Which Works Better: List Posts or Stories? Let’s Ask a New York Times Editor

image of typewriter keys

Ah, the list post. The cornerstone of so many great blogs, and an enduring source of horrible content around the web.

Sometimes they’re well-researched, user-friendly, and incredibly useful.

And sometimes … not.

List posts are undeniably effective … and (at least at times) overused.

So how do we know when a list post is the perfect choice for a piece of content, and when we should explore some other options?

I attended a conference recently where Loren Feldman, Small Business Editor of The New York Times, did a fantastic job of moderating several panels. Later, I had the chance to chat with him about business and content. Something he said got me thinking…

Loren isn’t a fan of list-based articles, at least not for the Times. When I asked him if I could email him a few questions on the topic of lists versus stories, I was thrilled when he graciously agreed.

Loren, you prefer not to write list articles. Why is that?

I think list articles tend to be overdone and to have limited credibility. I’m not sure it’s convincing to just say, “here are the five things you need to do to improve your SEO.” I think it’s much more valuable to take more of a case study approach — which allows you to see more of the person’s thinking, what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found that things rarely go perfectly on the first shot — but maybe that’s just me.

Are those the only two kinds of articles? Stories and lists?

No, there are other options — including conversations and Q&As. But I think it’s more the principle. Regardless of the format, I like to approach it a little bit as if it were a case study: here’s the problem, here’s what we tried, here’s what worked and what didn’t.

Why do you think list headlines are so popular?

We’re all looking for answers. It’s very tempting to click. I do it myself. (But I’m not always glad I did.)

I understand that journalists are under pressure to drive traffic to their content. Is this affecting the quality of reporting?

There have always been commercial pressures in journalism, and I suspect there always will be. It’s not always a bad thing to pay attention to what consumers of journalism actually want. But it’s nice to know there are still a few places that will put resources into important stories without worrying too much about the traffic.

People say that journalists could learn from bloggers (for example, SEO and social media techniques). But what can bloggers learn from journalists?

Tough one to generalize. There are definitely people and practices to learn from in both camps. Sometimes it can be hard to tell them apart (but not always!).

…You can see I snuck in a few questions about marketing. Knowing that lists can be powerful drivers of traffic, I thought it was relevant.

Now let’s take a closer look at these two formats: lists and stories.

Does this mean list posts aren’t good?

Not at all. In fact, let me tell you a little story about the benefits of lists…

In my role as a web strategist, I talk to a lot of potential clients. In these conversations, I often hear people complaining about their web design companies. I hear the frustration in their voices and listen as they explain all the ways they’ve been let down.

One day, I had the idea to capture these complaints by keeping a notepad next to the phone and writing them down. For a year, I wrote down every complaint I heard about web designers. Patterns started to emerge, helping me understand some of the broader shortcomings of our industry.

For an entire year, I took notes and the list grew. Eventually, I had enough data to do some analysis, and this blog post gradually appeared: 27 Complaints about Web Design Companies.

The post had almost written itself. It was right there in front of me. The topic was relevant, the structure was simple, and the voice was literally that of my target audience. It was a huge success.

A list of reasons to tell stories

Our minds are wired for stories. They are fundamental to human experience and understanding. When’s the last time you read a list that made you laugh or cry?

  1. Stories create a feeling of discovery. They can surprise and delight readers. Andrew Stanton of Pixar tells us in his TED Talk to “Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four. Give them 2+2.”
  2. Stories have conflict and resolution. This structure creates suspense and holds readers’ attention.
  3. Stories have characters. This humanizes the topic through voice and personality.
  4. Stories make people care. By answering the all-important why questions, stories have the power to inspire readers. Why do you do what you do? Why do you love it?
  5. Stories allow the reader to empathize. This creates a connection between the audience and the content that is otherwise impossible.

So which is better? Write a list? Or tell a story?

Lists are irresistible to both writers and readers. Nick Kellet from List.ly estimates that as many as 30% of all posts are lists. And why not? They’re easily digestible and often very practical. A study by the World Health Organization has even found that checklists save lives.

But stories are the fabric of culture. They are a template for understanding that are linked to the biology of our brains, driving emotion, attention, and learning. They are literally our history.

