The Top 5 Reasons Why List Posts Are Amazing

This is a guest post from Ryan Brock.

List posts provide structure to your reads, among other things.
I've been writing these words you're reading for weeks. Months, even. When you write and edit and manage content for a living, it's the hardest thing in the world to make time for something simple like a guest post. They say the same is true for designers, or any other creative, for that matter. I'll sit down at my computer with a list of things to do - edit those articles for a client, write a whitepaper, knock out a guest post - and the part of the list that makes me no money - the guest post - always takes lowest priority.

So every time I would find ten or 15 minutes to work, I'd try to make headway on this post. Every time, I'd have an inclination to take it one way or another. I'd want to write about the five rules of Internet style one day, or about 10 tips for writing engaging copy. I was never quite satisfied with the stuff I was coming up with, but I did notice one obvious trend: no matter where my mind wandered, I was making lists each time.

This is funny to me, because you hear professional writers complaining ALL THE TIME about how list posts suck, how they are expected and constricting. I couldn't agree more about the expected and constricting bit, but I happen to think that expected and constricting can be very good things on the web. With all the list post hate out there, I think our numbered pals could use a champion. Might as well be me.

So instead of sharing any of the thoughts I originally had for this guest post, I thought I would offer up these, the TOP 5 REASONS WHY LIST POSTS ARE AMAZING AND YOU SHOULD ALL STOP COMPLAINING:

5. They fill space.
Think about how many times you've visited sites with lists that make you click through to advance to the next item. You do it because you're a slave to lists (more on that in a bit), and the publishers rake in the ad money as you click away. For that reason, many writers make it a goal to fit their content into lists that are easy to split. But even for sites that don't split their lists up - Cracked comes to mind - it's so much easier for a writer to conceive an entire article if that writer can work toward a goal of 5 widgets or 10 whatsits. It's like you get 5 or 10 different opportunities to work in a new intro and conclusion, and that means list posts basically write themselves. For writers who turn out 10-15 articles a day, that's a plus.

4. The structure is convenient for readers.
But beyond the convenience lists offer writers, there is a certain implicit convenience that readers derive from list posts. In my book, Nothing New: An Irreverent History of Storytelling and Social Media, I presented the story of Virgil's Aeneid as an early, early example of what we now call content marketing. With the Aeneid, Virgil and the emperor Augustus were able to sway the hearts of the newly-founded empire's subjects by telling a great story with a poem. That poem was written to match Homer's Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it was because they fit the epic mould that the people found it so easy to buy into the message. Because the Romans loved Greek stuff, they were enticed by the structure of the Aeneid as much as they were by the message. Skip forward a few thousand years, and it could be that the workaday people of the social web would identify the list post as their comfortable structure of choice. They're quick, they're familiar, and they allow for easy skimming. Win, win, triple win.

Controversy is a great way to get readers to comment.
3. Ranked lists cause controversy.
When you rank a list post, you automatically double its effectiveness as a shareable piece of content. You could write a post chronicling your five favorite sci-fi movies, or you could rank your choices and title the post something like "THE TOP 5 SCI-FI MOVIES OF ALL TIME FOREVER SHUT UP." The latter decision will result in plenty of people ready to correct you with a comment. The same people will share your list, ranting about how wrong you are, and they'll get their friends in on all the engagement. You, meanwhile, will sit back and watch your hits explode. Controversy can be very, very good on the web.

2. Depth isn't great for a single blog post.
Some critics lambast list posts because of their shallow nature. "You can't really talk much about anything in enough detail if you try to cram so many different points into a single post," they complain. That's exactly right! To writers of web content, it's a losing battle to try to share something completely revolutionary in just 500-800 words. Try writing for an engineering blog and teaching trained professionals how to use Auto CAD or something like that, and you're just opening yourself up to ridicule. List posts can help writers keep their content broad enough to have mass appeal, but interesting enough to keep even your more informed parties engaged.

