The recently departed Al Neuharth — the man who gave the world McJournalism when he created USA Today in 1982 — was famous in my mind for two things (no, make that three, because this is a post in part about the magic powers of “three”):
- Always publish the tits above the fold
- Bulleted lists are better than paragraphs
- Infographics that twist statistics and invoke the Royal We into cartoons are engaging
People love lists. Decades ago there was a bestseller entitled “The Book of Lists,” a classic toilet-side tome in many a household. There are management books about the power of to-do lists. I must have at least three or four list apps on my phones and tablets and PC. Most horrible is the tendency of the lower life forms in online journalism and especially digital marketing/SEO/Content marketing bloggers to use lists as linkbait. There are so many headlines about “Three Ways to Increase ROI” and “Four Ways Content Marketing Can Engage and Delight Your Customers” that I have to wonder what’s driving this obsession with numerical sequence. I know that if I click through to actually read the stuff I’m going to read some airhead social media/digital marketing “guru’s” rehashed airheaded jargon twisted bloviations.
Working off off my feeds this morning I found this actual set of … oh hell, let’s just call them “ListLines™“, e.g. headlines promoting lists:
- 13 Smart Podcasts That Will Feed Your Hunger for Knowledge and Ideas
- The 45 Best Restaurants in America (BusinessInsider is a huge fan of ListLines™, generally cutting up the content into slideshows to pump up the pageviews). They have a daily list which is semi-useful called …..
- Ten Things You Need To Know
- 10 Habits of Remarkably Charismatic People
- We Try 4 New Electric Hot Water Kettles for Coffee and Tea
The king of the numbered ListLine has to be the Content Marketing Institute, which on its home page has the following headlines, and all save one has a numeral in it:
- 4 Truths About Content Marketing Clients
- 6 Tips to Start Creating Content on Tumblr
- 3 Tips for More Effective Content Marketing Visuals
- 9 Questions to Help You Prioritize Content Creation
- 12 Roles Essential to the Future of Content Marketing
- Thought Leadership Strategy: 3 Ways to Leverage Live Event Content
- 3 Tips for Keeping Your Buyer Personas Fresh and Alive
- How Enterprises Handle B2B Content: 6 Key Insights From Our Research
McKinsey, the organization that lives on PowerPoint, had an unofficial Rule of Threes during my short stint– as in no slide should have more than three bullet points on it because that was all the typical audience member could hold in their head during the time it took the expensive consultant to present the slide. McKinsey was into numerology in general and the place should have had the Pareto Principle inscribed over the door as its motto (the “80/20” rule). I admit I stick to the Rule of Threes to this day.
My theory about the abuse of the numbered list in online headlines is the corruption of editorial good sense by the scuzzy underworld of Search Engine Optimization and the Tyranny of Metrics. Let’s turn to the experts at the Content Marketing Institute, enter in the search term “lists” and what do you know? In a post entitled “Content Strategy: 9 Secrets for Awesome Blog Post Titles“, Tracy Gold writes in item number 5:
“We all groan about numbered lists in blog posts. But the truth is, they work. In our research, titles that began with a number performed 45 percent better than the average.
“Another approach is to start with a keyword and include a number later in the title. Take “Content Marketing Checklist: 22 To-dos for SlideShare Success,” for example. We tested both title types, and when the headline started with a keyword, it actually performed slightly better.
“While one approach to this method is to work more numbered lists into your blog content strategy up front, you can also use a numbered list in a post after it’s written. Is the post split up into sections? Can those sections be numbered? Boom. But again, don’t mislead your readers — make sure a numbered list format actually fits the content of your post.”
Now we know the secrets of the masters. My theory is by announcing ahead of time how many pieces of b.s. the reader will have to digest, they figure they aren’t in for a reading of Procopius History of the Early Church and can snack on the info before their Adderall buzzing brain clicks them away.
Before closing, let me digress back to USA Today and my indoctrination into the art of the list.
I worked at a newspaper — The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune — that rented its color presses to print the New England edition USA Today at night, receiving the pages via satellite and then churning out the colorful McPaper so familiar to residents of the Marriott Courtyard Suites. This close relationship unfortunately colored the judgment of Eagle-Tribune editor-in-chief Dan Warner, who decided that Al Neuharth was a visionary genius and that the Tribune’s staff would learn to write lists instead of stories and develop “infographics” about Why We Love Ice Cream,” complete with a cartoon of a melting ice cream cone, a gushing thermometer and some made up statistic about what flavors “We” preferred.
This was strictly enforced to the point that every story opened with a classic lead (my favorite lead of all time, courtesy of Edna Buchanan, the legendary police reporter of the Miami Herald is cited below*), a standard second paragraph, and then an inevitable list of bulleted items before the jump to an inside page. I would pile into the newsroom after a scintillating evening covering the Salem, New Hampshire board of selectmen and pound out some lifeless copy (“This ain’t a short story about your dead grandma bub, so get over it” my editor, Al White, told me after taking a machete to my first story about a sewer bond hearing) that always had a bullet list up high where Dan Warner would be sure to see it. Hence:
“In other actions, the board voted to:
- Ban pit bulls from playgrounds
- Postpone a hearing on bingo licenses
- Authorize door-to-door cigarette sales by Brownie Troop 5
- Commend Police Chief Nickerson for Sunday’s arrest of undercover Massachusetts State Policemen harassing Bay State liquor and fireworks customers
At first the mandate to use bullet lists offended my delicate Strunk & White sensibilities about prose composition. One of the joys of great writing is a well-written list, contained in a single flowing sentence, ordered just so to delight the ear and paint a picture in the mind’s eye, but alas the world has become addicted to the staccato stack of one-liners preceded by the bold typographical dot and so I have given up all hope of resistance.
But I know in my heart of hearts that William Faulkner never wrote a bullet list in his life or worried about SEO.
*: Calvin Trillin, profiling Buchanan in the New Yorker: “In the newsroom of the Miami Herald, there is some disagreement about which of Edna Buchanan’s first paragraphs stands as the classic Edna lead. I line up with the fried-chicken faction. The fried-chicken story was about a rowdy ex-con named Gary Robinson, who late one Sunday night lurched drunkenly into a Church’s outlet, shoved his way to the front of the line, and ordered a three-piece box of fried chicken. Persuaded to wait his turn, he reached the counter again five or ten minutes later, only to be told that Church’s had run out of fried chicken. The young woman at the counter suggested that he might like chicken nuggets instead. Robinson responded to the suggestion by slugging her in the head. That set off a chain of events that ended with Robinson’s being shot dead by a security guard. Edna Buchanan covered the murder for the Herald—there are policemen in Miami who say that it wouldn’t be a murder without her—and her story began with what the fried-chicken faction still regards as the classic Edna lead: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”