So how do you know which one to choose?

  • Lists make your content more visible. A headline with a number in it sets visitor expectations about length, and can increase the percentage of people who click.
  • Stories make your content more meaningful. The “problem, solution, result” structure of stories can entertain, inform, and inspire in ways that no other content can. This keeps your audience engaged.

For most marketers, I recommending using both. But keep in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each. If your focus is building your audience, include plenty of lists to drive traffic. If you already have an audience, (The New York Times certainly does) use stories to drive engagement.

About the Author: Andy Crestodina is co-founder and strategic director of Orbit Media. He uses his superpowers in content marketing, search engine optimization, social media, and usability to develop practical web solutions for partners, clients, and friends. Andy is also the author of Content Chemistry: An Illustrated Guide to Content Marketing.

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  1. I use both, although as a literary writer I’ve been leaning more toward stories. I agree that lists tend to be overdone and often have little credibility.

    • Bad lists are totally overdone and should be given up immediately.

      Good lists, like the ones that Andy talked about putting together, work incredibly well for widening your audience. Be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bath water … unless you already have all the readers you want.

  2. “10 Ways to Use NYTimes.com for Research”
    “Top 10 Reasons Small Businesses Fail”
    “The Top 10 Reasons to Make (and Love) Top 10 Lists”
    “All Over the Map: 10 Ways to Teach About Geography”
    “3 Ways Feedly Outdoes the Vanishing Google Reader”

    I glanced over these NYTimes articles and didn’t find that the “limited credibility” Loren worries about.

    It took me some time to embrace the list post. But now my site, and my readers are better off for it.

    • I’m glad somebody else bought this up.

      It’s seems that once something becomes very popular, people want to cheapen it and move on to the next big thing. I know change is the general principle for modernity and progression, but I really doubt that list style posts will ever lose their power and summation technique.

      However I also cannot fault the impact that a great story has. Both techniques have their worth.

  3. Great post Andy

    I have written a few list posts my self, so this is great advice. I know it want covered I this post, but i also like linked posts that that have several parts (like part one, then part two and so on). Its like educating the reader and if they like the one post they will read the next in the series and so on…..

    What’s your take on those types of posts ?

    Also thanks for the list post of 27 complaints about web designers. Being a web developer myself. I love finding bad complaints about designers, because its a great sounding board to see where we can improve in our own business.

    • I’ve written tons of lists and if the list is long, I try to break up the list into categories. This makes is even more scan-able than a normal list.

      But you’re talking about writing a series of posts? Great idea. But it seems like a more natural fit for a story, with a beginning, middle and end. The internal linking benefits are obvious. I wonder what it would do for your email open rates? If you do this, let me know how it goes.

  4. I agree it’s best to use both. Just like having different conversations with people around you, it’s important to give your audience a good balance of information and meaningful story. Either format requires great content too; if the content isn’t there neither can be too successful.

  5. I think you have to find what works best for you and your audience. Lists posts are great, usually a little quicker to read/understand, and give your readers bits and pieces to run with. Stories require a little more investment but they can connect you with your audience in a much deeper way.

    • Agreed. Lists vs. stories is kind of like traffic vs. engagement. Lists have the advantage of headlines that setting expectations about the length/scanability of the post. I wonder if there is some way to do that with a story headline. Hmmm…

      It might look like this: “A 2 Minute Story About Fear and Redemption in Copywriting” or “Secrets of Copywriting: 500 Words About a 20 Year Career”

  6. Interesting. As I was reading about why you should write stories and then hit a list, I smirked. But then of course, it made sense when Andy resolved to say “use both.” I can relate.

    As a writer who tends to tell more stories, this is a struggle for me. Because I’ve seen how effective the quick, easy list-of-tips type posts can garner attention.

    However, those posts tend to pretty quickly go in one ear and out the other. It seems that to write the kind of content that endures and remains top-of-mind with the reader, you must tell a story or provide a really compelling argument with a powerful illustration.

    So, yes. I think both is ideal — not only to build a large audience, but to keep one.

