7 Things You Need to Know About
Writing Lists That Work

Lucky Number 7

One sure-fire way to get attention from socially driven sites is to write a really good list. If you look at the current popular articles on CopyBlogger you’ll note the following:

And this recent extremely simple list scored 109 comments and counting. People love lists.

In Brian’s post on laws for persuasive blogging, he outlined the importance of creating lists and hinted at why they work:

4. The Law of the List

Love them or hate them, informational posts presented in list format are easily digestible, and allow for an efficient transfer of your value proposition to the reader.

Left Brain Versus Right Brain

Simply put, lists work because they conform to the idea of “Left-Brain Marketing”. Everyone has two sides of the brain, and each part controls a specific way of thinking. The left brain is analytical, and prefers a step-by-step approach (i.e. lists) while the right brain prefers to see the big picture first and then deal with the details later.

Television commercials take the right brain approach with highly-produced images and expensive repetition. On the other hand, the left brain list format has been a successful approach for many decades with direct marketers, magazine publishers, late-night comedians and more recently with Internet content producers and social media marketers.

Many social media users want to know exactly what they’re in for, and the list format caters specifically to that need. It lets them know up front in the headline what to expect and what the time commitment will be.

Let’s Get to the List Already

Here are 7 things you should know about making lists.

  1. Do I have to make a list to be successful?

    Making a list helps your content succeed because it is more palatable for social media, but of course other approaches work, too. The key is writing good content, and creating an excellent list gives you an extra boost in terms of presentation and connecting with your readers.

  2. Why does making lists work?

    Creating lists works due to the specific nature of the headline and the content itself. There is a very clear communication of what the reader is in for, and the structure itself reinforces the perceived value of the return on attention invested.

  3. Does writing a list ensure social media success?

    Not necessarily. While making lists increases your chances of social media success, there are no guarantees. Ultimately it comes down to your content.

  4. What kind of list should I make?

    In order for a list to be truly successful it shouldn’t deviate from the kind of content you usually write. The piece must be relevant to your subject matter, but presented in a different way. A great list has sufficient elaboration on each item to properly flesh out the content.

  5. How long should my list be?

    There is evidence to suggest that top 10 lists may be viewed as somewhat contrived, while lists shorter than 5 may be seen as not containing enough information. The number 7, which humans have been fascinated with throughout history, may in fact be the magic number, with close to a 60% success ratio in one test.

  6. I shouldn’t start a sentence with a numeral, right?

    It’s technically true that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with a numeral lower than 10. You’re supposed to spell it out, such as seven instead of 7. But when it comes to headlines, good copywriters know to break this rule. The numeral catches the eye immediately, while a spelled-out number takes more work for the reader to realize it’s a list.

  7. How often can I (should I) write a list?

    Too much of a good thing is usually a bad thing, and if you keep writing lists you will soon reach a point where you annoy your readers. It’s a great idea to throw in a list once in a while but don’t overdo it.

Read more from Muhammad Saleem at Pronet Advertising.

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Comments

  1. 3 Reasons This is a Great Post

    #1 – You began with evidence: This helps people see your strategy works

    #2 – You introduced theory: The background on the brain satisfies people like me.

    #3 – You provided advice: Everyone loves practical actionable steps

    Keep up the good work!

  2. I agree with Michael, this is an excellent post and it’s very well formatted. I enjoyed the read very much.

    I’d like to add some information into the ‘theory’ behind list posts. Lists don’t just work because they cater to a left brain step-by-step approach. They are also very powerful because of the “chunking” of information.

    Breaking down concepts into smaller bits of information allows us to process and comprehend them with less difficulty. Lists are very powerful because the break information into smaller pieces that are more pleasant to look at, read, and comprehend. Lists are so powerful because they cater to both sides of the brain so well.

    Thanks again for the post,

    – Mason

  3. Although I’m “on the other side of the brain”, I must admit that people enjoy lists. My most successful posts were those presenting lists or steps on how to do various things. Personally, I don’t like lists, especially if they have more than three items. The reason is simple: I tend to get distracted, so I have to look back all the time, in order to be able to see the whole picture.

  4. This is great!

  5. Good tips, thanks.

    For me, a list is most effective when nested between longer, more involved pieces of content.

    When you create a list, keep in mind that that list will, in effect, be auditioning on behalf of your site at large.

    Someone who finds your site through a list will read the list. If it’s excellent, they’ll probably be sold on bothering to read stuff in paragraph form as well.

    -Chuck
    http://www.ihateyourjob.com

  6. Nice Tips, lists are great, I read on Johncow.com that lists of “7” are the best for Digg.

  7. Researchers at the Archives of Sexual Behavior must not be reading your blog. They just published a list of “237” reasons that motivate people to have sex. I think a top 7 (or less) list would have been sufficient. :-)

  8. Lists are great! I find that adding images to a list can make your content even more lively. Here’s an example of what I mean:
    10 Secrets to Happiness I learnt from Andrew Matthews

  9. It also seems, to me at least, that a lot of the 150 (or some other unnecessarily(?) large lists) get quite a lot of attention if they’re on a popular topic.

  10. Adam, yep. Those huge numbered lists are hard to resist, and they do really well at Delicious, since you pretty much have to bookmark them to make them of any use.

