In Defense of Lists: Why People (Secretly) Love List Posts

by · July 10, 201213 comments

Nothing rolls cynical eyes faster than the promise of understanding a complex issue with a quick and easy-to-read list.

And nothing will get eyes to glaze over more effectively than “yet another list post.”

“Top 10 lists are a tool of the Devil.”

“They’re usually bite-size chunks of nonsense.”

“List posts are now a big red warning for me that I’m being suckered.”

Everyone must hate list posts. Or so the echo chamber would have you think.

But deep beneath the eye-rolling and exaggerated sighs is a tender love for list posts that most people won’t admit they have (even though they likely read, learned from and loved a list post in the last 30 days).

Here’s why people secretly love list posts:

Bullet points run the world.

Everybody reports to somebody – whether it’s a boss, a client, or a board. Those reports usually include a PowerPoint, a word document or at least a succinct email with a series of arguments. And the common element in all of these are listed items.

People need to summarize complex information into pithy soundbite-ish content that the person they report to can easily consume. Bullet points do this. Writing a list post for your audience pre-creates these bullet points and saves them the step of formatting a word document (physically or metaphorically).

People actually scan. Even the ones who say they don’t.

Sure, tablets are causing a rebirth of reading long-form content on the web. But for the most part, people are quickly scanning content to see if they should invest their next, precious 5 minutes.

List posts allow a reader to quickly run their eyes down a page, see what the crux of the message is, and see if they’d like to invest in the context.

List posts provide a clear benefit.

Just like terrible infographics have given rise to the anti-infographic movement, terrible list posts give list posts a bad name.

The ones that don’t deliver, or the ones that have a cop-out last item (i.e. “Have fun!” or “Add your own tip!”) have made a mockery of the list industry.

But the ones that have a list of items with each item carrying it’s own weight provide the reader a benefit in the headline, and deliver in the post.

People don’t always need “a story”

It’s true that great content tells a story, but sometimes you just need a primer – or a series of facts or a collection of resources – to help solve a problem.

The art of communication is perfected when one person relates to another person a bit of information. Lists do that in an incredibly efficient way. Instead of worrying that you’re devaluing the written word by breaking your content into digestable chunks of information, focus on serving your reader.

Content, done right, can be customer service. And lists are all about serving your reader. Need proof?

Try Googling some things in your industry. I’ll bet a list post is ranked competitively.

 For example:

google-search-buying-a-home

 

 

google-search-vacation-ideas

 

 

And lists tend to do pretty well in social media.

For instance, here’s the trending topics box from Twitter at the time this post was being written:

twitter-trending-topics

And here are some sample posts I found while quickly scrolling through my Facebook feed a few minutes later:

techcrunch-facebook

 

best-buy-facebook

 

(Note: These examples were selected sort of at random by scrolling through my news feed. They aren’t necessarily the best examples, but they are indicative of the overall trend of acceptance.)

Some of the best-performing posts on the dozens of sites I’ve worked on over the years have been lists. Like this one (below), which is viewed thousands of times a month, has a top 3 search ranking for “online video stats” and enjoys a second wind on social media fairly regularly.

101 Online Video Stats to Make Your Eyes Glaze Over

Not glamorous, not a tough post to write, and working hard every single day for a website.

Not every post needs to be a list – and a healthy balance of content types is actually key to a well-balanced content program – but lists are a worthy arrow in the quiver that we shouldn’t be ashamed to let fly.   Besides, people (not so) secretly love them.

 

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About Andrew Hanelly

Andrew Hanelly

Andrew is SVP, Strategy for McMurry/TMG and for one semester in college, was a sociology major. He writes at Brain on Digital, as @hanelly on Twitter and here on Google+.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

    I don’t think there’s any question that people like list posts, there are tons of them out there BECAUSE they drive traffic.  What people lament is the dumbing down of information beyond the point which it should have been reduced in the NAME of popularity.  They don’t question that it works, they simply hate the fact that we as a people would rather take these intellectual shortcuts which in many/most cases shouldn’t have been taken.

    It’s no different than railing against most of Reality TV, it’s profitable to make and lots of people want to watch it whether they admit it or not.  Does that make Reality TV ‘good’? If you’re an advertiser, yes. If you’re the individual, sort of.  If you’re society in aggregate, No.

