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Humans appear to be hardwired to tune into lists, judging by our Google Analytics data from 2010. Half of Econsultancy's most popular 25 posts were lists, including nine out of the top 10.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that lists are somehow inferior to articles with lots of dense multi-idea paragraphs. Either the content is good, or it’s not. The list format is precisely that: a format, a simple framework for communicating ideas.
So here, in no particular order, are 10 reasons why readers and publishers love lists, and why they work so well online... and yes, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek as I'm writing this.
A list is a list is a list. The headline lets the prospective reader know exactly what to expect before they visit, which helps persuade them to press the mouse button in the first place. It does what it says on the tin.
People tend to skim read when online. Lists are aesthetically perfect in this sense, as they’re naturally broken up into chunks. They’re easy on the eye. Each point in the list can be represented as a sub-header, and sub-headers are always a fine idea.
Easy to read
If there’s one thing that turns online readers off, it is the 17-line, multi-idea, complex paragraph. Most lists do not include 17-line multi-idea paragraphs. This is about making your ideas digestible, as much as anything.
A top 10 list provides readers with 10 things to agree or disagree with. “There’s no way that X should be at number one and you forgot about Y!”. This is wonderful, as the holy grail of blogging is to engage readers to the point where they will interact in some way, by leaving a comment, sharing your article, or calling you a moron on Twitter.
Fast (and sometimes loose)
Lists can help readers to quickly get up to speed on any given subject, for example in advance of an interview or a client pitch. People like them for this reason: they are a means of filling up the brain with ideas, and fast. That’s not to say they’re always accurate. Beware of lists! Remember to think for yourself!
People like to organise things. Moreover, people like other people to organise things for them. We are all cognitive misers, remember. Enough said.
Education vs entertainment
Many lists fall in one of these two camps. Lists can help you smarten up, or to just have some fun in your lunch hour. In both cases the list format provides the writer with a lightweight way of displaying the content, which is appealing to most readers.
People will share articles if they have some kind of value. Value can be measured by how much the reader learned, or how many belly laughs the article generated. In addition, if you have an opinion on something you’re more likely to share it with your friends and connections (“This list SUCKS!”). List-based posts have proved popular on the likes of Digg, Reddit and Buzzfeed, which can help them to spread virally. Smart writers will create lists for specific audiences.
I loathe pagination but CPM-focused publishers often break out lists into their constituent parts, with each point appearing on a new page. A 10-point list provides 10 pages impressions, in theory. Yes, it’s myopic and unnecessary. And yes, it makes for a rubbish user experience. But this is one of the reasons why publishers like to publish lists (although plenty of publishers would rather eat a ceiling fan than resort to such lousy tactics).
Awesome adjectives = win
Inserting a strategic adjective into your headline can work very well. 10 killer tips. 20 bitchin' reasons. 30 mindblowing facts. When these posts are shared around it can appears as if the sharer has added the adjective, which makes the headline / recommendation that bit more powerful. This isn’t an exclusive tactic for list-based posts, but it’s something that many of the best performing lists have in common. Not that I've used one in this particular article...What do you think? Are lists for losers? Or winners?