutions you offer.” 

Moz’ Beginner’s Guide to SEO

For a publication and for a journalist, it’s all about understanding what content your readers want, how they would like to consume that content, and what kind of readers you want to attract. And this is exactly what journalists do to plan their content and the style of that content. This brings me back to keywords

What are keywords and why are they important?

smart phone on a table portraying a news feed with a sed of airpods in its container next to it
Keywords are the most important factor to consider when approaching journalistic SEO.

Keywords are the words and phrases in a website’s content that make it possible for people to find the site via search engines. So, as you can imagine, keywords are a huge part of a digital journalist’s day to day. 

The days of cramming keywords into copy (also known as keyword density) might be over, but if a journalist wants their article to rank well in search engines, keywords need to be incorporated into their article’s structure (headlines, meta descriptions and URLs). Out of these, it is particularly important to include keywords in the headline. 

Revisiting the earlier quote, it says that it’s about understanding what people are searching for online, the answers they are seeking and the words they’re using. In other words, journalists are keen to discover the target keywords that are driving their readers to their site – or indeed, the target keywords that are taking their desired readers to competing publications instead. 

How do journalists choose the keywords to focus on? 

Publications are focused on ranking for keywords that are relevant to the topics that their publication covers. For niche publications, such as Boat International, the keywords will be narrower and more specific, whereas for bigger news outlets such as The Guardian, it will be much wider and far-reaching. 

For instance, TimeOut London aims to rank for keywords such as ‘best restaurants in London’, ‘things to do in London’ and ‘best West End shows’. 

These are all evergreen keywords or evergreen content. As the name suggests, evergreen content is content that readers will be interested in and might be searching for all year round – they were interested in searching for it last year and they will be next year too. This is the bread and butter for any news website as it is the biggest source of consistent traffic.  

infinity gif where the moving infinity symbol is a pencil leaving a line with the rubber at the tip of the pencil trailing it, erasing it
Evergreen content will never go out of style and can therefore form a strong foundation for outreach.

But TimeOut also wants to rank for ‘most romantic restaurants’ around Valentine’s Day or ‘best rooftop bars in London’ before a hot summer bank holiday. These are seasonal keywords and refer to keywords that generate most of their search traffic during a specific time of the year. 

Then there are trending keywords, which, as you can imagine, is all about ranking for keywords that are trending at a particular time. At the time of writing, everyone is covering the story about how a bunch of Reddit users made the GameStop share price skyrocket, leaving established Wall Street traders with pie on their faces. Newspapers would want to get in on these trends and rank for it. 

So journalists use all these keyword categories to determine what to write about. But how do they decide on which keywords to focus on? 

Obviously, they use their expertise and editorial calendar to know what is going on in the world, but they also use the same SEO tools as the rest of us, such as Google Search Console, Google Analytics, Google Trends, MOZ Keyword Explorer, Keywords Everywhere, SEMrush and Answer The Public

They use these tools to determine the popularity and search volume of keywords in order to figure out which new topic areas to explore, which articles to update and optimise to improve their ranking, as well as to guide them on which keywords to include in their headlines.             

How to apply journalistic SEO in outreach and ideation

Now that you know what motivates journalists and how they use it in their day to day, it’s time to investigate how we can apply the same methods and strategies in the various stages of outreach. 

The most obvious place to start is to look at the target publications of the client you’re working for. 

What publications does the client wish to secure coverage in and what do these publications cover? Use the SEO tools mentioned above to explore the evergreen, seasonal and trending keywords these publications will be aiming to rank for to anticipate what its journalists will cover. 

Incorporate evergreen keywords into your ideation

three yellow post-it notes in a row on a white background with a blue-capped sharpie lying beneath it
Think of evergreen content while brainstorming for campaign ideas.

‘Evergreen’ for a journalist means a story that is not time-sensitive and which has relevance throughout the year. ‘Evergreen’ in content marketing can differ in its definition, so I will adopt the journalist’s version here for our ideation and outreach strategy. 

We always prefer to create and outreach a story that doesn’t rely on a smaller window of time to achieve coverage, while potentially including additional seasonal news angles where possible. 

One way in which you can ensure the topic and subjects of your story will produce keywords that stand out to journalists at any time of year and which appeal to the correct journalists, is to carefully consider what sample of subjects you consider in your method. 

When creating a data-driven story, as we often do, you may find that your sample of subjects varies in size or popularity. This presents two potential problems – one is that you may not be comparing like-for-like subjects, and the second being that you might lose the most popular subjects from your story because a smaller, lesser-known subject has taken its place.

