In an online world where the quality of your blog content is only increasing in importance, the fabled 'list' post commonly gets a bad rap. It's unfortunate, but definitely understandable. You can easily drown in a sea of particularly low-quality, low-value lists posts.
But hey -- not all list posts have to suck! While there are definitely some pretty awful ones out there, you can also find quite a few very valuable, high-quality list posts floating around the internet. So let's not judge a list post by its title. I'm a firm believer that the list post does have a place in the world of high quality blog content. And to no surprise, this post about lists posts is largely a list post itself. You can be the judge of its quality, but I stand by my beliefs.
First, let's talk a little bit about common misconceptions about list posts. Then we'll dive into the characteristics of high quality ones so you can start squashing the myth that all list posts are subpar ... by writing awesome ones!
Common Misconceptions About List Posts
Last week, Daily Blog Tips published an article highlighting some common misconceptions about list posts and explaining why it's silly to think about list posts in those ways. Let's quickly review the points the article made:
- "List posts are just for lazy writers." Pish posh! In fact, when done well (meaning it's not just three, sentence-long points slapped together), a list post can take just as long -- if not longer -- than any other type of post for bloggers to write.
- "List posts aren't right for my style/niche." Huh? Why are list posts -- a type of post -- conceived as fitting only certain industries? A list post could work for any industry, as long as the subject matter and quality fit the audience.
- "List posts have to be really long." Wrong, wrong, wrong. There's no rule that your list post needs to be a laundry list of useless information or that it needs to include a minimum number of items. In fact, a super long, 100-point list runs the risk of sounding daunting to readers, deterring them from reading it and turning them away.
The thing is, people love the classic list post! They tell the reader exactly what -- and how much of it -- they're going to get out of the post, plus they're very shareable. They're also easy to scan, and with so much content available on the web these days, being able to scan a post and still grasp a helpful nugget or two of information is highly valuable. Here are a few examples of the types of list posts we've published recently on this very blog, all of which we believe are high quality posts that have performed well in terms of traffic, leads, and inbound links:
- "9 Ways to Increase Visibility for Your Best Blog Content"
- "7 Keyword Research Mistakes That Stifle Your SEO Strategy"
- "13 Brands Using LinkedIn Company Page Features the Right Way"
- "5 Actionable Insights to Extract From Your Landing Page Analytics"
Now for the meaty stuff. If you're convinced that list posts can be a part of your blogging strategy, make sure the ones you publish include these top 10 qualities of high-quality list posts.
1) Includes Items That Stay True to the List Subject/Angle
Sometimes a blogger will start writing a list about one thing, and then when he/she is done, it turns out to be a list that takes on a completely different angle because their research revealed more information about a slightly different subject. The problem is, this new angle is no longer relevant to their audience. Don't let this happen to you. If, after your initial research, you find that the points you've brainstormed don't fit with the subject you intended, scrap it and move on.
Another common symptom of bad list posts are list items that don't quite fit with the others. For example, if you notice in this very list post, all of the items on this list are qualities of awesome list post. If one of my points was, in itself, an example of a list post, that wouldn't make sense, right? Be consistent and parallel. If you're writing a list of examples, they should all be examples. If you're writing a list of best practices, they should all be best practices. It's easy to stray off-topic when you're trying to compile a hearty list, but you need to avoid it. Otherwise your list -- and your writing -- loses its integrity.
2) Dense With Valuable Takeaways (No Fluff!)
The biggest indicator of a lousy list post is one that contains a ton of fluff and no real, valuable takeaways for the reader. Here's an example of what we mean:
3 Ways to Improve Your Social Media Marketing
- Be unique! Do something to stand out from your competitors.
- Take risks! Try out-of-the-box ideas.
- Measure results! Use your analytics to tell you what's working.
