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?
- 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.”
- Stories have conflict and resolution. This structure creates suspense and holds readers’ attention.
- Stories have characters. This humanizes the topic through voice and personality.
- 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?
- 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.