3 Reasons Why You Read Those Ridiculous Lists on the Internet

“13 Ways to Look Sexier.” “47 Celebrities Who Have Killed People.” “8 Secrets to a Happier Marriage.” If you’ve ever scanned a celebrity website, read a marketing blog, or browsed your local grocery store magazine rack, you’ve noticed that media outlets love lists. But why?

Grocery list
Photo Credit: SeanPressley(Peezo) via Compfight cc

What’s all the fuss about list posts and so-called “click bait”? The Internet is full of these lists that we know aren’t the best journalism out there, but we can’t help but read them. Can we?

Here’s why list posts and click bait work

The truth is this stuff works. In certain moments of weakness, I can’t resist clicking those tantalizing headlines. I’ve tried to reform my ways, but still find myself crawling back to this embarrassing addiction.

Maybe there’s a reason why. (In fact, there are three.)

  • Lists create order out of disorder. Even if it’s sometimes artificial, the numbers in a list tell the reader there’s a defined start and end point to the article. The organization gives the person a sense of security. You know what to expect, which makes it easy to “get in” and “get out.”
  • Lists (the right kind) provoke the reader. It’s not just that these lists are about some random topic. The numbers themselves are not enough to create interest; there’s always an element of mystery and intrigue to the catchiest headlines we see on Buzzfeed and similar sites. Whether it’s a voyeuristic look into the lives of celebrities or a painfully honest portrayal of teenage life, we can’t stay away from these articles.
  • Lists are easy to scan. Whether we like it or not, the Internet is full of scanners — busy people browsing the web, asking, “What’s in it for me?” A good list post can capture a person’s attention and keep them engaged long after they’re done picking through a website.

I know. It seems cheesy and beneath your intelligence to do this. But why would these magazines and high-traffic websites do this, if it didn’t work? They care about one and only one thing: eyeballs. And they only do stuff that gets results.

So what can you and I who have a message to share with the world, a message that hopefully matters, learn from this? We can redeem the list post, using it to capture attention while doing more than contributing to the noise.

Redeeming the list post

Here are three simple steps to take to make your list best better than the average Internet drivel most readers encounter:

  1. Write a good “lede.” Don’t just jump straight into the list. Use the first paragraph (often called the “lede” or lead) to tell us what you’re going to share and why. Actually write an article — don’t just drop a bunch of random bullet points on a page.
  2. Don’t go crazy on the list items. Don’t write a list of seven things when three will do the trick. Refrain from doing a brain dump and expecting your reader to follow along, and please, for the love of Pete, don’t just pick some arbitrary number and try to fill it. Value your audience’s time.
  3. Make it exclusive. Write something specific that not everyone will be able to relate to (examples: “7 Signs You Grew Up in the 90s” or “19 Awkward Moments Every Vegetarian Understands”). What makes this content go viral is that it’s extremely relevant to the reader. These bloggers aren’t writing for the masses; that’s impossible to do nowadays. Instead, they are targeting a particular niche. And it’s working.

Oh, and here’s a bonus tip: Tell the truth. Don’t use the list to manipulate or coerce someone into reading your stuff. Use the power of a list to share something important that when they click your link, they are wowed, not disappointed.

Your readers (the real ones, not just those scanning for free tips) will thank you.

Note: I’m currently running a blogging challenge this month for anyone who wants to use a blog to reach an audience and share their message. We’re several days in, but you are still welcome to join.

What’s an example of a great list post or article you’ve encountered (or even written) lately? Share in the comments.