One go-to blog-post-writing formula, and one that is also widely used for newspaper and magazine articles, press releases, website articles, and even for books — 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — is the listicle. A listicle is an article that is framed around a numbered list like The Top 5 Mistakes… The 3 Best Reasons … 10 Ways to…
You don’t always need a formula (or an AI chatbot) to write a good blog post or feature article; however, if you need to publish good, audience-focused content consistently, you will want to harness the power of the listicle formula. A truly committed blogger or influencer intent on building and maintaining a following will most likely be publishing a blog post weekly or bi-weekly. Writing long-form content week after week will sometimes feel stressful and your creative juices will ebb and flow. Listicles can help you generate ideas for posts and provide a format effective for busy online readers and for search engine optimization (SEO).
A Good Listicle Is Not Clickbait — If It Delivers on the Promise in the Headline
Listicles are sometimes unfairly associated with “clickbait” headlines and with gimmicky “BuzzFeed” articles.
Now, there are AI apps that can quickly generate listicles for you. I have much more to say on this AI topic, and will post about it soon. For now, I will say, not just in defense of listicles, but in appreciation, that they have been around and written by real people for…forever. Listicles were being put to good use in content creation way before Buzzfeed and social media were even a thing.
Clickbait is usually poorly written, barely useful or entertaining and has so many ads or pages that an entire article is impossible to get through. Therefore, a listicle is not click bait if it delivers good, useful or highly entertaining content, which so many good listicles, including (let’s be honest) some of those Buzzfeed articles we can’t resist at least skimming. When we are looking to be entertained, sometimes the best article for the job is a Buzzfeed listicle. (See a recent personal favorite: I Don’t Wanna Look, But I Also Can’t Look Away From These 17 Bone-Chilling Photos.)
In fact, research published in the Atlantic Journal of Research by Sean Sadri in 2019 found that the age group most inclined to read them — millennials — rated the listicle as “significantly more credible than the traditional article.”
Sadri, of the University of Alabama, surmised that listicle credibility, when compared to traditional news articles, “may be connected to the ease of reading a listicle and the scannable nature of the text… Because the facts are so obvious in a listicle, it makes the article more transparent and, thus, more credible to readers.”
We Like Specifics in an Information-Loaded World
As Rachel Davis Mersey, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School, noted in a 2017 Kellogg Insight podcast Why Are Rankings and Listicles So Popular? that “I think people who think negatively about listicles only think about the BuzzFeed, you know, ‘What Kind of Cat Are You?’ I think that, unfortunately, it bypasses what’s really important, which is the organizing principle in which we frame the world for people. I think the best news organizations are using the inspiration of listicles to tell stories more effectively.”
In other words, it’s easier for us to wrap our minds and formulate expectations around a title like 3 Ways to Quickly Increase Engagement on TikTok over How to Quickly Increase Engagement on TikTok. It’s not that we’re never going to choose the latter or the non-listicle is not a good title; it’s just that the 3 Ways is very specific and definitive.
The Best Listicles Provide Context
So yes, the list article gets a blow to its workhorse reputation now and then, and it is surely already in an AI showdown (again more on that soon), but anyone who writes and publishes blog posts, or other digital content, knows that listicles are a popular content option because they work — both for the writer to give you an effective scannable structure and for the reader who likes knowing what she is about to learn right from the title.
What really separates your listicle from a bot-generated list or from clickbait is that you care about the information — you want it to be useful, inspirational and meaningful. This means you are giving it context and explaining your own experience. So even if you’re simply writing a round-up post of your 10 Favorite Skin-Care Products, your readers want to know why you like the product, how it’s worked for you and if there are any caveats you have about using it.
In addition to product lists and step-by-step advice, the listicle Lists can work for more personal topics too because, again, it’s all about context and your experience: The Top 5 Networking Mistakes I Finally Stopped Making, 4 Books That Inspired Me to Change My Life, 3 Life-Changing Lessons from Getting my Heart Broken. Even an interview can become a list: 3 Key Takeaways from Interviews with Content Creators, 5 Mistakes This HR Expert Hopes You’re Not Making on Your Resume, 5 Things You Need to Know About [Insert Well-Known Person].
How Many Items Make a List?
Two is really not a list. Two is a pair, a duo, a couple. Three is the minimum for a list. Three is where a pattern emerges. There really is no maximum for a list. There are many opinions on which numbers are best to use for lists, but I haven’t seen any very recent research. The latest I have found from 2017 (and please let me know if you have read a credible study that I missed) by Ryan McCready of Vennage that 10 is the best with 5 coming in as a close second.
Though his data seems good, and I believe him, I really would not worry so much about the number. If you’re writing a how-to based on your experience and there are 3 Key Tips or 8 Important Points because that’s how many you believe there are and will provide context for, that should be the list. I wouldn’t inflate it or deflate it to meet findings from a study.
If You Skip the Number in the Title…
Even if you don’t want to have a listicle in the post title, you can still use a list to present your information in your post/article to provide a chunky, or scannable, format that readers like. This is why even if there’s no number in the title, you should always introduce a list and number a list if you have a list. For example: Here are my seven tips for …. And then number them 1-7 as you go.
More Helpful Resources for Listicles
If I haven’t convinced you on the power and wonder of listicles, here are some more experts sharing advice.
Forsey, C. (u.d. 2020). How to Write a Listicle. HubSpot Blog
Greer, J. (2020). A Listicle on How to Write a Good Listicle. Medium
Patel. Neil. (n.d.). The 6 Step Guide to Writing Listicle Content, NeilPatel Blog
For more advice about writing and formatting your listicle, including how to make the list parallel, please read my post 11 Tips for Writing Your First Listicle. These are the actual assignment guidelines I give to all of my students. Let me know what your favorite listicle is, and as always, if you have a question, I’m here to help.
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