What a fantastic list post! I've learned -- absolutely nothing. No wonder list posts have a terrible reputation. That took me 60 seconds to write. Sure, on the surface, each of these list points sound valuable. You absolutely should do all these things in your social media marketing. But it doesn't tell you exactly how to do those things. Your list shouldn't just give readers a list of things to do and expect them to figure out how to do those things themselves. It should also walk them through the steps required to actually do those things.
A great list post nixes the fluff and concretely explains each item in detail. And while every point you make on your list might not be new to all your readers, if a reader walks away thinking, "Well, I already put numbers 3, 4, and 6, into practice, but I can't believe I've been missing out on numbers 1, 2, and 5!" -- then you've probably got yourself a high-quality list!
3) Links to More In-Depth Information When Necessary
One of the ways you can make sure you're hitting on point #2 is to direct readers to other resources when necessary. Great list posts are comprehensive. It also means they can get pretty long and unwieldy, especially if you're truly committed to point #2. That's why sometimes it's okay if you have to point your readers to another place for more in-depth information.
For example, we recently wrote a list post entitled, "9 Ways to Make Your Marketing Analytics Actionable." Number 8 on the list reads "Score & Prioritize Your Leads for Sales," which could be a blog post in itself -- and hey ... it is! Giving our readers enough information for that section to be truly helpful would have involved copying and pasting the entirety of that post into our list post, and that wouldn't exactly have been the most helpful choice. So what we did was explain the point in a moderate amount of detail, and then directed readers to the other post where they could find more in-depth information.
Don't be afraid to do this in your own list posts. And if you have to link to an external resource because you haven't the written the post yourself -- great! You've just passed off some link love, and you also now have another article idea for your blogging backlog!
4) Explains List Items Using Relatable Examples
Piggybacking again on point #2, sometimes one of the best ways to adequately explain a point on your list is to use an example to support it. Real examples are ideal, but sometimes even a hypothetical works just as great. In fact, we've used each of these example types in the first 3 items on this list! The main thing to consider when selecting or concocting an example is to keep it as relatable to your readers as possible. If the audience of your blog is comprised of a variety of readers representing different industries or businesses (like ours), this can be tricky. The key here is to keep your examples general so that everyone can relate. Here comes a hypothetical example to explain what I mean about using hypothetical examples ...
In our list post, "7 Keyword Research Mistakes That Stifle Your SEO Strategy," for example, we use the broad, hypothetical (even mythical!) example of unicorn farms/breeders to more easily explain points 4 and 5 on our list so that everyone could relate.
5) Numbered Items
This is an easy one. If you're writing a list-style post -- and especially when you use a number in the title of your list post -- number your list items! This is particularly important when you have a longer list, because readers like to be able to gauge their progress as they're reading through the list (i.e. "only halfway to go" or "I'm almost done!"). Readers may also like to reference certain points on a list later or share them with others, and being able to refer to a specific number rather than having to count themselves and say "it's the 16th item on the list" is a much more user-friendly experience for your blog audience. Don't make things difficult for your readers.
6) Includes an Appropriate Number of List Items
While we're talking about numbers, let's clear some misconceptions about them. Some list bloggers are of the camp that you should choose a number before you start writing your list and make sure you have enough points to fit that exact number. We are not. Sitting down and saying you're going to write a list consisting of 14 items makes no sense. What if there really ends up being only 11 truly solid, valuable items that make up that list? Does that mean you should come up with 3 more forced or somewhat repetitive items just to achieve your goal of 14? We think not.
The rule of thumb is: just be comprehensive. This very list post includes 10 items because that's how many I thought were individually valuable and indicative of a high-quality list post for this particular subject. Originally I had brainstormed 11, but as I started writing, I cut one out because it wasn't that different from another point, and they could easily be represented as one.
As we mentioned before, list posts can easily become unwieldy. When you sit down to start drafting your list post, decide how granular you want to make your topic. This will help make your list more manageable. The title you craft can also help you stay focused. For example, if you're a plumber writing a list post about the various ways you can unclog a drain, you might decide to stick to "The Top 4 Ways to Unclog a Drain," rather than writing a lengthy list post covering "The 50 Different Ways to Unclog a Drain."