  11. But who possibly has time to compile a list of 150+ items?

    Just because of that I’m going to have to try. The question is, which topics actually benefit from large lists?

    I’ll have to think about that one.

  12. Brian, good point about the super lists requiring a bookmark to be of any use.

    That’s absolutely true.

    At the same time, I’ll avoid anything of that length for now unless it’s supposed to be humorous. Too hard to come up with 50+ legitimate points on any subject to do it unless I’d be assured it would bring people in droves.

  13. I will change my ways because:
    1. lists are good for traffic
    2. making lists will force me to clarify my thinking
    3. writing long paragraphs is an old skill less rewarded in the day of the 15 second sound/visual bite

  14. I didn’t really consider using lists in my blog posts until I read about it here on Copyblogger. My posts that do contain lists get more hits (ie. search engine traffic) and also draw out more comments from my readers.

    Thanks for the great post! Keep up the good work!

  15. Are you saying my clever trick of writing business advice in iambic pentameter isn’t going to get me famous and rich?

    Should I also reconsider my Palandrome Palavers on Wednesdays, and my Ineluctable Euphemisms on Mondays?

    Egads, are none of the old parlour tricks still in fashion?

  16. Personally I find the ultra-long lists quite annoying (the 100+ ones, you rarely find ones between 20 & 100).

    Thanks for the elaboration about lists… though I hadn’t done them much in the past recently have been doing one too many.

    Important to avoid this trap so as not to anger your readers.

  17. Lets cut to the chase: lists work because we’re all lazy smucks, who don’t “read” but “scan” and who because our attention spans have been shot to pieces need to be fed our info in bite-sized chunks. :-)

  18. Martin, true… and truer every day. ;)

  19. I like your left-brain right-brain theory for why lists are so well received.

    Here is a comic about another explanation that I like to succinctly call “we think it takes a great deal of preparation and organization, because it would if we were talking.” :)

    http://www.thadguy.com/comic/watch-the-preparation/192/

  20. Lists are unfortunately effective. And any Joe Blow can come up with a list by rearranging or stealing from other people’s post. Many times they are tid -bits of information with 0 backing from personal experience. But in this *sigh* instant gratification culture it’s what people want.

    Also: i can’t stand blogs that force us to give our E-Mail address. Also: You have some very good posts.

  21. Let’s not forget the basic familiarity of the list format.

    From the time we are children in school, we are often told to start assignments my numbering our papers. The list of answers follows.

    I think this plays a part in why we equate lists with answers. And, really, who doesn’t want answers?

  22. I like lists as much as the next reader/blogger/editor. But, with all due respect, I do not believe this one delivered as much as the headline that got me here promised (maybe that should have been on the list ). A fair reading of the headline would lead a reader to expect the emphasis of the piece to be on the how: HOW do I make a list that works. Points 1, 2 and 3 address only why I should make a list. Point 4 merely notes what is perhaps the single most repeated bit of advice to writers: Write what you know. No. 5 I did find useful. No. 6, trivial. And No. 7 so vague — don’t overdo it? — as to be of little value. … All in all, I can’t say I thought this was a list that worked. But it seems to be doing well over at Digg, so perhaps I’m wrong.

  23. Paul, all I can say is the post *did* do well on Digg, and was bookmarked heavily enough to make Delicious Popular, so maybe you’re just more advanced than most.

  24. Sites like Digg do seem to favour lists. I wonder whether this popularity reflects what people actually like to read. Perhaps it says a lot about the surf-surf-surf nature of reading online. It certainly tallies with what Jakob Neilsen has said about writing for the web (in short, be brief, scannable and hype-free).

    As an aside, you might enjoy a post I wrote last year: “Top ten tips for top ten lists.” Tip number nine is: Always leave them wanting more. There is no tip number ten! :)

  25. Matthew, that’s classic. I wish I would have done that. :)

  26. -101 can work to get readers interested to your list.
    – 77 , 66 , 55 are others ways to create your lists.
    – using your social bookmarking and every time you add a most related description can be the best way to get quality list and content to your blogs or web site.

  27. i will always love this site. reason? check out the post above and stop here if you intend to blindly leave a comment.

  28. I love lists. I’m a list person. But I agree that too many can be tedious. What are your feelings on the bulleted list? Are numbers the key to making lists great?

  29. Thank you Brian for producing some seriously potent information. Being new to blogging I know first hand that using a list in my post works. Not being in the IM niche I used a 5 pt list. I experienced the most traffic in one day since starting my blog less than two months ago. Of course it could have been the headline. Or the content. Either way it works!

    Thanks Brian

  30. LeeAnn Gibson :

    In psychology, we are taught that the magic number is 7, plus or minus 2. The average human mind remembers 5 to 9 chunks of information with ease. More than 9 is too many for people to take it all in easily, while less than 5 can be too easy, making it seem trivial. That’s why lists of 7 are more popular with Digg and why good writers generally prefer to use no less than 5 items.

  31. There’s no doubt lists work on social media. I hadn’t heard that “left brain vs right brain” explanation before – very interesting. Thanks.

  32. I swear this is like my Go To Website!

    Great Breakdown of a lists format. I will be using this strategy on my blog today. I wanted to get some extra tips and this is awesome!

  33. I agree, listing works much better than a mere text, because it’s easier to read (you can scan all the information easily without in-depth reading) and more structured.