3 Ways to Write an Annoying “ListLine”™

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”):

  1. Always publish the tits above the fold
  2. Bulleted lists are better than paragraphs
  3. 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.”


Does Search Get Too Much Credit?

Does Search Get Too Much Credit?
Thanks to Chris Kobran for sending this AdWeek story to me via del.icio.us:

“Search is getting more credit than it deserves—that’s because if you go upstream from those clicks, a lot of users have been to the advertiser Web site before because they’ve been exposed to other advertising,” said Young Bean-Song, vp, analytics at Atlas.

Search advertising has become a dominant force in the online ad industry, thanks largely to Google’s popularity and its ability to deliver quantifiable results. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, search accounted for 40 percent of all Web ad spending in 2006.”

I won’t disclose our method of giving credit in our revenue attribution tracking, but last-click is not the methodology we’re deploying. Search can get overweighted in an online media plan, but it is, by far, the most predictable and efficient from an expense-to-revenue point of view.

I also have to question the impartiality of a metrics guy at Atlas — the Aquantive ad server acquired by Microsoft in May. Sorry, but Atlas has more to gain by discrediting search.

Google Trends: today it’s a World of Warcraft

Google Trends: ct mod, May 23, 2007

Google refreshed its Trends product to be more dynamic, assuming some of the daily characteristics of Zeitgeist. The relaunch happened on May 15th.
Check it out. The dominant search thread today is on World of Warcraft — probably due to a major Burning Crusade patch that was released last night. On Saturday (in the USA) it was the Preakness. On the 15th, Jerry Falwell.
This stuff is fascinating. I sense a big opportunity in here someplace.

Is there still life in the banner ad?

I’ve been thinking over Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick and what the implications are for the interactive advertising business. I’ve known DoubleClick since the mid90s, when they acquired Forbes.com’s first ad server provider — NetGravity — and even have used Dart, it’s primary product when I was learning online ad ops at IDG a couple years back. It sucked.

Ad servers are neither interesting nor fun to play with. Those who do play with them usually hate them, and trade tales of their quirks and bad behaviors like grizzled veterans of the war. Which is why ad ops is the most thankless job in the interactive world, yet the one with the highest stakes. Screw up an ad campaign — on the publishing side — and you can kiss the advertiser goodbye. Mis-traffic a campaign (we’re talking agency side now) — frontload the impressions, forget to daypart — and you’re going to have an irate client (if the client is paying attention, which I doubt many have).

So Google — who cracked open the concept pioneered by Bill Gross of placing ads against search results, is for all intents and purposes now the master of ad serving and targeting. Yahoo has Panama, and MSN is getting it together, and lots of nimble little mammal vendors like Quigo are providing paid search capabilities to publishers who don’t want Google to say “all your base belong to us,” but game over, when it comes to ad serving networks, Google is, as my colleague Gary Milner said in an email over the weekend a “media titan.”

The interesting thing about Google’s acquisition in my mind is not the competitive play of keeping a tired product like DoubleClick out of the competition’s hands. DoubleClick has been a creature of its private equity parent for the past few years, and there wasn’t any doubt that someone, someday would cough up the cash to take it over. So now that Google has it, what chance do DoubleClick’s competitors have? I like Atlas — Acquantive’s ad server — it is more precise than DoubleClick and tortured us at Forbes.com in terms of its precision demands when it first came on the scene in the late 90s. Quigo — great company, out of Ziff, with a very aggressive attitude about niche paid search. As the Times noted today — all the ad server alternatives got a nice share price boost thanks to Google putting a value and some attention on their market.

Funny how the unloved sideshow of interactive advertising is suddenly amplifying fears of Google dominance. I’ve seen Google’s pitch and it goes well beyond the search terms that most people associate with them. Video is now playing a stronger role in their pitch — it figures they have to do something to leverage the YouTube buy — and given the better clickthrough rates on rich media, advertisers are going to be drawn to the online 30-second spot (not pre-roll which I don’t like at all). This is great news for agencies that were worried about their TV practice — there is an avalanche of client demand headed their way for short, smart web videos to stick into big IMUs (large rectangle “interactive marketing units” — IDG-jargon)

But the banner — the lowly, punch-the-monkey, lower-my-bills piece of animated gif junk that delivers click-through rates measured in basis points — the modern equivalent of direct mail where a one percent response is considered a massive success. I’ve seen stats for a major project (I won’t name names) where the agency proudly proclaimed they served 45 million impressions on behalf of their client resulting in 62,000 visits.

