5 things content marketers can learn from listicles

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Doug Kessler

02. 05. 2015 | 6 min read

5 things content marketers can learn from listicles

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We’ve all said it: “Listicles are lazy, boring and formulaic.”

(A few years ago, I even wrote a spoof post called, “7 Tips for Writing Number-Based Headlines”  that got so much attention that… nothing happened).

But listicles (and list headlines) also work. Ridiculously well.

That’s why the bloggers and publishers who measure these things (the good ones) use so damn many listicles.

Last time I looked, ten of the top ten blog posts on Econsultancy was a listicle.
Ten of ten. That’s, like, over 90%.

And last time I counted*, 57% of the last 50 posts on Hubspot’s insanely successful blog had a number in the headline.
And last time I had to slaughter and eviscerate twenty minutes, I saw that five of the ten most recent pieces of shit on Buzzfeed started with a number (“72 Thoughts Every Girl Has Before An Online Date”) (Seventy-two?!! Date’s over, hon. He’s gone.).
As a writer, I admire the human species just a little bit less when I think about this.

But as a content marketer, I need to accept that what works, works.

Does this mean I’m going to have a number in the headline of every post Velocity ever publishes? No. I’m a stubborn bastard with the dubious (and no doubt temporary) luxury of not NEEDING to maximize click-throughs at the expense of dignity. So I will mostly stick with number-free headlines and, stupidly, forego the indisputable benefits of the listicle (a neologism that suggests a cross between a list and a testicle).

I do have to admit at this point that the single most popular blog post ever to appear on the Velocity blog — by a long way — is a piece, written by Ryan Skinner back in the day, called “14 Ways to Present Information Visually“.  (Interestingly and somehow redeemingly, the bounce rate on this post (90%) is far beyond our site average (a still kind-of-depressing 68%)).

But putting aside effete metrics like engagement and traffic quality, we’re talking about headlines and their power to earn that click. And anyone who looks at the data objectively can’t deny that numbers in headlines do the business.

What lies beneath

But 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 thing

What 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 response

Fiona 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.



Published in:

  • content-marketing

  • copywriting

  • headlines

  • listicles

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  1. Sharon Tanton

    May 5th, 2015

    5 reasons I think number based headlines are so popular.
    1. They are easy. Easy to write and easy to consume. Number based blogs are the Macdonalds of the blog world.
    2. They are predictable. While we might pretend we’re all about the new experiences, we like to know what we are getting. It’s the same reason A Question of Sport is still commissioned, and watched. Apparently.
    3. They are quick. I’m a busy woman. I need my information NOW. I don’t have time to wade through a rambling bit of writing that could meander me anywhere and….
    4. …..They spoon feed the reader. Please can you cut it up for me so I don’t have to bother with cutlery.
    5. Sometimes they are funny.

  2. John Bottom

    May 6th, 2015

    Everything you say is true, Doug. I’d like to add another suggestion for the popularity of number posts like these. In an undefined and scarily large place like the web, people like to know where the boundaries are. So a headline that tells me I will see 5 things is a comforting structure. In the same way I am more likely to download a 5MB file that says it’s a 5MB file, than a much smaller one that doesn’t tell me how big it is. People like to know what’s coming up. Some kind of deep-seated, hard-wired need for security and predictability. There’s a caveman explanation somewhere if I could think of it. Just a thought…

  3. Doug Kessler

    May 6th, 2015

    I do think it’s a caveman thing, John.
    (‘Five Ways To Escape a Mastodon’ was the neolithic era’s top post, apparently).

    Sharon – love your five reasons. And it’s the first list comment I’ve seen. Commicle? Listment?

    BTW – For every bandwagon, there’s an equal and opposite bandwagon. So I loved seeing BBC4’s slow programs. Hours of a canal boat trip. Not a list in site. And no hurry…

  4. anon

    May 13th, 2019

    “No. I’m a stubborn bastard with the dubious (and no doubt temporary) luxury of not NEEDING to maximize click-throughs at the expense of dignity. So I will mostly stick with number-free headlines and, stupidly, forego the indisputable benefits of the listicle (a neologism that suggests a cross between a list and a testicle).”

    Oh man, the irony that this is a listicle.

    1. Doug Kessler

      May 13th, 2019

      (Um, anon, that was kind of the joke.)

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