The Revolution Will Be Listicled: Why This Supposed Content Fad May Have Actually Taken Over For Good

BuzzFeed has been one of the biggest publishing success stories of the past couple of years, thanks to listicle-heavy content — you’ve seen it, whether it’s “15 Cats That Are Having A Better Day Than You” or “20 Most Homoerotic Photos Of Vladimir Putin” — that gets shared like the bubonic plague in 1350. In late June, BuzzFeed’s Peter Lauria told Bloomberg TV that traffic had doubled in the past six months, and brands like Virgin Mobile are paying upwards of $100,000 per month to sponsor a handful of listicles.

Credit: BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed’s listicles are routinely its most popular posts — especially if corgis are involved.

This colossal success has gotten brand publishers awfully excited about the listicle and its ongoing potential. But some think that the listicle can’t last. In a late July interview with Digiday, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton dismissed listicles as an algorithm-dependent fad:

“I thought that the appeal of reality television would burn out, and here we are 10 years later and it’s going strong. Listicles could prove equally enduring. BuzzFeed has gamed the Facebook system as artfully as Demand Media and Associated Content gamed Google. But they are rather dependent – as those companies were – on the goodwill of their distribution partners, the dictatorship of the algorithm, and the fatigue of the audience.”

Denton’s concerns are definitely legitimate, but he’s ignoring key signs that the listicle is not just a fad, but part of an enduring content strategy–when done right.

Understand: It isn’t about the lists

When people witness Buzzfeed’s success, the easy reaction is “Oh, lists work great!” To an extent, this is true. Headlines with lists—especially odd-numbered lists—generate moderately higher click-through rates. But that’s not what makes Buzzfeed’s listicles go viral.

What does? Micro-targeting.

Most Buzzfeed listicles are tailored to be shared amongst a micro-targeted online population. As Will Oremus points out in Slate, the article “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley” will flame out with 99.8% of America, but that doesn’t matter. Once the Berkely-alumni authors share the post within their own network of nostalgia-craving Berkeley alumni, it can still go viral quite quickly. And it did, racking up 22,000 Facebook likes and 137,000 total views in less than 48 hours. Slowly, BuzzFeed seems to be creating one of these posts for every college in the country.

Reuters Editor Chadwick Matlin calls this strategy “demolisticles”—posts that “play on a reader’s most basic identity—race, hometown, age, marital status, etc—to narrate an experience that is guaranteed to resonate in some way.”

Just looking at the listicles on BuzzFeed’s homepage right now, you can see this in action. Two posts micro-targeted towards undergrads ready to head off to college, another post micro-targeted at bored office workers, and a fourth post—12 new covers for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—targeted towards lit geeks. (And maybe Reddit’s jailbait section?)

People identify with a lot of different characterizations. Your author, for example, is not just a Sarah Lawrence alumni, but also a diehard football fan, ultimate Frisbee player, Fitzgerald fanboy, and Chinatown resident. Since there are so many different basic identities that BuzzFeed can play off, they’re unlikely to run out of content anytime soon.

With more and more people reading on mobile devices, the demand for crisply-organized, bite-size content is only likely to increase. Simply put, people have always loved reading lists, and it’s unlikely that’s going to change.

But what about Denton’s algorithm concerns?

Nick Denton told Digiday that “BuzzFeed has gamed the Facebook system as artfully as Demand Media and Associated Content gamed Google,” but, as a result, is “dependent” on the “dictatorship of the algorithm.”

This sounds like bad news for listicles, but it’s a stretch at best. Content farms like Demand and Associated certainly were dependent on their low-quality SEO content ranking high in Google’s algorithm, and Google openly vowed to rid themselves of that content, since it was hurting their product. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, merely relies on Facebook’s algorithm continuing to show articles shared by friends on their News Feeds. It’s hard to see Facebook coming to the same conclusion that this is detrimental. That means that listicles–published by Buzzfeed or anyone else–are in little danger of being shoved out of social sharing.

The one part of Facebook that BuzzFeed is reliant on is their Sponsored Stories. As the New Yorker’s Andrew Rice revealed, BuzzFeed has a simple equation to determine the virality of their content:

R = βz

In this equation, R is the post’s traffic; β is the likelihood that the post will go viral; and z is the number of people who see the post. The key to this equation is getting the right z’s to see the post off the bat—for a post like 40 Signs You Went to Berkeley, that means putting the post in front of a lot of Berkeley alumni. To ensure that those people see the post, BuzzFeed isn’t shy about buying targeted Sponsored Story ads on Facebook (especially if a brand is footing the bill for the post.) Any publisher–especially a brand publisher with a healthy budget–can use this tactic with similar success.

This equation is brilliant in its simplicity, and one that can be replicated by any publisher. Of course, the β factor–the likelihood that the post will go viral–is extremely subjective, but the right combination of past data and editorial instinct can get that right.

Luckily for publishers, Facebook is rolling out more and more ways for brands and publishers to target people with content in the News Feed. Unless Facebook’s board does a ton of acid together and decides to get rid of ads completely, this ad-buying strategy should work for years to come.

Ultimately, the listicle is easy to dismiss. But once you examine how precisely it can be used, it’s hard not to feel like the listicle might outlive us all.

Image by Ferdinand Delacroix (1798-1863) "Liberty on the Barricades" (1830)

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