Why We All Need to Stop Hating on Listicles

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of marketers talk about listicles the way you’d discuss a Kardashian spinoff—with a pretentious air of immediate dismissal and disgust. They’re trashy! They’re polluting the web! Ugh, I WOULD NEVER.

As a good samaritan of the content marketing industry, I want to address this attitude before it gets out of control and destroys a bunch of CPCs and email open rates. Listicles are not evil. Bad content is evil. Listicles are merely a way of organizing information. They’ve been around since the Ten Commandments, and for thousands of years, a hell of a lot of people seem to respond to them.

Nonetheless, I get why some say they hate listicles. In the digital age, numbered blog posts have become a little too ubiquitous. The next time you see a listicle for 43 photos about Paul Rudd in honor of his 43rd birthday, you’ll probably want to toss your smartphone in the dumpster of one of the “10 Must-Try Chinese Restaurants in Your Local Suburb.” It’s a natural reaction. But it’s not the listicle that you find disgusting—it’s the pointless story you’re being told.

Put it another way: Would you rather read 10 rambling paragraphs from your crazy uncle or 10 thoughtful paragraphs from one of your favorite essayists in The New Yorker?

I’m not the first person to make this argument—there are several brilliant listicles that make the case for why you shouldn’t hate listicles. One of the best ones is by Mark O’Connell in, yes, The New Yorker, titled “Ten Paragraphs About Lists You Have to Read Right Now.” It’s a brilliant, dense piece that separates paragraphs with numbers, using the listicle format to dismiss the blind criticism. (I thought about trying to do the same thing here, but, let’s be real, I’m no Mark O’Connell.)

O’Connell makes a shrewd point: As incredible thinkers of our time, like Don DeLillo and Umberto Eco, have noted, listicles are ingrained in our society. “The list is the origin of culture,” O’Connor writes, quoting Eco. “It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.”

This has a particular resonance in the digital age. We’re faced with an almost infinite amount of information whenever we Google a new topic. (There are 383 million results for “content marketing,” for instance.) Listicles, to their credit, bring simplicity and order. They help the author reassure the reader: I have considered all the shit that’s out there for you to read, so here are 10 things you need to know.

That’s the promise listicles make but all too often fail to deliver. Really, what we should be calling for is not the end of the listicle, but for responsible listicling—making smart, reasoned choices about what we include. That’s a strategy we’ve embraced here at Contently. Listicles are among our best-performing posts in terms of total readers, attention time, and average finish, and they’re not fluff pieces. Posts like “7 Things You Need to Know About Facebook Instant Articles” and “The Pros, Cons, and Costs of the Top 6 Content Distribution Platforms” benefit our readers by breaking down complex topics. We thought long and hard about what to include, and it paid off. Responsible listicling is a strategy everyone should embrace, whether the topic is cat GIFs or SEO tips.

And if you’re one of those marketers who hate cat GIFs… Well, then I have no words for you.

Image by ivosar/Shutterstock.com

Get better at your job right now.

Read our weekly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories