7 guidelines for content marketers to craft winning listicles

The ubiquitous format has its detractors—but it also has legions of devotees. Success depends not just on matching the topic to your audience, but on making it digestible. Here’s a tip sheet.

Some content marketers—and readers—have grown weary of listicles.

Commentators have lambasted listicles as repetitive, shallow fluff and even clickbait. The format’s been blamed for ruining attention spans, destroying prose and oversimplifying complex issues.

Still, listicles work.

Defined as “writing or other content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list,” listicles communicate succinctly. They continue to draw readers, or at least skimmers, and often rank high in search results. They lend themselves to online sharing and increase web traffic.

Our brains seem inherently attracted to lists. Numbers in listicle headlines stand out in a sea of text search results. With their defined limit and structured organization, listicles are easily digestible.

The format helps readers absorb and retain information. Rather than being overwhelmed with complex, extensive information, we prefer to learn in bite-size nuggets. They also appeal to our desire to categorize things.

The listicle “5 Clever Interview Questions to Uncover Candidates’ Hidden Strengths” was shared 12,599 times last year, Buzzsumo research reveals.

The poor reputation of listicles may derive from how writers typically create them rather than from the format itself, Sean Callahan writes in the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions blog. “The hunger for list articles still exists, but as content marketers we should be aiming to be part of the solution, not the problem,” Callahan argues.

Here are recommended practices to compile list articles that increase website traffic:

Keep lists brief. Shorter lists perform better than longer ones for B2B content, according to a BuzzSumo analysis of more than 50,000 B2B list articles. The most popular number in list articles is five. After years of listicle clickbait, readers now correctly suspect the “101 Ways to …” post will probably offer little valuable information. Articles with fewer lists but more depth, insights and research will engender deeper credence.

Stick to your expertise. Researching subjects outside your bailiwick can consume an inordinate amount of time. Instead, rely on your own expertise as much as possible, while adding outside context for credibility, Callahan advises.

Avoid click-bait headlines. A clickbait headline that makes unrealistic claims or promises something the article does not deliver will annoy readers. Consider: “36 Inventions You Won’t Believe Exist” or “13 Tips to Solve Any Problem for Good.

“As long as you stay away from making bold claims which are completely (or even mostly) impossible to meet, you should be fine,” says Ben Mulholland at Process.St. “That is, as long as any claims you make are actually met within the body of the article.”

Find a unusual angle. Distinctive value will gain attention in the forest of listicles and will encourage backlinks. Moreover, without unique value, others might copy your work without referring to the post.

Mulholland suggests:

  • Write from personal experience.
  • Use an interesting example/case study.
  • Find obscure but useful statistics for a new insight.
  • Collect information from multiple sources to provide a summary.

Cite original research. Some articles provide information or statistics with a link to the source, which is just another article (perhaps another listicle) that in turn links to the original research—or perhaps links to yet another article that repeats the information. Linking to the original research, not a hand-me-down source, improves credibility. At times, that requires additional searching online. If needed, follow citations until there are no more links to follow, try a site search of the source’s site, or search for the passage in Google.

Focus on a specific topic. Some listicles try to tackle too much. Readers will find “7 Tips for Eating Healthy” uninspiring. Volumes have been written on the subject, and the title doesn’t make it clear that the article offers anything new, says Robert Jellison at Compose.ly.  However, “7 Tips for Eating Healthy While Traveling” or “7 Unexpected Health Benefits of Drinking Oolong Tea” are specific enough to prompt more interest and won’t face as much competition or skepticism.

Don’t force all topics into listicles. First consider whether the topic makes sense as a listicle. Compose a listicle only if it can be broken down into several discrete points, Jellison warns. For instance, narrative pieces shouldn’t be contorted into listicle form.

A version of this post first appeared on the Glean.info blog.

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