    • Thanks, Jeff. Yes, nothing connects like a story, but as I look at my own posts, I realize how few stories I tell. Most everything I write is “how to” content. I could probably do more to work stories into these pieces. I’m basically a teacher and my posts are curriculum.

      Separate note, regardless of what Loren said, I still have this feeling that there are only two kinds of posts: lists and stories. How-to posts and Interviews are really just lists. Everything else is a story. Does that make sense? Maybe it’s just me…

  7. Probably the best articles are a combination of both List-posts and Story-posts. That is: you start with the Story-post format but where the lessons learned come in you also incorporate the list-format.

  8. I saved “A list of reasons to tell stories” and that list now resides on my desktop ;)

    There is no denying the power of story. A great story is what captures your attention, and talk about evergreen – a really good story is forever etched in your memory.

    When it comes to blogging, there is no comparison to a good story (and storyline told over time). I just think of the posts I’ve read here at Copyblogger over the years. The posts I remember and often come back to are the stories. I now have a couple in my mind that Brian and Sonia wrote.

    The list posts I’ve written at my own place — They were fun. They usually generate plenty of comments and shares, but that’s about it. Then poof! Off into the ether.

    • Yes, nothing will ever replace a great story. The first few minutes of Andrew Stanton’s TEDtalk make that clear.

      But I’ve actually written lists that have gotten a lot of traction, but mostly with search engines. Some are roundups of tools, optimized to rank for a specific phrase, like “competitive analysis tools.” Others, like the web design complaints, still get shares and comments.

      If you’re thinking about SEO, it often seems easier to find a target phrase for a list than a story. At least it is for me!

      Good to see you here in the comments, Craig. Hope all is well!

      • Well, I use list posts all the time, really ;) Just working my fingers to the bone to infuse them with story. Good to see you here in Copyblogger land ;)

  9. I think both work well together, I’m not sure they are mutually exclusive. There’s room for a list inside most stories. Lists bring light relief to the reader and give people key takeaways. Story gives you a thread to follow and make the results more memorable.

    You’ve definitely got me thinking, as ever! Thanks for the Listly mention.

    I’m been completing the second phase of a content audit of top blogs and I’ve noticed a lot of people combining lists with infographics and lists with video.

    Here’s my 1st post on the content audit. It features copyblogger and you are in the next edition

    http://bit.ly/sixtypescontent

    I’ve been focussed on analyzing embeddable content : slides, videos,lists, graphics, audio etc, but where does story fit into the picture?

    That is a great question.

    • I like how Andy unpacked this. Stories are unmatched for engagement, and lists are fantastic to make a post easy to navigate — and I agree, they can be combined (which Andy did here) nicely.

  10. A good list *IS* a story. And that’s the difference between a good list post and a bad one: if you’re list doesn’t cohere into an insight and create a sort of narrative arc around itself, then you’re just compiling a numbered jumble of crap. If it does do that, you’ve got both a great list post. Take the 27 Complaint About Web Design Companies example: there’s a story about it how it came to be, and also a story in the list itself, a list which tells the story of non-communicative and non-responsive Web Design Companies who over-promise and fail to execute or do so too slowly or not to expectation/plan.

    So don’t choose between story and list — make your lists do what they’re supposed to do: make them tell stories.

  11. List posts are my most popular posts. Story posts have been some of my biggest duds. And vice versa lol….The energy behind your list posts, or story posts, determines the popularity of the post. Know why you wish to publish a certain style post to create a more compelling piece of content.

    Thanks!

    • heh, good observation.

      One thing I have found is that if there’s a way to take a solid, informative high-quality post and turn it into “7 Ways to …” (simply by numbering the sections, typically), it will get more traffic. Same post, same quality, same information, wider audience.

  12. When a blog contains one list post after another, it is usually a credibility killer for me. They learned that list posts get clicks.

    So I click to their latest list post and often find a lot of trite, boring, useless information.

  13. “Lists are…easily digestible and often very practical. But stories are the fabric of culture.”

    I appreciate seeing the advantages of each — thanks for a great summary!

  14. Kyle Akerman :

    Hi Andy,

    Nice Job! I agree that in most cases list posts are necessary to drive traffic and story posts are good for engagement and/or conversion.

