Five ways to make listicles a perfect content marketing tool

Listicles are a proven way to get people reading your content online – and have much to offer for content marketers

There have been few more popular online tropes in recent years than listicles. The word ‘listicle’ has seeped into our consciousness and led to countless think pieces evaluating the format’s effect on journalism/the internet/our brains.

But somewhere along the line, listicles became tainted. The tide turned from entertaining trend to irritation. BuzzFeed, as the principal – or at least the most successful – proponent, was seen as encouraging a lazy form of content creation.

Which, in BuzzFeed’s case, simply isn’t true. Seven billion monthly content views, over 200 million monthly unique visitors, more than 700 pieces produced every day smacks of many things, but laziness isn’t one of them.

Listicles are clearly effective, despite the clichés (cats, skateboards, 90s TV references etc). As content marketers, there is much to learn. So how do you create effective listicles?

Embrace the list!

As this article in The New Yorker examines, human brains are ideally equipped to take in information when it’s presented as a list. Maria Konniva writes: “The headline catches our eye in a stream of content, it positions its subject within a pre-existing category […] spatially organises the information; and it promises a story that’s finite.”

In other words, listicle headlines and the content that follows create an easy reading experience and help our brains to understand a topic quickly and efficiently.

Long-form articles can be a valuable tool – allowing a topic to be dissected in detail and adding authority to your brand – but these need to be employed sparingly. The bread and butter of content marketing is punchy, focused content that an audience can absorb easily. And if our brains our wired to take in lists, why fight it?

Create a clear promise

Listicles should be intrinsically clear in their promise. Whether it’s ‘top five’ this, or ‘10 best’ that, the audience knows exactly what to expect when they click on the link.

This brings to mind thoughts about print versus online headlines (explored here by Content Desk): the days of surprising people with the content they consume are over. People won’t click on the piece unless they know what they’re going to be looking at. Listicles should be crystal clear about what each article entails.

And their structure couldn’t be simpler. Information is presented in an easy-to-follow and highly digestible format. Perfect to be skim read and allowing the reader to jump around without losing meaning.

(The clarity of topic and simplicity of structure aren’t just useful for the audience, they also serve as a handy one-line brief for content creators.)

Provide relevant information

Content marketing needs to offer a service. It’s one thing to present an interesting subject just for the sake of it, but effective content marketing also has a next step built in.

Listicles provide answers. They contain useful information on any given subject, with a clear message at their heart. This clarity of message and managing of the audience’s journey should be a must for content marketers everywhere.

Force the engagement factor up

Listicles are, by their nature, informal in tone. Regardless of the company the content is being created for, the likelihood is that a listicle will lean towards more personal language.

This is no bad thing for the engagement factor of your content – forcing you to simplify language and speak more directly to your audience. (This necessarily means having a clear understanding of who that audience is.)

A recent study showed BuzzFeed’s articles to be written at the reading level of a 9-year-old and with an average length of 150 words. Clearly you don’t have to follow those markers for your own content, but remembering to employ short, simple sentences in the active voice is one shortcut to making the piece more engaging.

Don’t get sucked into clickbait

Clickbait is a tricky line to tread. On the one hand, you run the risk of seriously alienating your audience with broken promises of ‘you won’t believe’ or ‘the shocking truth’. On the other hand, such hyperbole is liable to attract some extra clicks for your piece.

This research of more than 70,000 articles from BBC News, the Daily Mail, Reuters and the New York Times showed that the stronger the emotion portrayed in the headline, the more likely it is to be clicked on.

But, still, beware. As this blog has discussed before, when it comes to clickbait the waters have been muddied. Facebook, for example, is cutting down on content that isn’t delivering what it promises. Trust has well and truly been eroded.

Listicles and content marketing work thanks to a clarity of message and prioritising of authoritative information. The lesson for both: don’t promise what you can’t deliver.

by James Sullivan. Contact him here.

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