Assuming that the data you are working with is trivial and unlikely to mislead people or cause harm by not including larger samples, you should aim to work with a sample of data that will appeal to your target journalists, and, if necessary, set an appropriate threshold.

In our campaign called Cuisine Hotspots, where we analysed which cities ranked highest for specialising in certain cuisine styles, we were keen to make our story appeal internationally where our client Hayes and Jarvis would wish to see their name mentioned. 

the words cuisine hotspots arranged like a logo in the middle of a background of a dinner table filled with various foods and hands helping themselves to the food
The campaign Cuisine Hotspots for our client Hayes and Jarvis revealed Dublin as the vegan capital of the world was a perfect example of evergreen content.

To help achieve this, we chose to analyse a large sample of cities that were specifically known for being ‘the most traveled to destinations in the world’. This resulted in cities such as Dublin being widely reported at home and abroad for ranking as one of the world’s vegan food capitals.

Analysing larger and smaller-sized sample subjects as part of the same method can provide surprising (and newsworthy) insights. For example, it might be much more interesting for a smaller UK city to beat London on a particular economic measure. Other times it’s best to analyse like-for-like subjects as part of your method for your story to have wider appeal – London and New York have much wider outreach potential than a small local authority or town in the US. 

When we designed a methodology for Lucrative Leaders – discovering which tech CEOs oversaw the greatest increase in their company’s market value – we chose to only consider tech leaders at companies worth $100 billion or more. This ensured that our story considered the Jeff Bezos’s and Steve Jobs of the tech world who are much more headline-worthy than the lesser-known Joe Blogs.

a splash page where the right half the image is filled with a picture of a senior white man with grey hair and glasses clad in a suit, sitting on a chair with a background of blue-lit screens. The left half of the image is a white background with the words lucrative leaders and some red icons
Our campaign Lucrative Leaders for our client IG ensured it included headline-worthy names in its data set.

Incorporate evergreen keywords into your outreach

Verve’s very successful Profanity on Film campaign revealed which actors have sworn the most across their filmographies. It demonstrates, in an evergreen sense, the value of including a big name in a story that appeals to journalists regardless of other events that take place in the real world. 

We first started outreaching this campaign in March 2020 with no timely news hook and only aiming to demonstrate how Jonah Hill had overtaken Samuel L. Jackson as Hollywood’s most profane actor. 

white background splash page with black copy and red table
Our campaign Profanity On Film for our client Buzz Bingo not only included headline-worthy celebrities in its data set, making it evergreen, but offered both seasonal and trending outreach possibilities.

In the end, the campaign achieved more than 800 pieces of coverage in the likes of The Guardian, The Independent, NME and The Wrap – entertainment publications that will report on A-list celebrity actions and events wherever possible. However, a decent proportion of that coverage came from the outreach team reacting to events that involved Jonah Hill, other famous actors who are known for swearing, and the announcement of a Netflix documentary.

Due to an Instagram post by Jonah Hill himself, the campaign gave us a chance to react and achieve more coverage in May. Later, in September, when Samuel L. Jackson decided to launch swearing lessons as an incentive to get people to vote in the 2020 US election, we saw another opportunity to jump on the trend and achieved an additional 20 pieces of linked coverage. By January 2021, Netflix had released a documentary called the History of Swearing, its original announcement led to our third wave of coverage, including a second link for the campaign in The Guardian.

Instagram snapshot portraying a white-background comment field as well as a news story with a picture of black bald man speaking on the phone and white man with brown curly hair wearing spectacles and speaking on the phone
Jonah Hill’s tweet about the campaign reinvigourated the story and spurred on another round of successful outreach. Thanks Jonah!

The keywords for Profanity On Film were the actors’ names. There was no threshold set or carefully chosen sample of data here. We analysed more than 5,000 publicly available scripts from movies that had a cinematic release, and the data provided us with an excellent selection of names who are popular for entertainment and showbiz journalists to write about at any time of year.

Evergreen keywords work well for campaigns that you intend to outreach for several months, and they help to eliminate the risk of irrelevance for your target journalists. With that said, implementing more seasonal or trending keywords definitely has its place as part of a wider outreach strategy.

Using seasonal keywords in your outreach strategy

If you have a specific time frame for the outreach of your campaign, seasonal keywords provide an excellent asset both as a starting point for a campaign idea and for your angles. 