    Do you think a story could be used effectively at the top of the funnel?

    For example: Could Brian Clark’s snowboarding story or Gini Dietrich’s “Mr. Arment” story be used to attract new traffic to their respective sites (Copyblogger and Spin Sucks)?

    I’m guessing it’s easier for most people to use lists at the top of the funnel and stories at the bottom. What do you all think?

    • Any post that serves an audience need (and has a strong headline) will pull traffic into a site. We’ve certainly had some story posts that grew the audience.

      As Andy mentions here, numbered lists do tend to be very useful for growing your audience & getting more clicks.

  15. I think lists work well for drawing attention and stories work well for creating connection with your readers. If you have a good list post with a headline that attracts people it’ll get you clicks, but to give your readers that feeling that they’re really connecting with you nothing beats a well-told story. Reason #243857 to be clear what the purpose of your post is before you finalize it.

  16. Audience definitely comes into play when deciding which to use. When browsing The New York Times you don’t expect to see short lists, instead readers of that particular outlet expect longer story-oriented pieces.

    A Copyblogger reader can expect lists, long and short packed with remarkably useful information. Strong list posts often incorporate stories as well.

    It goes back to audience, what they’ve come to expect and which format you can execute best.

  17. A very helpful analysis of the relative pros and cons of these different types of post. I agree list posts can be irresistible – I’ve written lots of them myself and I’m often drawn to them as a reader. But I do think they’re over-used and sometimes abused. The ones that most annoy me are the “5 Quick and Easy Tips” variety, which often contain advice that’s anything but quick and easy to implement.

  18. I agree that the question is not Lists or Stories–pick one– because the writer can often combine them. Even in the same post.

    Stories often add great credibility to a post. For example, in writing about the five vaccinations adults need, I linked to a detailed personal story about the obstacles I encountered in trying to get a Simple Shingles Shot. Some readers’ comments confirmed that I’m not the only one who had such difficulty.

    P.S. Not to quibble, but checklists as used in aviation and medicine, are different from the sort of lists in list-posts.

  19. “When’s the last time you read a list that made you laugh or cry?” .. as millions of BuzzFeed readers would answer – Everyday!

    P.S. The above isn’t a sarcasm, just wanted to point out a fact. I loved your analysis and agree with most of what you mentioned.

  20. Cute…

    A story about why lists work and a list on how good stories work…

    Well played, Andy, well played.

  21. Very helpful article Andy, thank you. Switching between the two perspectives of list and story-post formats helps me to understand my audience better and works my writing muscles differently – both valuable benefits for improving content.

  22. I definitely think you need both. My posts tend to bounce back and forth between lists and stories. Lists give people that quick, accessible information that they’re all looking for, and stories play to the human element.

  23. I’m tired of writing list posts myself, but they continue to get lots of traffic and comments. Other times, I try to tell stories and organize them into sensible parts with compelling sub-headings. Still, list post continue to be popular.

    • Yes, I’d rather not write a list post every time. But I have to admit, some of the most successful posts I’ve ever written were lists, specifically lists of tools. “9 Ways to Spy on the Competition” or “10 Marketing Tools You’ve Never Heard of”

      Another reason why these are successful (and I didn’t mention it here) is that numerals stand out against letters in headlines. Magazine editors know this trick. Part of the reason they’re so effective may be the use of numbers, and not just because they’re a list. Now I’m trying to think of story headlines that use numbers. “3 Little Pigs” “101 Dalmations”

      So I suppose you can use numbers without writing lists. It might help the clickthrough rate for stories. Someone should test this…

  24. I enjoyed reading this interview with Loren Feldman.

    The bottom line for me is that content has to be meaningful and meaty. It doesn’t matter if it’s a list post or a story. If a blog post or article doesn’t have any substance, I won’t read it. So… if I won’t read the content, why would my audience? I’m reminded of that old Wendy’s slogan “Where’s the beef?” :)

    List posts can be tricky because you may be tempted to regurgitate the latest posts. If this is the case, write a story instead. It may take you longer, but it will be worth it.

  25. I thought your summary put it quite nicely… “lists drive traffic…stories drive engagement.” Thank you for stating this so clearly!

