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

How I learned to stop worrying and love the list

by Andrew Hanelly |

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:







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:


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





(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 the Author

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+.