A great example of this is when we knew we had a campaign lined up for a client around the time of Halloween. The Scariest Horror campaign discovered what the scariest film of all time was by asking volunteers to wear heart monitors while they watched 10 films known for having the biggest jump scares. 

While horror movies have wide enough appeal at any time of year for entertainment journalists to discuss, the campaign naturally appealed even more to publications such as the LadBible as the 31st October approached.

article snapshot with headline and images of a monster and a white man looking concerned
Our campaign Scariest Horror for our client Buzz Bingo, was the perfect example of successful seasonal outreach, hitting the Halloween feature planning.

It may hamper your outreach efforts if a campaign relied purely on a seasonal event to achieve coverage, but it is worth exploring seasonal keywords related to your client and your client’s target publications to incorporate these keywords into your pitch to journalists.

Again, I would recommend incorporating seasonal angles as part of a wider ideation and outreach strategy that is more evergreen to journalists. For every Halloween-related story you conjure up, make sure there are plenty more stories available that appeal throughout the year.

How to incorporate trending keywords into your outreach strategy 

I also find trending keywords too fleeting to base campaign ideas on, but they are perfect to use as a news hook for your pitch or as a tool to breathe fresh air into an old campaign. 

An example of this is when we capitalised on the PS5 release hype before Christmas with our campaign Global Cost of Gaming, where we looked at and compared the different costs of the new PS5 in different countries. Including the keyword ‘PS5’ in the headline was instrumental to the high volume of coverage this campaign received.  

Splash page with multi-coloured table and headline
Our campaign Global Cost of Gaming for our client Paxful capitalised on the PS5 and Xbox hype just before Christmas 2020.

Again, make sure you maximise the keyword by including it in your headline.

How to incorporate long-tail keywords in your outreach strategy 

lime green and yellow graphic
Long-tail keywords visualised.

Long-tail keywords are longer and more specific keyword phrases, which don’t necessarily have a very high search volume. 

It’s worth noting that there is bigger competition between publications to rank for high search volume keywords. Therefore, going more granular and finding keywords that are more specific and which have a smaller search volume, might make it easier to rank and appeal more to journalists. 

Additionally, if you have a client that is interested in coverage in certain regions or countries, exploring the various keywords in these markets will be time well spent. This is all about understanding the target audience and the language they use when searching for content. 

For instance, if you’re planning on outreaching to both the UK and the US for your client, even though the language used will be the same, taking the differences between British and American English (Brits go on ‘holiday’ whereas Americans go on ‘vacation’) into consideration in your keyword search can be a game changer. Localising keywords is a worthwhile strategy.   

How do we use this for outreach? Going for headlines that aid a high-volume keyword such as ‘the best brunch in London’ might actually be counterproductive if journalists want to cover something more targeted. High-volume keywords may also see more articles being published around that specific keyword already, so the subject line in your email may not stand out so much in a journalist’s inbox. 

However, if you opted for a keyword that considered something even more long-tail and granular, such as ‘the best vegan brunch places in Peckham’, the competition may be lower and the originality of the story may be greater.

So to sum up, spending time familiarising yourself with the client and its target publications, and the various keywords they would want to rank for will be beneficial for you from ideation right through to outreach. This involves all keywords, from evergreen and trending, to long-tail and localised. By using the same SEO tools and strategies as journalists do to find your keywords and incorporating them into your approach, you will find your outreach efforts piquing the interest of journalists much more frequently.


Interested in our content marketing and digital PR services? Get in touch.

outREACH Online Conference: Q&A’s from Mark Johnstone

In the next part of series of speaker follow ups, we asked Mark Johnstone to answer the questions we were unable to cover at the outREACH Online Conference. If you were unable to make the conference, you’ll be pleased to know we recorded all of the sessions, including talks from Rand Fishkin, Shannon McGuirk and Lisa Myers. Take a look at them today!

Since leaving Distilled in 2016, Mark Johnstone has helped a plethora of teams and people create better content through his consultancy work. Now he has set up Content Hubble; a new site focussed entirely on generating and inspiring awesome content idea. Check out the website or twitter feed for more resources and information on training opportunities.

In the meantime, Mark has kindly taken the time to answer your questions…be ready to be inspired to create great content!

What did you learn from your biggest marketing mistake?
I have 2 answers to this. The first is that I’ve created checklists & frameworks to make sure I learn from the mistakes and remember not to make them again. I have checklists of criteria for ideas, QA checklists for production, and more.

