What are listicles and 5 reasons to use them

crazy dog Journalism and blogging has a new lexicon. At long last the short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, and which features a cardinal number in its title – now has a title of its own in the Oxford Dictionary. It’s called the listicle (part list, part article).

Listicles are as old as the 10 Commandments and commercially, we are no strangers to ‘listicles’ either. In the print world, magazine covers vying for the checkout impulse purchase played on our yearning to know the ‘5 things he will never tell you’; who’s who on the ‘BRW’s richest 200’ or the ‘10 must-have items you need in your wardrobe’.

In the online and mobile world, listicles are equally loved as much for their condensed, cut to the chase information as they are accused of promoting lazy journalism for the semi-illiterate news biter.

With a touch of irony, here are my top 5 uses for listicles:

  1. Readability: Love them or hate them, listicles aren’t always a sign of bad journalism. In fact, short, sharp bursts of news or information that cuts out the fluff is more likely to be read, understood and retained. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people ‘chunk’ information more easily where numerical lists end in zero (10, 20 etc). Curiously, other research suggests that 29 is the optimal number to use in the title of a listicle (so apologies on both counts that this list only has 5 numbers).
  2. Competing for attention: People tend to scan information online before they click through to read more. Listicles help people to form an opinion based on the title on whether to invest the time to read the full article or move on to something more interesting. And for self-diagnoses of medical conditions, knowing you have 9 out of 10 symptoms can save a whole lot of time and money as well.
  3. Teaching and learning: Listicles are a great format to distil complex information into simple instructions or explanations for people to learn new concepts, methods or practices. Recipe books have been using this format for, well, forever but we are now seeing this increasingly used in professional development blogs and magazines to communicate facts, tips, quotations, or examples.
  4. Social media: We do love reading and sharing those posts about ‘weird’ or ‘wonderful’ people and places, not to mention the ‘worst moments’ or ’25 celebrity faux pars’. It’s more interesting when it is someone else’s life. Enough said.
  5. Opinion and research: The top 10 restaurants, top 10 cities in the world…this kind of listicle is hugely popular, helping to promote more businesses than ever before, but also giving consumers an instant short-list to influence purchase decisions. Psychologically, a listicle can be very persuasive which is why companies love making it onto leader boards for being ranked as the biggest, the best, or the largest.

There’s no doubt that listicles are an economical and effective communication tool that help us naturally curate the ever growing content that we are exposed to every day. And while there will always be literary critics who lament the demise of long form prose, if the research is correct then the listicle is a proven method to structure ideas in the writing or collaboration process. That’s good to know because we’ve been doing it that way for years, we just didn’t know it had a name. From a consumer facing point of view, however, will our multi-platform devices start to freeze over and our attention spans wane with listicle saturation?  What new methods of communication will emerge to attract our busy minds and eyes?  Time will tell, and so will the stats.