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List posts, the stuff of magic. The staple food of Buzzfeed and social media and content marketing everywhere.
Maybe Martin Luther started a trend when he nailed a list to that door. Readers love lists. Content marketers love lists.
But a Buzzfeed list is one thing, with its catchy photos, quick blurbs, and fast takeaways for the reader. How about a long-form blog post, on a topic that isn’t so fun and full of baby animal photos? Do list posts still perform even if you’re not selling Buzzfeed’s brand of emotional adrenaline?
Why are list posts so popular? Why is your social media feed either filled with Upworthy-type headlines or numbered lists?
50 Laws That Are Ruining Your Life, 5 Signs You’re About To Be Rich, 7 Ways To Lose Weight In Just One Week – I wrote these fake headlines and I’m dying to know the answers myself! List post headlines tend to promise big with just a hint of the vague to make you wonder how such a promise could ever be fulfilled.
A 2009 study by the University of Athens discovered that readers preferred a slightly ambiguous headline. In talking about the power of lists and this study, The New Yorker writer Maria Konnikova wrote that people “preferred headlines that were both creative and uninformative, like “THE SMELL OF CORRUPTION, THE SCENT OF TRUTH” or “FACE TO FAITH.” These were headlines that didn’t give away the farm. You had to read the article to make complete sense of them.
List posts answer the questions we have and the questions we didn’t know we had. They do this with headlines that have just enough ambiguity to pull us in.
As a reader trying to quickly consume content during the day, a list post looks easy to scan or read. I can zip through the listed items, which are like mini packaged blog posts all on their own. I don’t have to commit to the full post if I don’t want to. I can just read the listed item (or even their headings) and be fine.
We all like simplification. We like to know there is a beginning and an end. The finite is comforting.
There is a lot of information available. It is chaos, if you ever bothered to step back and consider it all. We have too many options, too many choices, and its harder to make a decision. This excessive choice sometimes leaves us unable to process any of it, a frustrated state of being called analysis paralysis.
We want to have to think less, when faced with all of this choice, and list posts stand out. They are ordered, and orderly. According to David Wallechinsky, co-author of the Book of Lists, “lists help us in organizing what is otherwise overwhelming.”
How long should your list post be? How can you make your list post as viral as possible? How do you get your list post read?
According to the (fascinating) research on the RJMetrics blog, a list post of 25 is the number that gets the most hits on Buzzfeed. RJMetrics ran several tests to determine which posts were top in search results and which ones were shared the most.
After the averages were taken, the winner was 25 (or thereabouts).
In the same research, RJMetrics learned that numbered lists that ended with a 5 or a 0 received better traffic (Oops.) This preference for 5 and 0 is backed up by a study done by Robert M. Schindler of Rutgers University. Schindler discovered that we prefer and understand those round numbers most of all.
After studying 300 articles, online instruction specialist Abreena Tompkins discovered that students learn better when things are grouped in odd numbers. She described how the brain best remembers no more than nine items in a group, with three or five being an optimal amount. According to Tompkins, “odd numbers work better than even numbers. If you’re going to give students a list of six things to do, make it one, two, three, whitespace, four, five, six. The brain responds to whitespace because the brain processes things in groups.”
Perhaps the takeaway here is that our brain likes simple groupings, and that for small lists, odd numbers are best. Once your list heads past nine, you should start aiming for the round numbers ending in 5 and 0.
Merely assembling a list of items isn’t going to get it read. You will always need a compelling headline to sell it. There is still no getting away from the need to use emotional words in your headlines.
You still must work on finding the best possible headline, even if you are writing a headline with a list number in it. So is there a list post blog headline formula that works?
Blogger Steve Davis came up with one:
(odd number) (adjective) (mistakes/tips/insights/shortcuts) for (achieving/avoiding) (desired outcome/disaster)
And then Davis wisely recommends you be cautious in using a formula because formulas are not where greatness comes from. Good headlines are still good headlines, whether you’re using the magic of the list post or not.
I struggled, when I first started blogging, to abandon the AP Style Guide and use a numeral instead of the word in a headline. It still bothers me quite a bit, but that’s the way online content handles numbered headlines now. Why do we write “10 Reasons” instead of “Ten Reasons”?
Lazy brains and character counts, that’s why.
We see and comprehend 10 better than ten. We can save a character or two when we use the number 3 instead of writing three.
Hubspot makes a great point by stating that the “best list posts have the right balance between list length and list item explanation.”
In other words, the longer your list is, the shorter the content under each item should be. A list post of five can get away with several paragraphs, but could you imagine a list post of 100 doing the same? You’d never finish!
List posts are probably not ruining the internet, but they have certainly changed the way writers approach headlines, if not also topics.
But, if we were to speak in hyperbole and broadly say that list posts are destroying everything, what would be the reason for that?
Not every topic and every moment should be link bait. This cartoon from XKCD says it all. Sometimes we content creators should consider that there are topics that shouldn’t be handle so lightly just to get more clicks. While most topics can be broken down into a list, some topics should be given a different treatment.
55 Ways To Wash A Spoon, or 23 Different Ways To Saddle A Horse, or maybe 1001 Ways I Had Nothing To Write So I Made A List.
Too often list posts become about the list and not about what you really have to say. You make up unoriginal or light content just to hit that perfect number. Sometimes you should stop before you drag it out too far. While it’d be nice to hit an odd number or round number, it would be better to trim down your list to do that instead of inflate it with fluff.
Junk content is still junk content, even if it adds up to an impressive list.
In other words, they state the obvious. In a vague, nebulous, non-committal way.
How many list posts have you seen that say things like “1. know your audience” and then, instead of telling you how to know your audience, they explain why it’s important instead? What most of us want, particularly those of us who are attracted to list posts because of the hope of a quick instructional takeaway that won’t require hours of commitment to the content, is a useful and clear “do this, try that.”
Is there anything more frustrating than a list post that lists the reason something is a problem, but doesn’t tell you how to solve the problem?
This is why readers are wary and tired of list posts.
When a list post is done well, it’s a powerful piece of content. It’s clear, concise, and has the ability to solve problems in a logical and understandable way. When a list post is done poorly, it’s just more noise on the internet that you have to sift through.
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