11 Need-to-Know Tips for Mastering Branded Lists

Lists have long been a way to tell stories and categorize information for readers, dating as far back as the 1800s. First lesson? Lists have staying power. Here are 11 other tips and tricks to consider when adding lists to your content marketing mix.

1. Think about which type of list is right for your brand.

The three most popular types of lists each have their own criteria.

The most common is the listicle. Relatively straightforward, the listicle (derived from “list” and “article”) focuses mostly on images with links to elsewhere and minimal text. The listicle contains no real narrative and is easy to consume. Examples include “The 6 Things You Need to Mix Drinks Like a Pro Bartender,” “10 Secrets Only Professional Closet Organizers Know” and “28 Pictures That Will Make Teachers Laugh Harder Than They Should.”

The definitive list is more all-encompassing and provides exhaustive coverage of a certain topic. Examples include “The Most Scenic Drives in All 50 States” and “10 Skin Products Every City Girl Needs.” These lists often involve food or travel, and because of the extensive research involved, are more likely to prompt readers to share, pin or bookmark it for later use. So definitive lists have a tendency to go viral.

The framework list structures a narrative and focuses more on words than images. This format attempts to connect on a deeper level by sharing an experience, and sometimes speaks directly to the reader in the headline. Examples include, “7 Questions to Ask Your Partner Before Getting Married” and “5 Ways That Quitting Sugar Changed My Life.”

2. Craft spectacular (and sometimes out-of-the-ordinary) headlines.

Experts say that it should take twice as long to write the headline as it does to write the actual piece of content. Upworthy, a feel-good site that has mastered the click-inducing headline, has staffers generate more than 25 headlines before picking a winner (or multiple) to test. These headlines often include descriptive language and a call to action. For example, “See 9 stunning vertical farms that could solve the planet’s food crisis” is more like a sentence than an actual headline, but the actionable “see” invites readers to click while also indicating that there will be actual pictures of the vertical farms. And the word “stunning” evokes a more sensory reaction than overused words like “great” or “cool.” Other examples include, “‘It’s not a woman’s duty to smile for you’ and 11 more strong, feminist facts,” which uses an actual quote within the headline, and “12 hilarious, heartbreaking, and fist-pumping moments from the House sit-in,” which instead of using “funny,” “sad” or “exciting,” takes the adjectives a step further. Although editorializing has been discouraged in the past—especially in journalistic settings—these headlines are effective at turning heads in today’s digital media landscape.

3. Make your headline (literally) count.

The number listed in the headline can be crucial when it comes to click-through rate and shareability. Most commonly, lists are created in multiples of 10, 15, 21 and 25. Betaworks’ chief data scientist Gilad Lotan analyzed more than 10,000 BuzzFeed listicles and his research revealed that 29 is the most popular number among readers. It may seem arbitrary, but there’s also research to support that odd numbers perform better than even and, often, the higher the number, the more shares.

4. But avoid listflation.

Listflation, or list inflation, occurs when a list purports to have a certain number of points, but really contains multiple sub-points or reiterations of previous points. An example is “22 Phases of Grocery Shopping.” Many of these aren’t really phases, but more like statements and an excuse to include more GIFs. For example, numbers 10, 11, 12 and 13 are very similar and could have been combined into one point. In this case, the reader knows going in that the post is likely intended to be more comical and lighthearted, so listflation may not be as frustrating. But for more serious pieces, listflation is rarely used effectively, as it waters down the content and can annoy readers who realize the article didn’t deliver on what the headline promised. If you lack quality points, re-think your concept and do additional research.

5. Choose art wisely.

Animated GIFs, memes and embedded videos are most commonly used with listicles, while definitive and framework lists are more likely to incorporate photos or original art. GIFs and memes work well for pop-culture posts, anything to do with animals and content that evokes emotion. Travel or food lists often use stock images.

If your points are very specific, it’s wise to design your own art. Another bonus? Incorporating unique art helps to avoid broken links. If you use posts from public users’ Instagram or Twitter accounts and a user deletes, hides or modifies that content, it’s no longer viewable in the article.

It’s also wise to create a cover image that contains your headline, an image or series of images in a collage, your brand logo and perhaps even some of the points if it’s a shorter list. This gives readers something to pin and share.

