Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Top Three Reasons Why Lists Are.... Oh, Forget It

Paul Waldman asks an interesting question - a lot of online content comes in the form of lists as a form of link baiting, but lists are also prominently featured in traditional magazines, especially the type that want to inspire an impulse sale at the newsstand or checkout lane. The length of the list seems to be relatively unimportant - people respond to lists, and tend to click links or buy magazines that promise lists:
So what's the lesson here? Lists are magic. Buzzfeed has built its spectacular success on that principle (just look), there are other web sites who have similar success, (see, for example, Cracked, which on the web is something very different and more successful than its print roots as a Mad magazine rip-off), and it's something every magazine and website editor knows. The next time you're at a newsstand, look at the magazine covers, and see how many are using lists to grab your attention. "9 Moves That'll Drive Him Wild." "8 Exercises to Burn Fat And Rip Those Abs." "12 Strategies For Achieving Financial Security." "14 Celebrity Bikini Nightmares." But the question is, why?
Waldman offers a couple of theories:
  1. "Maybe it has to do with the promise of something both finite and complete, distilling the world down to something you can manage and then be done with."

  2. "It could also be the attraction of something easy to read—because it's broken into small pieces, you know it won't require too much work to read, you'll be able to skim it easily, and if you want to read part of it and then stop, you'll be able to."

Waldman questions his theories as being too rational, as he sees the attraction of lists as being more visceral, "making us click on things whose topics we don't even otherwise care about". And Waldman's onto something with the argument that our clicking isn't purely rational. For actual informational content, I can't recall the last link I found that promised a list that lived up to its promise.

But here's the thing: Even when we click on a list out of idle curiosity, something we might not click but for the promise of it's offering the "top three reasons," or "four most important factors", on one thing or another, the clicking is fundamentally rational. We have questions or we have curiosity, and the list promises that somebody else has engaged in curation, separated the wheat from the chaff, and will give us the answers in a quick, easily digested form. You don't click on what might be a long form article or even a short essay about something of marginal interest to you, but if you can get that information by glancing at a list the cost-benefit analysis (time vs. interest) shifts. And if the topic interests you or is important to you, the implied promises of curation and relevance have appeal.

Supermarket magazine stands have been filled with lists for as long as I can remember, and they've presumably failed to live up to that promise for at least as long, given that the same essential lists are offered month after month, year after year. The top three ways to lose weight, the top five ways to find your soul mate, the top three tricks to drive your significant other wild in the sack... The goal is to get you to click or buy without thinking, or if you must think, "It's only $1.99," or "If the article at the other end of the link is junk I've only lost a few seconds of time."

Will it continue to work? The evidence at the newsstand says "yes", and so far the evidence from the content mills suggests that the technique isn't losing its effectiveness online. Alas, the actual cost is that the most meaningful, relevant information is likely to be headlined with a misleading title in order to draw more "eyeballs", and may fail to be noticed in favor of lists that, unfortunately, are often junk.

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