5 Unassailable Reasons Why You Should Hate Listicles

ListicleIn a pressure packed world of limited time and ever-shortening attention spans, the success of “listicles” on the web is no surprise. People don’t seem to have the patience for challenging, New Yorker length think pieces, nor do they want the dryness and complexity of academic tomes or white papers.  I can’t seem to find anyone who even reads the newspapers anymore, even online. “I just don’t have the time,” is the common lament.

Enter the “5 Reasons Why” or the “5 Steps To Great Whatever” article to fill the void. These pithy posts promise easy-to-follow, silver bullet, paint-by numbers solutions, generally written on the junior high school level. Even the venerable Harvard Business Review has gone the way of Buzz Feed. Clicking on their “most popular section,” the first piece on the list was titled “7 Ways to Capture Someone’s Attention.”

This is a shame. Click bate disguised as “content” but delivering empty calories instead of any meaningful intellectual nutrition is not useful for anything other than wasting time. The phenomenon reminds me of a routine from Steve Martin’s stand up comedy days.

“You can have a million dollars and never pay taxes. That’s right. You can have a million dollars and never pay taxes. You ask, Steve, how can I have million dollars and never pay taxes? Simple. First, get a million dollars. Then, when the IRS comes to you and says you have a million dollars and never paid taxes, two simple words are all you need. ‘I forgot.’”

In this case, the joke is on us, or those of us (not me) who continue to click on these things expecting to learn something. To prove the point, I randomly clicked on the first five numbered list headlines I saw in the Marketing & Advertising channel of LinkedIn Pulse. Here are a few highlights:

  • A piece titled “Unforgettable Marketing: 5 Ways To Make Memorable Campaigns” offered this sage advice in the fourth of its five shallow and contradictory points: “Feelings. Make it Emotional: The goal of making your message emotional is to make the audience care. This will inspire them to act. For people to take action, they have to care.”
  • “6 Laws for Successful Email Marketing” tells us to “deliver value.”
  • “The 5 Most Important Tips for Creating Impressive Case Studies” implores us to “know your buyer’s persona,” “design with purpose” and to “talk strategy/talk numbers” as opposed to making “empty claims.”
  • “5 Ways to Improve Your Website Conversions” tells us to “understand your USP (unique selling proposition” and to employ “fresh content.”

Get the idea? First, get a million dollars…

That’s not to say that some pieces with numbered list headlines don’t deliver useful information. For example, there was a piece titled “9 Brands Who Nailed Their Fourth of July” that cites interesting, real-life examples of holiday weekend campaigns with some intelligent analysis. Another, “Top 7 Time-Saving Tools To Supercharge Your Social Media Marketing,” provides recommendations for specific apps that may actually pay off on the promise of the headline.

Still, most listicles, not to mention the majority of blogs I see posted on LinkedIn, don’t “deliver value” or provide “fresh content.” Rather, it is self-promotion pure and simple, offering nothing substantive to the reader.  Articles filled with cliches and the painfully obvious are not helpful to any of us. If I’m going to take the time to read something, first and foremost, I want to learn something I don’t already know. I want to be challenged. I want to be pushed out of my comfort zone.

As I always say, people love to talk “innovation” when what they really crave is comfort. It’s why liberals watch MSNBC and why conservatives watch Fox News. It’s easy to stay in our bubbles, selectively absorbing only the information that conforms to our perspective and never bothering to upset our thought systems with new and possibly ambiguous or contradictory thoughts.

We love to think in black and white terms (the classic struggle of good vs. evil, e.g.), and it’s nice to think there are silver bullet solutions to our nagging marketing challenges. But our world grows more complex by the day. There are no simple solutions, just as the notion of “low hanging fruit” in sales and marketing is ridiculously wishful thinking.

I have been strongly encouraged by several smart colleagues of mine to start writing more “how to” pieces with numbers in the headlines. Listicles get, by some accounts, 20% more clicks than the average, and the spoon feeding of a few simple points in a short piece makes it all painless and easily digestible for readers. I wrote one recently and I’ll likely write more. Putting the click bait out there to build my audience couldn’t be a bad thing, right? And I know it works because I read it in a listicle.

But hopefully, my three to seven points will tell you something you don’t know or get you to look at something in an entirely new light. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to write my typically longer pieces for the relatively small, but very loyal audience of thoughtful, intellectually curious, forward-looking people. Or at least that’s how I like to think of you!

Oh, I never did get to my list of “5 Unassailable Reasons Why You Should Hate Listicles.”

I forgot.


  • Jena Francis
    Posted at 11:23h, 30 July Reply

    Loved this. Want 5 reasons why?! 😉 Thank you for writing it.
    Jena Sansone Francis IMC ’96

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