1. You are reading this right now.
Speaking of keeping readers engaged, list posts are like irresistible content honey to hungry reader bears. They're addictive and they tap into that very deep, completionist part of our brain that wants to learn as much it can and see things through to their end. Even if you didn't get much from this post, you're still reading it, and I'd be willing to bet that the biggest reason you are can be found in the numbers 5-1 above. Ranked lists encourage readers to keep going, to see if their thoughts or choices might be found on a list. The fact that you are still here reading, even if you completely disagree with me, proves my point quite well.

Now is the part of the post where I invite you to add your thoughts in the comments below. Do you agree that list posts are effective? Do you disagree? Would you add to my list, or take away from it, or maybe switch the order up? Have at it. Those sorts of comments are what make list posts just so darned great.



About the Author
Ryan Brock (@ryanbrock)

Ryan Brock is the founder and CEO of Metonymy Media, a group of creative writers and literary geeks turned pro. Ryan spends his days writing and editing for companies of all sizes, and is also the co-author of Nothing New: An Irreverent History of Storytelling and Social Media. He hates the taste of black licorice.

15 comments:

  1. Excellent post, Ryan--the reluctant champion of lists. I relate. My mom is a list person, so I promised I'd never do that. Ever. Do I have list posts on my blog? Why, yes. Yes I do.

    I think #4 resonates with me the most. As a reader, when it comes to lists, I often scan for what I need instead getting absorbed in the article. I even scanned your post to see if there was anything on there I'd never thought of. I read that part first. Lists are great because you take just what you want and leave the rest.

    And I too, hate the taste of black licorice.

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    1. I am serial scanner too, Jody. If posts aren't bulleted, listed, or bolded I am likely to bounce. Have I become a lazy consumer?

      Thanks for reading!

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    2. Black licorice is the worst. I could write a 20-point list about why black licorice is bad.

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    3. I love lists for the quick scan too! There is so much good info out there that lists make it easy for me to say whether or not that article is worth my time or if I should move on to something better. It's not lazy on my part. It's lazy on the part of the writer that didn't bullet, list, or bold.

      Btw Ryan, I approve your list :)

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    4. Emily, I love your point about the reader not being lazy but the writer. Spot on!

      Thanks for reading :)

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  2. Good post. I agree. A majority of web users are scanners and rarely readers these days. It's a sad fact that the truth is we can be lazy. We want easy, bite sized pieces of information. But it works. I read this and many others will too. Well done :-)

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    1. I am in that web majority and am guilty of scanning instead of thoroughly reading. When you read 30+ blog posts a day it can be a lot to take in! That's why lists are so awesome! They give readers the good stuff quickly.

      Thanks for reading!

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    2. Thanks for the kind words! I completely agree with what you're saying - we have access to TOO MUCH CONTENT to warrant dedicating our full selves to everything we want to read. Scanning is how stuff gets done.

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  3. This post is magnificent for one half-sentence alone: 'list posts are like irresistible content honey to hungry reader bears.' Well written, my friend. Additionally, writing list posts is straightforward, unabashed fun!

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    1. That is one glorious half sentence! :)

      Thanks for reading.

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    2. Thanks, Jarred! The metaphor just seemed to work. I'd be interested to see how that completionist part of our brains is connected to the part that wants us to find the honey with all its sugar and eat as much as we can because it's free energy and hard to find in nature. List posts = endorphin generators. Boom.

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  4. My favorite is "They Fill Space." True. All the other stuff is true too. The reason that I love list posts--which is implicit in multiple points up above--is that they make things that would otherwise be almost impossible fill up space by writing about possible to write about. Every business has a story.

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    1. And if you feel like you've run out of stories or your story is really hard to tell coherently there's always lists!

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    2. Interesting way of thinking about lists, Thomas. Thanks for the feedback!

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    3. I think they also help to just force the writer to look at a subject from as many angles as possible. If I'm trying to write about the Top 5 Reasons to Throw Away Your Black Licorice and only three come to mind immediately, knowing I have to hit that target of 5 will help me to consider different horrible aspects of black licorice I'd never even thought of before. It's good for the writer and for the reader.

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