The second one is there have been periods where I rested on my laurels. I thought I was good at what I did (which I was) and I stopped learning. In retrospect, this became a period of stagnation, and I’m disappointed that I succumbed to arrogance and wasted time when I could have been growing. One of my favourite lines from Mad Men is when Don says to Peggy “You’re good, get better.”

I hear a lot about brainstorming with, bouncing ideas off your team etc. What if you are a one man band like me?
It’s always valuable to find someone to soundboard ideas off of. Just saying them out loud to someone, you’ll notice which ones you’re not even convinced of yourself. And you’ll see how they respond. Do they look intrigued or do they look confused or indifferent. Don’t listen to what they say. Look at how they respond. I would try to find someone to chat to – your partner, a friend in the pub, a colleague in another team, an industry associate. I’m sure you can manage something. You can do it overtly or covertly, just dropping it into conversation and seeing how they respond.

Could you share some resources that you follow which share creative content campaigns? like Blogs, Twitter accounts etc
Content curated, digital PR examples, The Pudding, the best of the visualisation web by VisualisingData, NYTimes (their annual list is a great place to start, in fact here’s a list of annual lists), the Information is Beautiful Awards, Information is Beautiful itself, Reddit /dataisbeautiful and /internetisbeautiful, and FlowingData. And following agencies and their key people on Twitter, their case studies, conference presentations, etc. And the awards ceremonies e.g. UK Search Awards, European Search Awards, The Drum Search Awards. That should keep you busy! And I’ll be sharing stuff myself via Content hubble in due course, so stay in touch (via the site and/or Twitter).

I’d love to know how people stay on top of news, trends, campaigns etc. e.g. 30 min solo research, team scrums etc. Any recommendations or thoughts?
In the beginning, I set up RSS feeds and Twitter feeds and went through them every day for 30 minutes or so, first thing. It’s good for inspiration. I then save them in a swipe file, e.g. on Pinterest (I prefer a visual swipe file).

As a team, we also used to share anything anyone in the company found on a channel in Slack (not my favourite platform, but if it’s the one everyone’s using, it has the least barrier to entry). I would save anything I liked in there into my own personal swipe file.

As I’ve progressed, I don’t do it every day now, but I do sit down every month or two for half a day, or even more, and go back through the sites I like to see what I’ve missed. If you’re starting out, I’d recommend doing it regularly, i.e. daily. You can maybe switch to less regular once you’ve really absorbed a lot of reference points that spontaneously come to mind while you’re generating ideas.

I’m pretty new in the digital PR space and absolutely amazed with all the brilliant creative campaigns. How much time do you set a side from research and ideas phase to finalising a campaign like this?
There are really 2 parts to this. There’s the project duration (over how many weeks) and the hours you put into it. The campaigns, goals and budgets vary greatly, so it’s very difficult to answer specifically and succinctly.

In terms of duration, I like to set aside a minimum of 2 weeks for ideation, otherwise I find there’s a tendency to rush half-baked ideas through without allowing a cooling period to see if you still like them. For production, it really depends on the complexity of the data and the design, and whether there’s interactivity. It could be anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks, so it depends on what you’re creating. You could feasibly produce something simple in a week too.

In terms of hours, I like to encourage people to put more hours into ideation than they might be used to. I find it continually frustrating that people will happily allow days or even weeks worth of time and budget for design and development, but not for ideas. That’s simply because they can’t see the work that went into it. But if you don’t spend time getting a good idea, you could be wasting all that money on design and dev.

At the very, very least, I’d want half a day on ideation, but realistically, I like to take a couple of days just researching and generating ideas, and a couple more developing them. Spread out over a couple of weeks.

For data, it can vary from half a day to 2 weeks (or even more) depending on what you have to do to get the data (does it come in a nice table, or do you have to scrape it and tidy it up, etc).
If you’re starting out, try to allow at least a day for data and 2 days for design. I know plenty of people doing closer to half a day on data, half a day on copy and 1 day on design, but personally, I think 1 day on design is a little tight. Even 2 is short, but you can get something decent for 2 days. If you’re starting out and budgets are tight, avoid interactivity for now.

Loved all of these campaign examples: Working for an office supplies company, sometimes it is hard to come up with outside the box campaign ideas as it is related to a somewhat boring topic. What’s a good way to expand the idea brainstorming for “boring” topics like office supplies?
Here are 3 cool content campaigns off the top of my head for stationery companies –  Emma the office worker, a paper dragon and the Staples speed reading test.

