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tips for writing listiclesSome content marketers and readers have grown weary of listicles. Commentators have lambasted listicles as click bait, repetitive and shallow fluff. They’ve been blamed for ruining attention spans, destroying prose and oversimplifying complex issues.

Listicles, defined as “writing or other content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list,” also still work well at communicating succinctly. They continue to draw readers, or at least skimmers, and often rank high in search results. They often attract links and increase web traffic.

Why Readers Love Listicles

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, they’re easily digestible. The format helps us absorb and retain information. Rather than being overwhelmed with complex, extensive information, we prefer to learn in bite-sized 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, reveals Buzzsumo’s research. “Although “Listicles” have had a bit of a bad rap for being cliché or overdone, the simple fact is people still read them like crazy,” states Carmel Anderson at Buzzsumo. “So no matter how you feel about this content type, it may be a compelling format to add to your content strategy.”

The poor reputation of listicles may be due to how writers typically create them rather than the format itself, writes Sean Callahan 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.

How to Improve the Image of Listicles

Callahan and other content marketing professionals recommend these practices to improve the prestige of listicles – and write list articles that increase website traffic.

Shorter list items. 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 click-bait, readers now correctly suspect the “101 Ways to …” post will probably offer little valuable information. Fewer articles with fewer lists but more depth, insights and research will gain more respect.

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

Avoid click-bait headlines. A clickbait headline that stakes unrealistic claims or promises something that 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 unique angle. Unique value will gain attention in the forest of listicles and encourage backlinks. Without unique value, others may 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 that’s actually just another article (perhaps another listicle) that in turn links to the original research – or perhaps merely links to 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 enter 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.

But “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 if the topic makes sense as a listicle. Only write a listicle if it can be broken down into several discrete points, Jellison warns. For instance, narrative pieces shouldn’t generally be listicles.

Bottom Line: Listicles have drawn well-founded criticism as shallow, click-bait posts. Renewed dedication to in-depth research and quality writing can boost the image of listicles and increase page views and website traffic.