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Listicles: Love Them or Leave Them

Effective content marketing strategy should contain four types of content: attraction, authority, affinity, and action. Over time, these four types of content fulfill their individual purposes, providing a brand with a new audience, leads, community, and loyalty.

Listicles are a form of writing in which the content is presented either wholly or partly in the form of a list. Because of their popularity among readers, they are highly sharable and effective at driving traffic to a website or landing page. Listicles do no heavy lifting in terms of depth of information, which is why they reside in the attraction content category. Once the listicle brings traffic to the website, more substantive information (authority content) about the product, service, or subject on the website, is required to capture and convert visitors.

Listicles help marketers reach new audiences in a sweeping sort of way and are a good choice to use when launching a new website or product and your brand needs a heavy dose of incoming attention.

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History of Listicles

Most people believe listicles to be a fairly recent phenomenon, but they have been around for a long time. Just think of the Ten Commandments as the listicle of all listicles. It’s still being shared and followed after all this time.

Sei Shonagon, poet and lady-in-waiting to the Empress Teishi in 10th century Japan was an avid listicle writer. She created a book of poetry in list form called The Pillow BookThe Pillow Book is a collection of observations on life in the Heian Court. It covers subjects like “Things That Quicken the Heart,” “Awkward Things,” and “Things Later Regretted.”

Martin Luther penned a list of propositions for an academic disputation in 1517 entitled “The Ninety-Five Theses” during his tenure as professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. Nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, it contained the 95 revolutionary opinions that would mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

The Listicle Dilemma

Listicles carry much controversy. Some love them. Some hate them. Humorously enough, there are many published listicles on reasons to love or hate them—“179 Reasons to Hate Listicle Articles” & “Five Reasons Why Millennials Love Listicles” are examples for each side of the debate. Regardless on which side someone falls, there is intrigue to both titles listed. First, 179 is a large number and you must wonder how anyone can hate listicles so much as to arrive at that many reasons. Next, why only five reasons for millennials? What does that say about millennials?

Whether someone likes or dislikes listicles, there are some undisputable truths about them. They’re formulaic. They’re predictable. People want answers and listicles provide them. And, they’re so darn clickable!

Five Reasons Why Listicles Work

  1. They fulfill a promise to give the reader a finite, concise, and quantified amount of information on a topic, creating an easy reading experience. The numbered headlines make the content seem much less intimidating and more easily digestible. The reader understands that this article is not going to inundate them with words, facts, and deep thinking.
  2. They are short and sweet to cater to our dwindling attention spans, which is purported to be shorter than a goldfish, according to Microsoft. As content marketers search for ways to engage with readers on their terms, listicles serve to break up content into bite-sized pieces.
  3. They add a framework to the content that helps set expectations and puts the reader at ease. It sets us down a linear path. The human brain likes patterns and the numbered pattern of a listicle is predictable and subconsciously calming to readers.
  4. They help us feel accomplished because each number that the reader finishes feels like a milestone has been successfully met.
  5. They provide curated content specifically for the reader. The reader no longer must search out and read 10 separate articles on a topic when the writer has conveniently done that for them in one tidy listicle.

Three Reasons Why Listicles Don’t Work

  1. They’ve been done to death and many readers are just plain sick of them.
  2. Many are not of great quality and are a waste of time for readers. Because listicles are viewed as easy to write, many unskilled people post them merely as clickbait. These listicles tend to have no redeeming information.
  3. They are frowned upon by many journalists as dumbed-down content that can be easily skimmed and discarded.

The list of why listicles don’t work should be quite informative to any content creator simply because the points made outline what to avoid in listicle writing. From a content marketing point of view, the reasons to use well-written listicles in your content marketing plan include:

  • They’re easy to plan and write.
  • They are ideal for targeting core keywords.
  • Smaller listicles are well-suited for long-tail keywords.
  • The list can be broken down into individual social media posts.
  • They accomplish the goal of driving traffic.

Seven Steps to Writing an Effective Listicle

  1. Choose the type of listicle you want to write:
    1. Experience-based—101 Tips from a Frequent Traveler
    1. Research-based—10 Ways to Avoid Identity Theft
    1. Editorial-based—Seven Reasons to Choose Blueberry Muffins Over Raspberry Muffins
    1. Curated List—Five Best Movies of 2019
  2. Choose Your Topic: Write about something that’s relevant to your brand and displays the brand’s personality and expertise.
  3. Select Your Keyword: Find a relevant keyword that will provide you with enough traffic but with as low a difficulty rating as possible to make gaining a higher rank easier.
  4. Search Your Competition: Put your keyword into Google to see what ranks high. It’s important to see what type of information is already published to understand what your competition is creating and for what your audience is looking.
  5. Choose a Unique Angle: Take what you’ve learned from studying the competition and come up with something that goes beyond or in a new direction, so your listicle adds value for the reader.
  6. Create the List of Points: Start with something surprising as a hook. An odd number of points is more desirable because readers perceive that the content was created out of available information instead of filler information added just to create balance. Decide if you’re making a straightforward list or a countdown.
  7. Develop the Support Material for Each Point: Include support material wherever you can to help add credibility to your points. Adding substance will take your listicle out of the realm of clickbait.

In the Beginning and at the End

Choosing a title that is both intriguing and doesn’t oversell is critical. University of Athens researchers studied reader responses to U.S. and U.K. newspapers and surprisingly found that people preferred headlines that were both creative and uninformative. They cited successful headlines like “The Smell of Corruption, The Scent of Truth,” and “Face to Faith” as examples. It’s best to stay away from unrealistic claims like “Five Secrets to Finding Eternal Happiness” and make sure the claims you make in your title are actually met within the body of your article.

Most listicles contain no additional content at the tail end. Though most of the value in your listicle will come from the list itself, adding a short conclusion that does more than summarize adds value. Use your conclusion to suggest a next step, offer a product trial, or a longer piece of content that offers in-depth detail and greater information.

The Last Word on Listicles

Many listicles, while they may bring a lot of traffic to your website, may not bring as many qualified leads as you’d like. In the end, the listicle is simply a template. The responsibility for the quality of the information you put within the template resides with the writer. If you want your listicle to be read, get clicks, and move readers to an action beyond the initial click, your listicle has to be worthy and not just clickbait. There has to be enough substance and relevance to your piece. As in any content you create and publish, don’t just write about what most people already know.

Buck the opinion of journalists who think listicles are for lazy writers by not being lazy. Use a listicle only when, as a content creator, you determine it’s the right format for the topic at hand. Then make it a formidable, insightful, thought-provoking list. A worthy endeavor for both writer and reader.

Listicles are being used by professionals and amateurs alike. It’s up to professional content marketers to separate themselves from the pack by generating quality work. Never forget that every piece of content must have value.

In a New Yorker article, author Maria Konnikova equates the listicle to sipping green juice instead of eating a bundle of kale. If this is the case, make your green juice the best by delivering nutrition and satisfaction.

Deborah K.

Deborah was the kid who would rather write book reports and essays than play ball during recess. Although she didn’t score many points with her peers, it did lead to her career creating content for TV, radio, print and new media for companies as varied as Dooney& Bourke, Panera Breads, Visa, SUNY Ulster and Hudson Valley Federal Savings Bank. She is also a principal of small packages – a digital design company, and past partner/marketing director of whatis.com, the world’s foremost reference on information technology. And, her love of food enabled her to become a contributing editor of both Gourmet Retailer and Food Distribution Magazines. Deborah has a bachelor degree in fine art from the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford and a masters in higher education administration from Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing, her love of quilting, furry animals, friends, and family sustains her.

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