    The question becomes what will you do in the name of ‘traffic’?  The traffic has to support the underlying objective, and different people have different ideas of whether they are willing to shortchange their readers (even if those readers desired it) in that pursuit.  All traffic isn’t created equal, otherwise we’d all just put porn on our sites and watch the number skyrocket :)  .  There are gray lines in the sand when it comes to selling shortcuts and everyones is different, not necessarily right or wrong, just different.  I rail against a lot of self-help and business shortcut books, some find value in them.  You hear a lot of talk about ‘snake oil salesmen’ in the social space, they are also people selling shortcuts.  The people complaining about them believe that the people who buy the salesmans wares are being shortchanged and don’t realize it.  

    So do we have a responsibility as to where we draw the line IN SPITE of what someone would buy or read?  I think so.  Where that line is depends on your perspective I suppose.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good perspective, Matt. From my angle (Andrew obviously may have his own thoughts here), I think lists work much like infographics work (Mark’s post here last week goes over that.) Our mind is more easily fed by bite-sized chunks and visual cues. But to your point, the bite-sized chunks can be off-brand, gritty, dark chocolate or Godiva. The key is feeding the audience Godiva in compelling visual and bite-sized ways. Fair?

      • http://www.techguerilla.com/ Matt Ridings – Techguerilla

        As you probably know I’m a big proponent of visual thinking, so I definitely relate to where you’re coming from.  As you elegantly put, in the end it’s about intent and quality.  If your intention is to simply drive traffic with a headline while tossing something into a meaningless list, you won’t find a lot of love from me.  If that same headline is there and followed by a lot of effort to condense something complex into something more easily absorbed (a real art if you ask me) I’ll be sitting on the sidelines clapping.  Lists can be part of a short term campaign mentality (just drive some traffic TODAY) or a long term relationship mentality (add extreme value so that they continue coming back and see me as a trusted resource).  Pretty obvious which one I prefer :)

        Cheers

        • http://www.digitalhorticulture.com/ Andrew Hanelly

          None of what you’re saying here is wrong. I suppose the caveat I should have included is that the lists need to be high quality. They need to be useful. They shouldn’t be phoned in. While I’m not advocating the Jay-Z approach (“I dumb down for my audience. And double my dollars”) I am saying that if the point of your content is to communicate a series of points in an efficient way, a thoughtful list is not a shameful approach.

          If this advice were to be taken to the extreme, and every post on the internet was suddenly a list, I’d move off the grid and hang my head in shame. I’m a big fan of journalism and a big fan of storytelling and I’d be heartbroken if my TV options were limited to the reality genre. But what I am saying is that not every b2b communication format is out to win a Pulitzer. A lot of it is just out to showcase some thoughtful thinking and some insight and sometimes putting that in list form is a favor for your audience.

          I knew I’d strike a nerve with this post and I’m glad I did, because your comment gives the additional context that people need to consider when they’re planning their communication strategy. I think a healthy balance of different formats (lists, infographics, stories, news bits, etc.) is essential to success – I truly believe that. It’s what works. As long as you have a filter for quality so that nothing empty, useless, and mailed in makes it to the public. 

          I suppose I was just writing this post to say “hey guys, writing a list doesn’t mean you’re dumbing down the internet, sometimes it’s just really useful to your audience and it’s a favor.” Unless, of course, you’re writing a dumb list.

  • http://www.3hatscommunications.com/blog/ davinabrewer

    I’ll admit to being one of those who’s bashed ‘lists’ a time or two. But at the same time, everyday I click, read, and sometimes share many a list post. Once in a while, I even write one. You’re right – it’s the bad lists, the lists that get it wrong. 

    I think it’s about the content; a simple post on Pinterest basics is one thing (Buffered on myself this morning). But – just like bad infographics – some lists are dangerous in that the oversimplify complex ideas (i.e. social media communication) to a bullet point check list; you can’t ‘follow these 10 steps’ to market domination, it just doesn’t work that way. Per much of what @techguerilla:disqus  mentioned, it’s the shortcut approach – and often for ‘here today, gone in 5 minutes’ traffic. 

     @JasonFalls:disqus makes a good point. We can strive to give more substantial pieces, the whole block of chocolate – but end of the day it’s about the audience. Some readers will want just a sample of Godiva, others a few quick Hershey’s kisses. For me it’s a matter of balance, finding time for a little of both – hopefully balanced with a few ‘whole chucks’ of well-rounded ideas. FWIW.

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  • http://allmarketingsolutions.co.uk/social-media-marketing-services Ayaz

    Very interesting article and usefull and love reading the article. Thanks for sharing :-)

  • Cnewton

    I think your article is right on point, and in fact, I’d like to use a quote from your article in a presentation that I’m working on about our project (Top 10 Endangered Artifacts) and why people love lists.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      We’d be honored!

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