And it’s useful to notice that a lot of the examples that are shared widely in our industry are not for exciting sectors, e.g. there are quite a few for insurance companies and there are a few great recent examples for bingo. Bingo itself is fun, but it’s not a great topic for content creation.

The main thing to do here is shift your thinking away from the product. Now, it doesn’t have to go too far away from the product. But think more about what people do in offices. What challenges and frustrations do they have? What are they trying to achieve? You could tap into productivity, creativity, employee engagement, communication, anything that makes sense for what you do and what your customers care about in that context.

Think about what people use your product to do, what it does for them, as opposed to what it is. That’s what most advertising campaigns focus on. Dove don’t make campaigns about moisturising cream, they make campaigns about feeling beautiful in your own skin. Red Bull don’t make content about caffeine, they make campaigns about pushing life to the limits.

Stationery content doesn’t need to be about index cards. It could be about office life, productivity, business innovation, business communication, business presentations, whatever you decide. A bit of strategy work to set a clear direction could help here.

When you think of a creative campaign but then find yourself constricted by budget – would you scale down design first or do you think that’s the most important aspect?
There are two things we’re usually doing with content campaigns when you boil it right down. We’re either presenting new information or presenting information in new ways, or both, e.g. Profanity on Film presented new information. The Future Gamer presented information (that already existed) in a new way. So I’d figure out what your idea is bringing that’s new.

Then figure out what information is essential to gather and analyse, and how much time that needs.

Then think about the simplest way you can present the information. It could be as simple as a table, and there are plenty of examples of tables getting coverage. Or it could be a very simple chart. Whatever is the easiest way for people to ‘see’ the information and understand the point. Depending on the idea, you could potentially get something done for one day of research/data/analysis/copy and one day of design.

I’d do what you can to increase those budgets over time, or over-invest your own personal time if you believe in the idea and its success will open doors for you in the future. That’s kind of how I started out.

Also, when gathering a swipe file, find examples of content that could be done within your budget. And for more expensive pieces, ask yourself, how could this have been done more simply. There will often be an answer.

How do you manage the budget for such campaigns most efficiently?
Get very specific about the idea before you start. What data will it need? How will you get it? What needs to be done to it? How do you intend to design it? What interactivity will it likely contain? What’s the nearest thing that exists to this online already? Discuss it with your team and find out how long they think they’ll need (in days) for each part.

There is always a tension between project management & creative direction. Project managers want everything on time and budget, creative directors want the idea to be as good as it can be, and will discover challenges and opportunities along the way that they need/want to respond to.

Even if project management and creative direction is controlled by the same person, you’ll probably lean one way or another. I obviously lean towards creative direction. I suspect, by the question, I can guess which way you lean, although I may be wrong. There is value in both approaches, and a middle ground needs to be found.

But if you don’t have much success at creating content at the moment, be prepared to over-deliver on time on at least a few projects in order to start making them successful. That’s how I made my breakthrough, and I know others did similarly. That’s also how you get case studies that retain clients and attract more business.

There’s no point having a very efficiently delivered content project that doesn’t work.

Do you have a morning routine that helps sparking creativity?
Ha! No, I’m not much of a morning person whatsoever! Okay, a more serious answer! if I do have some creative work to do in the morning, I’ll do some research around it the night before, write down the different components of what I’m discovering on post-its, and play around with them. Look at them, brainstorm off of them, and think about the question that I want to answer the next day.

I get my desk (digital & physical) ready to start work straight away in the morning (with all the documents open that I need). I write the question down on my desk. And then, in the morning, I try to get to work as quickly as possible, without any other distraction and without opening anything else, even my phone.

I also like listening to music, and I dance about a little bit as I’m working. I like to have a pen and pad to hand, as somehow, at times, I find the physical act of writing seems to aid creativity more than typing on a computer.

The key is to stay free from distraction, focus for a good length of time, and loosen up. You’re just playing at this point in time. You are not committing to anything you write down, so get it all down, no matter how ridiculous or unlikely. You can filter through it all in a different session later. For now, lighten up….

Psst! did you know work is allowed to be fun?

Thanks again to Mark for his time during and after the conference. The next in our series of Q&A follow ups will come from the absolutely fabulous Shannon McGuirk, with more to come beyond that!

And don’t forget you can still get tickets for outREACH London, which will now be held in November, but if you can’t wait until then, you can pick up the footage from the online conference here