What’s with the proliferation of lists these days? Initially, I thought maybe it was just the New Year’s Resolution mania run amok. But I don’t think so. I see lists everywhere: “The top 5 this,” “The 8 greatest that,” and “The 25 best reasons to do something else.” I’ve decided that I’d better get with the program and thus, I present for your edification and amusement, a list of the top eight reasons why marketers should embrace lists.
- They’re just darn efficient. If you “bold” the heading of each entry, your audience can skim through blithely and get the point. If they want more information they can dig deeper. Lists are very user-friendly and in a world where we all are under siege by content (mostly bad) a little user-friendliness goes a long toward winning over our target audience. The point is to make your point; don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
- Lists have a long history. Lists go back at least as far as Moses and the Ten Commandments. Think about it; suppose you were responsible for a huge group of people who were all partying and dancing around a golden calf like it was some kind of out-of-control frat party and you had to be the adult-in-the-room and start laying down the law. Long-winded speeches ain’t gonna get the job done. A list of ten unambiguous imperatives is the way to go. Thousands of years later we still know we’re not supposed to covet our neighbor’s ox.
- Lists are titillating. Every month Cosmopolitan publishes some sort of list. “Ten ways to drive your man wild in bed.” “Eight naughty tips to get his attention.” “Seven secrets that will blow your man’s mind.” My husband assures me that his “mind” is not what needs to be blown, and the real secret is that the secret to getting a man’s attention is no secret at all. Nonetheless, even if the information isn’t practical, lists are seductive and empowering because you feel like you’re getting the inside scoop on something. Everyone wants in on a few quick secrets and if God and Cosmo are finding common ground, you know you must be onto something.
- Lists sound official. If you see a list of the top ten left-handed third basemen*, the presumption is that it’s been sanctified by some sort of research or at least a popularity poll. More often than not, lists (like this one) are merely fabricated from whole cloth and are based more on opinion than fact. Occasionally some authority will put out a list that will bear more weight. The American Film Institute, for example, has a list of the “100 Greatest American Films of All Time.” Now the AFI is certainly a fine institution, but their list is no more definitive than anyone else’s. For example, Dirty Dancing, a true American classic, didn’t make their list so it’s difficult to take it too seriously. On the other hand, I’m willing to believe that Intolerance is one of the greatest movies of all time — even though neither I nor 99.99% of the people in the universe have seen it — simply because the people at the AFI tell me it is.
- Pride. Readers feel invested whenever something with which they are associated makes the list. If you were to read that Washington University in Saint Louis is one of the top microbiology schools in the world, you might beam with pride even if you have no interest in bacteria whatsoever. If you studied something else at the school, or you live near the university, or your last name is Washington, or you have some other obscure connection, you’ll find yourself saying, “Isn’t that terrific? I made the list!” That’s when confirmation bias kicks in. You know you’re terrific, and the list confirms that, so clearly everything else on the list must be legitimate.
- Lists are factual — sort of … sometimes. Occasionally lists will take the form of “Ten amazing things you didn’t know about ____.” Or “Five facts about ____ every human being should know.” These types of lists can be very persuasive, which is great if you’re on that end of the issue. They may not be so great if you’re the one being persuaded. There is nothing more pernicious than statistics. These lists work well if you want to focus your audience’s attention to a few select facts. It also gives you cover for not putting out all of the facts. You simply shrug and say, “Well, I wasn’t trying to be comprehensive; I just wanted to put out a few of the facts.” Lists lend themselves to lies of omission.
- Lists create structure. Lists are a sort of ready-made organization for your writing. This is particularly useful if you want to draw the readers to your most important point. By numbering your list in reverse order you can build tension to that big revealing climatic point. “… And the number one reason you should buy our product is ….”
- Lists are easy to write. One of the best things about lists is that you can skip all of those tedious transitions that good writing requires and get straight to the point. Your introductory paragraph can be minimal too. It’s a list. What more do you need to know? Just tell them what the list is, and get on with it. Likewise, a concluding paragraph is unnecessary. They just got all of the information you were trying to express; do you really have to draw a conclusion for them? They know when they hit the last item in the list it’s over. So it’s over. Just stop.**
*This is the sort of thing people will quibble about, but in the modern era of baseball there have been no left-handed throwing players to routinely start at third-base.
**OK. I just can’t resist throwing in a caveat for marketers. You could write a concluding paragraph that asks readers to submit their own lists. This is known in the trade as a “Call to Action” or CTA. It’s kinda like a chain letter for the modern marketer. It’s a little subversive because you don’t really care about their lists, you just want them to circulate your list. This is known as “going viral”. That being said, I’m interested to hear your list of ways to use lists in the coming year. Please leave a comment. And don’t forget to share!
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn and is reprinted here with permission.