That sucks. Display or banner advertising basically just contributes to clutter, places an emphasis on inflated page view numbers which no believes because no can agree on how to audit the numbers, and makes no one happy — not the poor junior designers at the agency who have to think of genius in a slot 468 pixels wide by 60 pixels tall — to the traffickers who have to pore through Comscore to find the right demographic to serve them too, to the client who knows the ROI is just going to suck, and the site that hosts the suckers who has to watch their gorgeous site design get nuked by the online equivalent of NASCAR after too many beers.

Ugh. Can you tell I don’t like banners?

Okay, but my mind changed last summer when Milner came out of a metrics review with the weird correlation that when we ran banner ads our search campaigns performed better and when we didn’t run banners our search yields declined. Hmm. Then our agency told us the same thing — run banners with search and both get an uplift. Okay. Lesson learned — reserve some component of every campaign to run in parallel with search. Not exactly rocket science, nor cause to proclaim the renaissance of display ads. But …

Search is pretty saturated. Get into a bid war over a non-brand term like “digital camera” and the cost per click gets ugly fast. It’s also dangerous to get into a “search death spiral” where you see search outperform other tactics so you starve them and allocate more to search but meanwhile that elusive thing called “Awareness” declines and the pipeline dries up.

Banners are not to brand what search is to direct marketing. Readers of this blog know I believe brand is driven by customer satisfaction and perception — not the palette and font and animated image in a blinking web ad.

What Google just did — in their infinite wisdom and good M&A sense — is insure a renaissance in banners. The space is distressed. Targeting impressions with behavioral tactics like Tacoda is still pretty sloppy, but interactive marketers are getting very left-brained and sticking the protoscope up the rear end of their campaigns and making every dollar they put in market bark fight for survival. This takes the poor publishers right out of the picture — they’re helpless. The ad is going to perform if the offer is right, the targeting is going to work if the ad server does its job, and the marketer’s site metrics is going to present the naked lunch of whether the campaign performed or not. Those that perform get renewed, refreshed and continued to optimize. Those that don’t move on — fast.

Google obviously is looking at their own analytics and saw potential for a banner revival. By taking the industry standard tool they lock the interactive agencies and media buyers deeper into their clutches, and by waving rich media opportunities like video at marketers, they offer an integrated network that is easy to buy, easy to measure, and easy to manage.

Don’t count Yahoo out yet. Disappointing earnings are not a measure of future potential, only past performance, and Yahoo has a very, very compelling brand awareness story to tell to marketers. While compared to Google like salt to pepper, Yahoo is an entirely different animal — a true content and service network. Google is search and applications. Yahoo is search and content and applications. Sure, Braun wasn’t able to turn it into an interactive tv network, but the notion of a global buy on a network with monster pageviews and great insights into their audience — makes a rich media buy combined with search and banner attractive to a marketer seeking share of voice.

But … Google is everywhere now. There’s the utility side of the business — the one the public sees and uses and depends on. But then there is the advertising business — the one that sells space and sells it from radio to print, AdSense to DoubleClick. Their achilles heel is Asia. I’ll get into the China/Japan thing in another post, I’ve bloviated to long here, killing time in a massively delayed flight to RTP.

johnon.com – good SEO blog


“You probably won’t listen to me if I suggest you keep your voice lower, not discuss tactical or strategic issues in a pubic forum, or speak in secret code, so this is the least I can offer you. If you finish your overly loud public “search marketing” pitch and walk out leaving your dream client behind, I will feel compelled to hand her my business card and offer her a free review of your written proposal. Like I just did.”

Ah, the perils of the Starbuck’s economy. This looks like a keeper for the blogroll.

%d bloggers like this: