Why I’m ok with top 10 lists

February 23, 2011

Blogger outreach, Social media

Image from Babble.com.

Let’s play a word association game. I’ll say something and then you say the first word/phrase that comes to mind. Sound good? Ok, here goes. David Letterman. Ok, so what did you say? I’m guessing the top three answers in this incredibly unscientific poll were Top 10 list, Paul Schaffer and Late Show. Am I close?

People love the Top 10 list. It’s not new, it’s not flashy. But it is fun, comforting and relatable. People learn better from lists. Why do you think we bullet and number things all the time? Our recall of lists is stronger. When people talk about Letterman’s show the next day, they talk about the Top 10 list, reciting their favorite sound bytes from the show’s longest-standing feature. People still stop channel surfing when Dave goes through the Top 10. There’s just no ignoring the consistent, positive response this feature of the show gets. It works.

Yet while Top 10 lists keep working for Letterman, one of the strongest trends I’ve noticed this year from my communicator brethren is a growing animosity for the Top 10 list or really any blog post or POV with a number in it. I’ve heard people say it’s too simplistic; give me more. I’ve heard others call it a gimmick to get peoples’ attention the wrong way. The overarching trend from the anti-Top 10ers is that the lists all blur together and start to sound the same, but add little or no value.

I won’t disagree that I often see similar lists in blog posts. But it doesn’t bother me. Because I know why our peers that integrate lists into their posts are doing so. They understand what Dave and team understand – that people have and will continue to respond to Top 10 or top anything lists. So it’s a smart way to get your message across and catch your target audience’s attention in the process.

Think about your reaction when you pull up your favorite Twitter client and start perusing the posts. Which ones catch your eye first? I bet they’re tweets by people you know followed by tweets with numbers in the headline. And not necessarily in that order.

Or what if you’re doing a Google search? When our friend “The Google” spits out a series of results back at you, which ones are you immediately drawn to? The posts with numbers, right? Any result with a top 10 this or an 8 ways to do that or a 5 things you should focus on. Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky. But good writers can take any topic they’re passionate about and turn part of the post into a list. It doesn’t mean the content sucks. It just means they’re trying to position their post in the best way they can to get noticed.

SEO, differentiation, message recall, easy to scan. These are just a few of the reasons why I don’t have a problem with Top 10 lists. In fact, I think turning your posts into lists from time to time is smart. Look at Mashable. You may say their blog is watered down – I’ve heard that a lot this year too – but we all know the eyeballs, retweets, shares they get and conversation their posts start. And a significant amount of their posts are in list format.

Can you over emphasize lists? Sure you can. But generally, if a person’s writing or perspective is crap, it’s crap whether it’s formatted into a Top 10 list or not. If you’re consistently reading a blog and getting sick and tired of the lists, then maybe that blog isn’t targeted to you. Maybe you’re ready for something more in depth. It’s out there. I promise. And yes, there are people scamming the system and just posting lists ad nausea to screw with Google results and appear like they know what they’re talking about.

But for the most part, lists still work. People still respond to them. And often, they can start a conversation that truly evolves in the comments and social networks online or the general, everyday conversations offline. And really, isn’t that what Letterman’s Top 10 list has been doing well for years?

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