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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.

No surprises

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.

Skim-friendly

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. 

Opinion magnets

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!

Human nature

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. 

Shareworthy

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.

Pagination

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?
Chris Lake

Published 13 January, 2011 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (23)

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David Ernst

David Ernst, Director of Sales and Marketing at Summit Computer Systems, Inc.

Three reasons why I completely disagree! 1. You mention statistics in your opening paragraph to support your article, but what % of all your blog posts are lists? If the majority of posts are lists, then it leans to reason that the majority of your most popular posts will be lists. 2. I think people tend to respond more to something they can relate to, is controversial, or is already a recognizable topic. Lists can sometimes make it easy to make a controversial topic, but I think its the controversy, not the list that builds the interest. 3. People do like easy reading in the social realm, and you bring this up in several of your bullet points. This lends more to word selection, and the ability to summarize effectively rather than simply being in a list. Many lists can be very HARD to read due to having too many things being said in each point of the list. Now, with that said, I do agree with a lot of what you said, and even created a list myself. However, I think that many of the points that you make that lists can help to group together, are in fact more important than the lists themselves.

over 5 years ago

Andrew Hanelly

Andrew Hanelly, Director of Social Media at TMG

I knew this post was accurate when I started skimming it and got to your second point. Nicely done, Chris.

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Hi David,

Thanks for windmilling into the fray! The majority of posts aren't lists. It's just that the most popular ones last year were in a list format. At a guess I'd say around 10-20% of our posts are in lists, in some shape or form.

On your second point, I guess we agree that ultimately it is all about the content. I'd wager that the list format will generate more responses / shares etc compared to an academic essay on the same subject. It's about digestibility, and making all of the points clear.

Cheers, 

c.

over 5 years ago

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Roshan

one of the things with list, especially the top 10 kind of list is that people tend to like to know the story unfold. Such as watching your yearly top ten list of songs. You go from last to the best song of the year. and people are anxious about which one is the top.

over 5 years ago

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Dara

Hi Chris I agree with David Ernst We know there is only one reason that they are in list fomat is for SEO. You will most likely mention your recent posts so that they will be feature highly in Google ranking. Any other use of the lists is dumb. It does not follow laws of journalism that should govern blogging. Why is PR so open to the blogging because they have the stylistic elements down. Blogs can nver take inline news readers intrest if they are wacky. I personally think if you use lists your covering up poor writing skills. Roshans point is that the story must unfold. It must! You should look at the importance of narrative in writing. Data is fine to back up points but again should only add to a story not detract from it. Thanks Dara

over 5 years ago

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Anonymous

"I personally think if you use lists your covering up poor writing skills."

I lolled.

over 5 years ago

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Ratnesh Dubey

In my view lists are good for telling facts, data, reasons or describing any experience or learning in a quantifiable manner. Your post headline is a good example of it. "10 reasons why.......". A great storey teller would perhaps not use lists to narrate his holiday experience.

I have observed, MSN.com use this kind of tricky post almost every day, especially in their important news sections on lifestyle, cooking, dating etc. like 10 dating truths.., 8 reasons guys cheat.. etc. readers know that this type of posts will have lists of reasons or experiences and tend to have a quick look . It takes only few seconds to have a quick look at the bullet points etc. (A detailed reading is questionable here).

Therefore lists might attract more views however it is also important to know the visitor's time on that page. Is it also as high as on other posts without list and having interesting content?

Chris if possible would you please share your experience on comparison of visitor’s time on list vs. non list based posts.

Thanks
Ratnesh

over 5 years ago

Paul North

Paul North, Head of Content and Strategy at Mediarun

I'm torn here. I admit to being drawn to list posts as a reader and as a writer. However, I see them as a bit lazy at the same time - kind of a guilty pleasure. They certainly have their place. However: a list post about why list posts are good? How about a list of all the best lists about lists next?

over 5 years ago

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Paul Keers, Axon Publishing

11. Always number your list - because there's always someone whose comment will consist of adding an extra point...

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Paul North: Somebody else suggested I should compile a list of all the best lists about lists! I'll leave that for somebody else.

@Ratnesh: Good idea. I'd have to take a sample of posts, so it wouldn't be a pure science, and there are all kinds of other factors (such as word count, subject matter etc), but it would be a good thing to look into. I guess the crux of my argument as to why list work as a format is that people skim, they see the sub-headers, and if those make enough sense then the reader may be more likely to read the post properly. 