Lastly, keep in mind that it’s OK to limit visual components—often a few elements can be enough.

6. Don’t be afraid to micro-target your content.

BuzzFeed knows that its primary audience is millennials, ages 18–34, but they don’t try to reach everyone all at once. In fact, they use the opposite approach, creating what’s called demolisticles, or lists that appeal directly to a reader’s identity, touching on hometown, age, career or other distinguishing characteristics. A frequently discussed example is “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley.” As Contently points out, most Americans were not interested in the listicle, but die-hard Berkeley alumni made it go viral. Less than 48 hours after it published, the post had received 22,000 Facebook likes and 137,000 total views, making it a trending topic on BuzzFeed’s homepage. The piece was written by Berkeley grads and contained inside jokes, making it more authentic.

Another takeaway: Social media is the main driver of engagement for these types of posts. With 75 percent of BuzzFeed’s traffic coming from social media, the brand strives to promote certain articles to certain people on certain platforms, and relies heavily on targeted Facebook ad buys. When you provide people content they identify with and want to share, your audience will naturally do the sharing on your behalf.

7. Carve out your list niche.

The most successful brands create lists that are engaging and fresh, yet still relevant to their product. Intel focuses on technology, gaming and innovation, producing “7 Wacky Wearables for Fitness Fanatics” and “7 Portable Indie Games Best Played on Big Screens,” while Red Bull has honed in on sports, pop culture and adventure travel with lists like “The 10 Worst Outfits in NBA Draft History” and “5 of the World’s Most Impressive Waterfalls.” Williams-Sonoma owns the lifestyle space with “3 Tools to Solve All Your Pie Problems” and “6 Essentials for Outdoor Dining.”

All of these companies tap into brand messaging and seasonality, with subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) product pitches. Yet, the content is still valuable to the reader and in line with their interests, so they’re more likely to click, share and engage with the branded content.

8. Consider a series of lists.

AARP knows that relocation is often part of retirement, and thus a topic their aging audience is interested in. They used micro-targeting to create a series of lists focused on different neighborhoods and cities. Examples, such as “30 Best Cities for Staying Healthy” and “30 Best Cities to Make New Friends” are easily replicable, but directly address the needs of the 50+ age group demographic. The company has also created series around superlatives for different neighborhoods, like “The 10 Most Liveable Neighborhoods in the U.S.,” and lists specific to certain situations, such as “10 Best Places to Live on $100 a Day” and “10 Great Cities for Older Singles.” Think about categories where you could employ this same concept for your brand. Often it takes just one list to get readers to go down the content rabbit hole and read (and share) the rest of the series.

9. Run tests.

Like with any piece of content, you can measure lists using number of hits, unique views and time spent. However, engagement is also becoming an increasingly important metric. Use shares, comments and likes to help you assess ways to improve the quality of a post. Cut “dead weight points” (remember listflation?) by looking at what points on the list people are sharing the most in real time. Some companies are also using mobile technology to see when a reader starts to scroll faster on a post to help determine the “point of boredom” or list fatigue and where it may need to be edited down. Lastly, consider splitting a longer list into a series of shorter ones to test length and subject matter. Develop your own methods of testing and don’t be afraid to have a few duds in order to find that winning list.

10. Curate and promote already popular content to increase the chance that it will go viral.

One of the easiest ways to make your content work harder is to revise and reposition already published material. Review organically popular posts and look for ways to place them more prominently on your site and give them greater visibility. Likewise, read over existing lists and look for ways to boost popularity using SEO or even a new, timelier intro. Additionally, you can repurpose lists into a package or another list. For example, if every month you highlight three new restaurants, at the end of the year, you could use those 12 lists to make one mega-list containing the year’s 36 best new restaurants.

11. Remember, quality still counts.

There’s often the misconception that lists, specifically listicles, aren’t as editorially rich or don’t require a lot of effort to create because they’re shorter and more simplistic than other content types. If anything, this post has helped to dispel some of those myths and revealed how complex the creation process can be. But, like with all content, having the right SEO or the perfectly numbered headline is only half the battle. In the end, it’s crucial that you focus on the reader, their interests and making their user experience as rewarding as possible. Do this, and you will have mastered the science (and art) of the list.

Keep reading in Strategy