Furthermore, do some testing and research if you want to glean some best practices for your list posts. An internal study of our own blog, for example, revealed that posts for which the title indicated 6 items or fewer didn't perform as well as when the title indicated the list contained 7 or more items. The lesson? While we sometimes still write lists posts containing 6 or fewer items, we don't include the number in the title for those posts. For example, our post, "Why Every Marketer Needs Closed-Loop Reporting" is essentially a list post, but it's not framed that way in the title since it only includes 6 points. Do your own analysis to determine best practices for your business blog.
7) Uses Category Buckets (For Longer Lists)
Now, if you had decided to write that list post of 50 different ways to unclog a drain, your list post would look pretty daunting, considering the sheer number of items it would include. In this case, a great practice is to use subheaders to break up your list into categories. This makes the list much more scanable (remember how people love to scan blogs?), and a lot less overwhelming at first glance.
For example, when we published "25 Eye-Popping Internet Marketing Statistics for 2012," we broke up the statistics into 5 sections: "The Internet in 2012," "Mobile in 2012," "Social Media in 2012," "Video in 2012," and "Ecommerce in 2012." If some of our readers didn't give a squat about ecommerce, they could easily scan the post and avoid that section. Perfect!
8) Contains Logically Ordered List Items
Your list, like any other post you'd write, should flow and tell a story. How you do this will definitely depend on the subject and contents of your list, but here are some great organizational structures to choose from: alphabetical (great for glossaries), chronological (great for step-by-step guides), by popularity/importance -- most to least or least to most (great for top 10/20/50 lists). Another best practice is to emphasize your strongest points in the beginning, middle, and end of your list to keep readers engaged throughout.
When I sat down and brainstormed this list, for example, it was just that -- a brainstormed list. It was unorganized and all over the place. But once I'd identified all the points I wanted to include, I rearranged the furniture a bit. I realized how easily numbers 5 and 6 would flow into each other, and how number 5 would make sense after discussing points 2, 3 and 4. Number 1 was a great starting point, and number 10 made the most sense last, since that's likely the last thing you'd tweak when writing a list post. Sometimes your list points will practically arrange themselves (e.g. "5 Steps to Do X"), and sometimes there won't be as obvious a story (e.g. "20 Ways to Do Y"). Just put the time into figuring it out and ordering your items as logically as possible.
9) Parallel Formatting
I'm not as strict about this one as some list post purists, but in general, I agree that your list post should have a consistent and parallel look. Failing to do so only confuses readers, especially when they can't tell that they've moved onto a new item on the list because the header style was inconsistent or under-emphasized.
Here are some helpful guidelines to consider:
- Try to keep sections similar in length.
- Use the same header style to highlight your individual list items, and make sure it stands out.
- Make sure your list item headers are written in parallel fashion (i.e. if it's a list of action items, each should be led with a verb)
- Use images and bullet points to break up text when appropriate.
10) Clear and Catchy Title
As we mentioned in the beginning of this post, one of the reasons people have always loved list posts is because they know exactly what -- and how much -- they'll get out of them. There is no guesswork involved, and expectations you've set for your readers are very clear. Make sure your title epitomizes that. An effective list post title should accomplish two things in order to entice readers to actually read the post: 1) capture the readers' attention and 2) clearly indicate the value or what the reader will learn, and 3) indicate how much they will learn with a number.
For example, earlier this week, we published "The 7 Aspects of Inbound Marketing Most People Screw Up." Do you have to wonder what this post will be about? No! You know that after reading this post, you'll know which 7 parts of inbound marketing people tend to screw up so you can avoid screwing them up, too. And chances are, you probably don't like to fail, right? So you're probably kind of intrigued to learn if you're one of "most people" and, if so, what you should stop screwing up.
What's your take on list posts? What else would you add to our list of high-quality list post qualities? ;-)
Image Credit: MStewartPhotography