The listicle isn’t a new concept. In fact, Catrinel, our Head of Content, is pretty certain that it was actually invented by Buddha. The three universal truths…the eightfold path to enlightenment… the five precepts. He was quick to organize his thoughts and beliefs about human existence into lists, and most humans are quick to do the same, too. As Megan Garber discusses in “The Tao of the Listicle,” our culture has been obsessed with lists “from the accounting of Mesopotamia…to the Count of Sesame Street,” and we have relied on them to help us include, exclude, delineate and declare, to teach and to remember.

The drive to make order out of chaos is such a universal human desire that even The New Yorker has even come up with a clever list of all the reasons our brains love lists. But how did we get from the point of having a few basic tenets as listed guidelines for life (à la the Buddha), to the BIG LISTICLE ERA, where everything that we encounter is divvied up into Top 7’s, 10 Best’s, 14 Steps and 3 Must-Do’s that always promise to be the keys to success, weight loss, productivity or finding Mr. Right?

Lists can sort of seemed like dumbed-down versions of reality – especially when they come in the form of multimedia GIF galleries of celebrities nay-nay’ing or sobbing to a backdrop of Adele’s new video. But lists are undeniably popular and, actually, really, really useful and that’s why our brains are drawn toward creating them, reading them and why they actually can improve our lives.
So what is the magic of the listicle and why has it become such a deeply ingrained part of the human experience? And is its popularity at a peak or has it always been as big a part of our existence? And what does it have to do with content?

Why Lists are So Appealing

As humans, we have long been overwhelmed by information – and that overload is now at an all-time high. The era of Big Data has us swimming in a sea of facts and stats—not to mention the sheer number of opinions and ideas that we have to make sense of and contend with every day. We are programmed to structure this information in a way that our brains can make sense of, and lists are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to sifting through information and compiling it into a digestible and sharable format. Lists help make sense of things for a number of reasons, which I’ll list here:

Curation

Lists help you filter out the noise of the information age by curating focused, annotated content that helps prevent complete brain overload paralysis. Your Twitter feed is a list that you’ve curated and so is your Facebook feed and your Contact list and the daily newsletter you get that pulls stories on your customized topics for your reading pleasure.

 

Editable vector illustration of roadmaps in the minds of a man and woman

Spatial Processing

When we’re presented with a mess of complicated information, our brains immediately try to break it down in a way that makes sense. This can mean that we divide it into steps, categories, timelines, or other framework but it’s always some way of taking a large amount of information and breaking it down into more accessible bites. These bites make materials easier for us to look at and say “okay, I can process this.”

Teasers

Lists generally don’t offer a holistic and complete story. Rather, they are a format that offers a quick skim of a topic so that you have jumping–on points that you can explore on a deeper level on your own if you so desire. If you’re reading a list of tips for better content creation, you may already be familiar with a few of the suggestions while others may be ones that you take an interest in and decide to do a little more research on.

Lists get bashed for being generic and over-processed; for giving us ADHD and rotting our brains and, as Wired puts it, “generally contributing to the decay of all that is right and good.” But clearly they are here to stay – and it’s possible that the popularity of the listicle is actually a reaction to the demands of young audiences who need more digestible information to scroll through on their phones when all they can handle is short, cogent bursts of content.

Is Content Responsible for the Listicle or is the Listicle Changing Content?

It is exactly this—the nature of the way that we expect information to be reported to us today – that gives the list so much power. The list doesn’t require any commitment. It’s a light-hearted affair…a dalliance. You might walk away with a smile on your face, a nugget of an idea that you’ve tucked into a pocket to consider later on or you might have just had a fairly enjoyable if totally forgettable three minutes of scrolling on your phone while waiting for the TimeWarner operators to take your call. The point is that the need for this short-form content is at a peak and the branded opportunities for them are limitless.

The other way to look at it is that, as the Guardian claims, perhaps the listicle is changing the nature of journalism, and not the other way around. If audiences are checking news content more frequently but only devoting short bursts of attention to it, you better create content that they can consume in that tiny window of time. Buzzfeed might have mastered the art of the listicle but they sure aren’t the first ones to use it as a marketing scheme.

It’s impossible to talk about the listicle culture without addressing the power of social media, either. Bullet points look great on Facebook. And lists are easy to share. They save readers time – which is especially important when you have a wide variety of readers, some who love to delve into thousand-page tomes and others who haven’t read a book since high school. Social media makes your content available to an audience you might not otherwise reach or appeal to – and when it comes into their line of vision, it better be something that sticks.

Listicles Are Here to Stay

No matter whether you believe that the listicle is peaking in popularity or that it has been the preferred method of communicating information since the beginning of time, the point is that they aren’t going away anytime soon. It’s time to embrace the power of the listicle and integrate into our marketing strategy else we are missing out on a valuable opportunity. They’re not going to replace long-form blogs completely and sure don’t offer the in-depth analysis that paragraph-based reporting does, but they are certainly getting devoured as part of our current “fast-food information diet.” The best marketing strategy is to find a way to pair the quick convenience of listicles with the deeper value and nuance of traditional articles.

 

Want to learn about other ways to focus your research streamline the information you consume? Check out OZ’s content idea-generation software today.