List articles are designed to make you click. It's an overdone tactic that benefits nobody. They're arbitrary, they don't invite you to read the actual text and they sell crack to babies. Okay, maybe not the last one. But why do we see them so much? And why are we so compelled to click on them? Let's find out.
At its basis, websites are focused on attracting users. There's no point in publishing content without having anyone to read it. But users are often not just users, they're a way of making money. List articles, which also go by the name of listicles, help you in achieving your goals. They get you the results you want from an article.
They achieve higher engagement from readers in terms of clicks, social shares and comments. They also trigger more conversions towards the goal the website owner wants to reach. This can be signing up for a mailing list or buying a product.
With this knowledge, I believe that most list articles are a way to trick users into a shallow satisfaction that supports the instant gratification culture.
The good of listicles
List articles are a proven method of getting people to click on your headlines. They have, by far, the highest engagement rates of any type of headline. There is some slight disparity between genders, as 39% of women prefer lists against 32% of men, but for both genders it's the clear winner.
The main reason for this is user expectation. When you see a headline with a number in it, you know exactly what to expect. And because our brains like predictability, they work. They're a psychologically seductive tool because the headline alone promises us condensed information we can retrieve by just scanning it. An ordinary article, like this one, gives you no comfortable structure like that. My apologies to anyone who expected otherwise.
Next to managing expectations, lists also exploit cognitive biases. In specific, the commitment bias. Once you click on 17 adorable puppies in a superhero costume, you're committing yourself to at least scan the first part. And at number 4, you may as well continue down the list. You started, and now you feel the need to finish. You can also leave it alone and finish it later, but you will feel compelled to finish it anyway. And you will feel good about finishing it in the end, because it's satisfying to reach the end of a list.
List articles are also relatively easy to write. To make a structured argument, you generally have a list of subarguments. You then arrange these in your head or on paper and weave them into your text. But what if, and stay with me here, what if we just added numbers? That would make writing that article so much easier. Add a paragraph to explain it a bit further, but don't put too much work into it. Writing a paragraph of bullshit under a list item is easy enough.
But these are all benefits. They help you achieve your goals, they make users commit to reading them and they are easier to write. What's so bad about them?
The bad of listicles
List articles tend to feed on the bad habits we have. They can be fun and informative when done right, but generally they are aimed at getting the user to engage. It's a shallow construct that doesn't place much thought on the value delivered to the user, but focuses on getting them to feel good about reading it.
That's because list articles are all about instant gratification. Their very appeal is clicking on something to escape your boredom or solve your problem without too much effort. The problem with this is that it fosters short-term satisfaction. When I say I have 10 ways to solve your financial problems, that sounds like a great value proposition. And when you scan it you will feel that you gained some knowledge. But in the long haul you will have no use for my shallow message.
One personal example of this is based on some research I did for Twenty of Time. To reach a larger audience, building a mailing list is key. Of course, I would like people to sign up for it, so I looked for sources explaining me how I could achieve that. All of the available sources were lists. After reading the fifth article, I still had no practical knowledge. Sure, finishing the list made me feel good, but all I got was one potentially useful tip, had I not already included a sign-up form on my front page.
My results: no practical tips and no experiences that I could learn from. It was all just superfluous content. I got some short-term entertainment out of those articles, but all they wanted was for me to sign up to their mailing lists. Their way of growing their lists was to write a bad article about growing lists. I felt like I was a product, not a valued reader. Some sites even had four places I could sign up on one page, adding a fifth when a pop-up appeared.
Aside from instant gratification, this left me with some 40-odd items that held no value. None adequately answered my questions, all I had was a whole lot of clutter. Rather than presenting a single point with good arguments, they focused on giving me their conclusions. And when all you can find is a bunch of conclusions, you never get around to critically assessing them. (critical thought)
The ugly of listicles
In the fight for attention, it may be hard not to succumb to the forces of popular demand. List articles are proven to get more engagement and higher conversion rates. At the same time, they often add little value to your reader. Should you use them?
My answer lies somewhere in between the extremes. I'm not diametrically opposed to list articles, just to the shallowness of many of them. I have made a list article before, but it contained a whole lot more information than just the list items themselves. I think those are fine, as they add more information that just a quick list could ever do.
On the other hand, the quick and dirty lists don't follow one of my key values: respect people's time as you would your own. Writing an article that's meant to draw users in and provide some shallow entertainment may work in getting more readers, but it doesn't provide any long-term value. Sometimes that's okay, but overall this type of entertainment has become way too prevalent in the war on user attention.
As for Twenty of Time, I believe in writing compelling content that provides a meaningful addition. Hopefully, that's enough for you to come back.