Blogger, Meet Your New Best-Content Friend — The Listicle!

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.)

Because the facts are so obvious in a listicle, it makes the article more transparent and, thus, more credible to readers.

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 Guidelines for Writing a Damn Good Listicle Post That ChatGPT Can’t Compete With. If you’re teaching blogging, you can find the Listicle Assignment Guidelines I give to all of my students on the Links/Handouts page. Let me know what your favorite listicle is, and as always, if you have a question, I’m here to help.

11 responses to “Blogger, Meet Your New Best-Content Friend — The Listicle!”

  1. I think this really helps in understanding the listicle and I never really thought about following up on the title as not being clickbait but that definitely makes sense!


    1. Thanks, Federico. Glad it helps!


  2. Is there any specific fonts or formats you would suggest to ensure our listicle isn’t too gimmicky?


    1. Good question, Gillian. What makes a listicle gimmicky is poor writing and tons of ads or slides that you have to scroll or click through to get to the meaty part and the benefit of the content.

      As for fonts, I would avoid fancy scripts for subheads that are hard to read. It’s really fine to be simple! The other formatting tip is to not think that you can only have one paragraph under each subhead. You might have one item in your list with one paragraph, but another that has three or four. Always break paragraphs up to help the reader be able to read and scan comfortably.

      And as all of my students know and are probably 🙄 at me, the formatting faux pas that makes me completely crazy is when bloggers center paragraphs of text when they should be left aligned! So don’t do that! 😀 SM


  3. Hey. This was really helpful. I never even realized I was writing listicles until now. I think it is always good to have this knowledge in your toolbox as a blogger.


    1. I am not surprised you stumbled upon the format as you read a lot of them too!


  4. I found this to be very helpful in “destigmatizing” listicles. Now I can definitely understand the benefit of them!


    1. Thanks, Adanze. There is no stigma to writing and publishing listicles. The New York Times, WaPo use them for feature content, and occasionally news too. and most of the publications you read use them because they work to engage busy readers. Glad it helped!


  5. amazing post, Susan


    1. Thanks, Kelsi!


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About Me

Hi, I’m Susan, and yes, I really am a college professor who teaches blogging, professional writing, social media, PR and all things communication to undergraduate and graduate students in Philadelphia. Welcome to my blog!

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