A lot of smart writers can’t stand list posts. What’s a list post? It’s also known as a numbered list post, or a (shudder) listicle, and it’s a post whose headline features a numbered collection of things.
This post, for example, is a list post.
There are an awful lot of crummy ones out there. The tabloid sites make frequent use of them (These 17 Celebrities Used to Be Hot, etc.). In fact, all of the CRaP blogs use them liberally.
So it’s natural that a quality-focused content writer (like you) might try to avoid that sort of bad writing. But that would be silly.
And here’s why:
Smart marketers have always focused on underlying human psychological drivers. And those drivers change very little, if at all.
One of them, for whatever reason, is that we get a tiny bit mesmerized by numbers.
How to write a killer list post
When we see a number in a headline, a part of our brains gets activated (what persuasion scholar Robert Cialdini calls a Click, Whirr response), and we’re that much more likely to take an action — like, say, clicking on that headline to check out the whole piece.
If you take a look at the Popular Posts category on Copyblogger, you’ll see lots of numbers.
Now did those posts become popular because they had a number in the headline?
No. A number is a nice booster, but it’s not a substitute for strong writing habits, solid content marketing strategy, or effective promotion.
And that’s the problem with how most people look at list posts.
They start with the number in the headline — but that’s not the right place to start. Which leads to my first tip:
#1: Don’t start with a numbered list
You may have received an assignment from an editor, supervisor, or client to “Write a Listicle on 10 Ways to Do Our Thing.”
Your first instinct may be to bemoan the fact that the word listicle is now part of your life. I’m sorry. If we can figure out a way to burn this out of the English language, we will.
But let’s move forward.
Even if this is technically your assignment, the worst way to create a list post is to open your writing tool of choice, put the numbers one through 10 in there, and then look for ways to fill them in.
It’s probably the fastest way. But it is not the right way if you want to write better content.
You must begin with the itch that needs scratching. There needs to be a seed of a problem, an unanswered question, a fascination to know more.
Those seeds can only come from your audience.
The seed of a killer list post for electrical engineers won’t work at all on an audience of Hello Kitty cosplay enthusiasts. (Although there may well be some overlap.)
Some of your best-performing list posts can come from strong, interesting, problem-solving content that you realize, after it’s mostly written, can be lightly re-organized into a numbered list.
#2: Understand what problem you’re solving
All good evergreen content starts with the same impulse: to solve a reader problem.
(Even if the reader’s problem is boredom, which is the case for pure entertainment sites.)
And when you master SEO for content writers, it’s your job to understand those “itches” of your audience.
You have to know what’s worrying them, what excites them. You have to understand what they’re afraid of, and what they cherish, and what they are unwilling to lose.
Human existence is full of problems to solve. Some of them are simple and some are so complex that they take a lifetime to untangle. Every collection of humans (in other words, every audience) has its own set of problems.
If you’re looking for a list post about what kind of content to create, build a list of your audience’s problems instead. Answer those problems in your content, using numbered lists (and any other persuasion technique you learn) when they make sense.
Keep listening for problems, and keep researching more effective ways to resolve those problems. That, more than anything else, is what creates your authority in a topic and persuades someone to keep reading.
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#3: What makes a list post fascinating?
The cornerstone of good content is usefulness. But usefulness without interest is Wikipedia, and that’s already covered.
Boring content — even if it’s useful, and even if it’s “optimized” by whatever measure you choose — doesn’t succeed. It doesn’t get shared and it doesn’t get read. (Or listened to, or viewed.)
If you consistently write fantastic headlines for mediocre or boring content, all you do is train people that much more quickly to avoid your site.
Luckily for us, relevant problems are inherently interesting. If your target audience is people with celiac disease and you put a recipe for really good gluten-free cupcakes in front of them, they’ll find you.
But a good content creator doesn’t stop there. We look for angles. Fascination elements.
A strong writing voice will elevate a list post from “moderately useful” to “must-read.”
So will a compelling metaphor that makes the content easier to understand. And storyselling makes your content unforgettable.
This is where the art comes in — and why writers who have the combination of killer and poet are the ones who enjoy the most success.