over 5 years ago

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Dave Wieneke

As a rule -- I've given up reading or writing mateirals with list-based headlines. Why, this convention has been so over promoted through marketer training that it now is a great flag for spotting and avoiding weak content. Though content is occasionally a list -- too often such posts are a set of facts glued together. Why is that a problem. Lists too often don't have a clear thesis - or consider opposing views. This results in a collection of data points, but not a compelling point of view. Here's the post where I took the "no lists" pledge. http://usefularts.us/2010/10/18/how-to-blog-better/

over 5 years ago

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Ratnesh Dubey

@Chris Lake: Oh yes. Sampling will be fine as it will give us at least some kind of idea or yard stick. At least we know the comparison; obviously it may vary on various factors as you pointed out. I am happy that you would consider doing some comparison and look forward to see the results posted here. Thanks.
Ratnesh

over 5 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Dave - The message is more important than the medium. It's a generalisation to say that content found in list-based posts is always weak. 

over 5 years ago

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Andrew Short, appledragon

Lists are an old direct response copywriter's stand-by. I remember testing whether odd or even numbered lists worked better - and where in the headline was best for the number. Weak or not, people do read them.

over 5 years ago

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Jason Slater

Hi Chris, I also think that people generally like bite size chunks of information - water-cooler type stuff. I just thought it would be an interesting experiment to create a list-based article and a similar editorial style article and see which one gets the most interest. What do you think?

over 5 years ago

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John Coupland

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the blog.

Any information that adds value and is clear to read is great, as far as I'm concerned; however, "Top 10..." / "5 reasons why..." / "7 amazing tips..." are, in my humble opinion now boring!

Too many people have jumped on that bandwagon and, to me, it shows a distinct lack of creativity. What's worse, is when you discover blogs like that which contain rehashed content seen elsewhere.

So, although I agree that clear and concise blogs are effective, a BIG yawn to the "Top whatever ones!" from me I'm afraid!

John

over 5 years ago

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buyerbeware

How many commenters read the list before commeintg? I didn't, I don't read lists.

over 5 years ago

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Jackie Ellis

Maybe it's because I'm a newbie and short of time but I like lists and I like knowing how long they are. I'm on a fast track learning curve so for me 'five stupendous things you don't know' is a quick win whereas '101 things everyone else knows and you don't' looks like it's going to take me a while to read, understand and act on. Horses for courses....

over 5 years ago

Julian Grainger

Julian Grainger, Director of Media Strategy at Unique Digital

Lists are very, very dangerous. They are the best way of representing an opinion as fact without hard data to support it. Here is a sample of some of last years econ lists ... "A prominent telephone number on a homepage is a great way to reassure customers, as well as a useful shortcut." "Success with social media is just like marketing, sales and PR: results are achieved one victory at a time" "You need to add content to your page so that your fans have something to interact with and so that they see your brand in their news feeds, building brand awareness." "You need to understand your customers, empathise with them and speak their language. Realise how cool they are, and you'll love every time they get in contact with you." Ok, sounds like common sense but where is the data to prove it?

over 5 years ago

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Jen Miller

Anyone else noticed how all of the comments from List-Haters are a wall-of-text? No wonder you people hate lists so much - by the look of it, you've never found the enter key.

TLDR is probably the most common complaint users have for blog posts.

It's a busy world out there - lists suit our needs.

over 5 years ago

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Jesse Noyes

I wouldn't advocate for killing off lists. They serve a purpose. They cause us to cut and condense, to employ descriptive language to drive home the most crucial point. That said, I worry that a list culture is taking root in much of the content produced by marketers and organizations today. The essay or news article format cannot be reduced to a series of pithy slogans and bite-size bullet points. Imagine Montaigne's depictions of human nature stripped down to a series of three line paragraphs or Gay Talese's masterpiece profile of Sinatra boiled down to the Top 10 Funny Things Frank Said? Sometimes we need to get right to the point. Sometimes a subject calls for nuance. No matter what, we should be striving to produce the most informative, entertaining and compelling content possible. Lists might deliver traffic, but lists alone won't make us better in our work or in life. Jesse Noyes Corporate Reporter Eloqua @noyesjesse

over 5 years ago

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Steve Johnson

I'm a list man myself, but I think there needs to be a balance in the perfect blog post (if there is such a thing).

There is also an argument that the "list" approach to blogging appeals to the logical side of the brain, rather than the emotional side which may prefer more words in paragraphs and also pictures (see growth in Pinterest popularity for example).

I refuse to sit on the fence, and as a self proclaimed "list man" myself, here are the reasons why I prefer them somewhere in a blog post:

1) Saves time finding the key info
2) Easier to remember key facts
3) Breaks up the paragraphs
4) It gives the eyes a welcome rest from paragraph words
5) Search engines may prefer - although I am not sure this is so if the quality and relevance is not there
6) People may find lists more compelling

Thanks for some great discussion Chris.

I'm off to write another list now.

Steve

almost 4 years ago

Rob Yandell

Rob Yandell, Publisher at Personal

Agree that the way you word the list headline is important. One of the most popular ones I published was called '6 amazing view you must see'. Simple, yet highly effective. I love lists, but we try and break them up as they look a bit dull if, well... listed.

over 3 years ago

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