  26. Thanks for the great post! I’m a huge fan of list posts because as you said ‘lists drive traffic” but my posts are still very beefy and the one point can have 300-400 words.

    • I don’t think 300-400 words is too long. I once wrote a giant how-to list post with 50 tips and 2800 words. It was big hit. Lists aren’t necessarily lightweights! And I suppose stories aren’t always that meaty. I think the real difference is in the structure.

      Thanks for the comment, Osman!

  27. Thanks andy….insanely practical post. Never thought this before….

    Seriously thank you very very much for this post….LOVE THIS POST….

  28. A good story post can certainly be better, but I tend to click on list posts because I think I’m going to get more out of them. A story post may only include one tip on how to do something, and if that tip doesn’t work for me, I’ve wasted my time reading. But if there are several tips I can choose from, I’m more likely to find one that works. Plus, list posts are easier to skim if I’m short on time.
    Whether that logic actually pans out, I don’t know, but that’s what’s going on in my head when I’m clicking on articles.

    • I think this might be the first comment to speak out for lists without any hesitation. And I like your reasoning…

      Yes, a story has a point, but it may not be relevant to you. List have many points. Even if only a few of them are relevant, you’re more likely to get value.

      I just took a look at your blog and I like the way you set reading time expectations for each post. This gives every one of your posts the same benefit that lists get: clarity around the time commitment.

  29. Both have their places.

    I use lists to either:

    - Grab quick attention and entertain someone who isn’t looking for anything specific.

    - Reinforce something. Their easily digestible so it’s a quick way of telling your reader some quick facts / evidence.

    I use stories to either:

    - Entertain someone who is specifically reading about something. For someone to put the effort into reading a story I personally think they have to already be engaged with the topic in some way.

    - Help to persuade someone about something. Stories can give a reader a different perspective that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

    Just my personal way of deciding my style of writing, whether it works though?

  30. I agree it’s best to use both. Just like having different conversations with people around you, it’s important to give your audience a good balance of information and meaningful story. Either format requires great content too; if the content isn’t there neither can be too successful.

  31. Great post! I think if there is a balance between the two then it’s okay…I know I would be put off if every post on a blog was a list!

    I like to read ‘stories’ as much as I like writing

    Also, it needs to work…for example, I would write a list post for ‘winter essentials’, but wouldn’t write something like ’10 reasons why I don’t like the cold’ it’s just lazy writing to do a list post when it doesn’t fit the content!

  32. I use both in my blog and find list posts get an average 10% better open rate than story posts and are definitely shared more on social media. I find that people are really craving checklists & templates lately – they want their life to be made simpler and easier. That said, great stories tend to trigger deeper responses and comments on my blog (or emails in response to the story), so I am trying to find that perfect balance.

  33. Thank you. I enjoyed reading your article. Please keep up the good work.

    List posts and story posts are not mutually exclusive; nor do they operate in a vacuum. In fact, they can nicely complement one another.

    Sometimes, your target audience will do better with the former; and, at other times, with the latter, so feel free to experiment with both forms.

    Use style and substance. Both can work in tandem. That’s what I take away from your post. Your readers will be better served on account of your lesson. Cheers.

  34. This is a great interview. It’s giving online writers great insights on list type and story-type posts. I also have to agree with everything I’ve read above. it is true that list-type articles are a huge favorite among internet readers. It makes your post more visible and that’s simply because internet readers like to get to the point immediately. They want the solution they are looking for. On the other hand, it is also true that story-like posts make it more meaningful as there is a bit of drama in the article. In my opinion, writers should learn to use both. But more importantly, writers should know what topics are better of as list-type or story-type articles. After all, the response of your audience is what really matters.

  35. In short, like with many advice columns, it is about finding the right balance between journalism and SEO. It’s how quality will always triumph over form and how we need a bit of both – lists vs. stories. The input from a NY Times journalist is very informative and I’m going to make use of this article when helping new writers learn the forms that I want articles we produce to take.

  36. Excellent lists, like the ones that Ravi talked about putting together, work extremely well for widening your viewers. Be careful about not throwing the baby out with the bath water … unless you already have every the readers you require.