The killer knows what kinds of content to create to move toward certain outcomes. But it’s the poet who creates something worth the audience’s time and attention.
Make time to write purely for pleasure. Screenplays, poetry, fiction — whatever way you like to play with words. Writers who know how to play with descriptive language also know how to fascinate.
#4: What’s the strategic goal?
Creating content just to get traffic and make advertisers happy is the hardest way to make a living online — and one you should get away from as quickly as you can.
Content marketing is a different game. It doesn’t just attract eyeballs; it exists to support a business — to attract new prospects, and educate and nurture them until they’re ready to buy.
Different types of content serve different purposes.
Some content exists to find people who don’t know you yet. Others, to strengthen your relationship with your audience. And some content addresses objections and educates prospects on why you’re the best choice to solve their problem.
Even good writers can have a tendency to throw a bunch of content against the wall and see what sticks. That’s not a smart use of your time. Understand content marketing strategy and why you’re creating every piece of content you write or record.
If you’re a beginner blogger, take advantage of the excellent free resources that are available on content marketing strategy. We happen to be pretty proud of ours. You can grab a free ebook about it below …
#5: Make your list post scannable
Once you have something worth reading — that solves a worthwhile problem, is expressed in an interesting way, and has the spark of poetry to make it memorable — you’ll want to wrap it up in a way that’s pleasurable to consume.
Long walls of gray, tiny type are not pleasurable to consume. Neither are videos or audio with awful sound quality.
Sleek presentation and formatting won’t save mediocre content — nothing can do that. (Not even a terrific headline.) But they’ll make good content much more enjoyable for the audience.
Pamela Wilson has a succinct guide to presenting text content in a way that’s more appealing to your audience — without dumbing it down in any way.
#6: Promotion still matters
Once you have something worth your audience’s time, it’s time to think about promoting it.
In the brief space we have here, I’ll just encourage you to take content promotion (even for a list post) seriously.
Even after your initial blog launch, develop a network of publishers in your topic, cultivate a reputation as someone who creates epic material, and remember that nothing sells itself. Even great content benefits from a bit of a push.
To dig deeper into the topic, check out my article Why Great Content Alone Isn’t Enough to Build an Audience.
#7: What’s the next step for the reader?
The tough part about content is, you’re only as good as your last great post.
So if you do the first six steps perfectly, and end up with a nice audience of fascinated readers who want to know more, you need to have thought through precisely what you want them to do next.
Usually, the right answer is to send them to even more smart, worthwhile content in the form of an email autoresponder.
But your call to action might be different.
Your desired action might be to subscribe to a page, to register to vote, to get out and take a walk, to give your kids a hug, or just to click through to another great list post.
The important thing is to decide, before you publish and promote, what that next step for the audience is.
Clear, straightforward calls to action are critical when you’re learning how to be a copywriter. Get very good at them.
A list post that’s worth writing (and reading)
If there’s any doubt in your mind about what you should do next, let me take care of that for you.
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Reader Comments (4)
I love your reader-centered advice. We need to keep that in mind as we create content. It’s tempting to try Buzz Feed style lists with clickbait, but it’s important to keep in mind the why… why do we write? Why do we create content? It’s not all about the money and pageviews (I hope, for most of us).
The cornerstone of good content is usefulness. But usefulness without interest is Wikipedia – Sonia Simone
Hmmmm. That’s a powerful quote that’s easily worth a thousand words.
I especially love your point about strong writing. A list post should be a list of goodness. Not a waste of time for the reader. The writer must get the message across and do it in an interesting way.
A point I’d like to add is that some list posts are chronological. So, the writer should ensure the points are in the correct order. For instance, “7 steps to register a domain name” should be a list in order.
Another thing is that many “How-to” guides are listicles in the real sense. But the reader only discovers this when they start reading.
Ryan Biddulph says
#3 is where it’s at. Too many bloggers write list posts just to drive blog traffic. But if you’re willing to write something fascinating that really hits the mark in terms of being useful and interesting to readers, not thinking about outcomes but service, you will write a gem. Excellent blog post Sonia.
Alison Ver Halen says
Thanks so much for these tips! I’ve always talked about how important lists are, but I hadn’t considered the fact that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do lists, so this is super helpful.
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