What lies beneathBut here’s the thing: what’s important for content marketers to learn is not the fact that list headlines work but the reason they work. What is it about the number-based headline that people love so much? Why do listicles get 37-72% more traffic** than number-free headlines? Here’s my thinking on that: As we explored in a recent CMWorld Twitter chat, a headline is a promise and a signal. It promises value. It promises to reward your attention and repay the time it’s asking (sometimes begging) you to invest. And it signals the kind of experience waiting for you. If it’s any good, a headline signals the attitude and tone and style of the piece itself. And number-based headlines send some very appealing promises and signals. Here are five things that list headlines say to their potential clickers:
1. This will be practical and helpful.A list headline says, “This is not a think piece or deep point of view. It’s a collection of things you can do to make something better.” People like that. Thinking is for, like, Stephen Hawking. Or like professors and stuff. Not for people who achieve things and climb things and swim other things and win the stuff worth winning. (The jocks won. Wake up and smell the coffee.).
2. This will be quick.Number headlines say, “Give me a minute or two and I’ll give you something of value.” That feels like a bargain. The listicle signals that someone else spent some time distilling something down for us so that we don’t have to spend that time. And time is the new sex (I’ll let you tease out the implications of that metaphor. I’ve gotta run.)
3. This will be skimmable.Even if you don’t have the time for all 72 of the Thoughts Every Girl Has Before An Online Date, you know you’ll be able to scroll along till you hit a good one. (“#4: I hope he’s not a murderer.”). The extremely time-pressed like to know that, should the entire list demand too many micro-seconds, one can always skim and fillet. Lists make that really easy.
4. This will be clearly structured.In a listicle, we always know where we are and how far we have to go before being released back to our obsessive hunt for the next chunk of infotainment. A clear structure is a service to readers and one of the most important (and least valued) jobs for any writer. Lists say, “I got this covered.”
5. This will be fun and easy to read.Every headline is already asking for people’s time without any guarantee of value. Must we also ask them to work to extract the goodies embedded in our content? Listicle headlines say, “This will be a breeze and might even be fun. Check it out.” Which is a lot more appealing to most people than, “Come with me and together we will extract the subtleties and semiotics of this difficult subject.” Those are five pretty powerful signals, don’t you think?
So here’s the thingWhat if, instead of simply aping the numbered headline formula, we actually worked hard to make our content meet these challenges and send these signals?
What if all our content – or a lot more of it – was practical, helpful, quick, skimmable, well-structured, fun and easy to read?What if we got known for content that exhibited all these qualities? If we did this, then two magical things would happen: 1) We’d build a big audience of people ready and willing to consume our stuff. 2) We wouldn’t need every headline to have a goddamn number in it. Which would be cool. So let’s not just imitate the attention sluts and click junkies. Let’s work harder to really deliver the things they promise. P.S. Until they stop working, you might as well keep using number-based headlines as well as writing content that exhibits the five things listed above. P.P.S. In looking for numbered headlines to scrape for the image above, I noticed that one very successful blog – Copyblogger – uses way more “How to…” headlines than numbered headlines. You can bet they watch the data. So maybe listicles have had their day? P.P.P.S. Let’s never forget that some of the best, most successful content in the world is NOT practical, helpful, quick, skimmable, well-structured, fun or easy to read. There are as many ways to skin cats as there are cats reluctant to be skinned.
A terrific responseFiona Campbell-Howes, MD of Radix Communications commented on this post on LinkedIn and her response is so good, I’m pasting it here:
Hi Doug, timely post and spot on with all the reasons these things still work. But contrary to appearances, list posts aren’t the *only* type of content that ‘works’. E.g. BuzzSumo recently found that “whilst the majority of the content published on BuzzFeed is less than 3,000 words, the long form content performs significantly better with an average of 38,000 shares.” I’d argue that list posts are so prevalent not just because they ‘work’ for all the reasons you mention, but because they’re quick to *write*. You only have to have a couple of salient thoughts about each thing on the list – hopefully at least one of which is new and useful to your audience – and you don’t have to structure a sophisticated argument or narrative, just bash down a few relevant points. When sites like BuzzFeed, Hubspot, and almost all B2B brands these days are looking to produce as much content as possible, that speed of production counts for a lot. So we can’t just blame readers for not wanting to think too much;we should also blame writers and commissioning editors for not allowing the time to explore a topic in depth and write a really interesting piece about it. When we do get to think deeply and “extract the subtleties and semiotics of this difficult subject” we do get rewarded for it, as this other BuzzSumo blog shows: http://factionmedia.com/trend-tracking-could-long-form-content-be-tastier-than-short-form/.—– * Yes, I really did count. Data is the new oil, dude. ** Source: Made up.