Come on, you know what I'm talking about.
'10 reasons why your content marketing is failing!' or '5 guaranteed ways to instantly increase landing page conversion!'
I've been bemoaning the increasing use of these so-called listicles (*shudder*) for some time on Twitter, much to the annoyance of my followers I'm sure. I guess they started out earnestly enough; how-to guides conveniently crafted to offer step-by-step instructions on how to achieve something. Once upon a time, these types of articles had a good home and we knew exactly what we were getting when we clicked on one. Then modern day content marketing happened.
I'm not some scrooge here to argue that SEO and other marketing tactics inherently reduce the quality of content (though they certainly go against the grain in a lot of cases). In fact, it's my job as a copywriter to navigate the plains of digital marketing, delivering valuable content that can weather the storm of meta-tags, keyword ratios and calls-to-action, and I firmly believe it's possible - even necessary.
But in my humble opinion, listicles (I've made my peace with the word) encourage poor content, and we're seeing a lot of it.
It's not necessarily the format that bothers me, it's how the format is used for quick gains by content marketers who don't really have anything of value to offer. I'm sure there are some blogs still putting this format to excellent use and I don't mean to lump all listicles under the same bracket, but you have to admit the torrent of '4 ways to do X' and '7 things that mean Y' are overwhelming. 'Quick gains' have been rife in SEO circles for a while too. I just opened a content site I frequent and found an article entitled:
'5 ways you can prevent your business from having a Brad & Angelina divorce.'
You think I'm kidding. I'm not. This is precisely the kind of lazy article writing I'm talking about, where something totally irrelevant is plucked from the media in the vein hopes of scoring some cheap SEO points. It might give you a minute, fraction of a lift on Google, but your users will hate you for it, and search engines are learning too.
I like Flipboard. After plumbing the depths of Reddit, Twitter and occasionally stopping off at The Drum, it's where I get caught up on the latest marketing news, curating all of my favourite authors and publications into one neat little app (note: I do not work for Flipboard. It's just genuinely quite good). To illustrate my point, I opened Flipboard and took a look at the 'Copywriter' topic - a nice curation of the very best articles on copywriting at that time. Here's what I found right at the top:
'47 no-fail ways to come up with blog ideas'
Now, is this article really going to give me 47 ways to dream up a blog post? Why 47? One of them actually says "search Google for ideas", and point 21 is - you guessed it - write a "10 more ways to...!" style listicle. No. Just....no. These aren't good ideas for blogs - they're excuses to write blog posts. It doesn't offer inspiration or motivation, just facilitation.
'10 Quick SEO copywriting tips every online business should know'
These ones are great. These tips range from 'Know your audience' to the extremely helpful 'Structure your writing'. It's ironic, because if the author knew his audience (i.e. Copywriters), he'd know that this stuff was second nature (or you'd at least hope so).
However, let's not spend the rest of this listicle (hopefully the irony is blatant) tearing apart other listicles. Let's get down to the nitty-gritty. What is it about 90% of these articles that leave me with my head in my hands wishing that the internet had an off button? Without further ado... let the listing commence.
1. The format invites lazy writing
I'm sorry but it does. There's no need for structure, no need to build a reasoned argument and the majority of them have no introduction or conclusion (save for a cheap call-to-action at the bottom). They're the fast food of articles and can be whipped up in minutes, stuffed with keywords and served with a condiment of your choice.
2. Their sole aim is usually self-serving
It's kind of sad that these traffic generators are usually spun in helpful looking yarns. "6 Guaranteed ways to make your business incredible!" The truth is, most of these articles are there for one of two reasons: a) to get traffic to the author site and b) to boost its SEO standing (listicles are very easy to fill with keywords). These articles professing to help you are usually helping themselves.
3. A lot of them trade on fear
"4 business tricks you're missing out on", "5 reasons why you're failing at social media". They inherently make readers feel out of the loop, trading on fear. This kind of negativity isn't a nice way to get attention and I doubt it's all that helpful - it kind of reminds of me of how magazines like 'Hello' basically trade on making readers feel bad about themselves and their bodies. Listicles are doing this to businesses every day!
I don't mind trends. Trends are good. Trends are a common interest that the masses have briefly chosen to focus on, and businesses can benefit from them in a number of ways - usually through really clever and intelligent advertising. What's not intelligent is writing another article based on the 4.3 million articles on something totally irrelevant to your business in order to get clicks, like Brangelina's divorce.
A really good example of trend-hopping I saw recently was from Adidas, who masterfully jumped on the buzz around the Paralympics by selling odd pairs of shoes. Why should a Paralympic athlete with one foot have to buy expensive running shoes by the pair? They built it into their 'No Athlete Left Behind' slogan and it worked really well.
5. Too many of them are entirely subjective
Listicles not only invite lazy writing, they invite poor research too. Everybody's business is different - different budgets, audiences, competitors and targets. A strategy that works for one business could be corporate suicide for another. An article that says, "5 guaranteed ways to boost your online sales" is clearly talking nonsense. Either that, or it has to be generic and one-size-fits-all enough to be near useless. It's filler. The internet has too much filler.
Okay, that's the list done with.
I'm not trying to wage war on hard-working content marketers here, nor am I trying to say that every article that fits into the 'listicle' format is bad. It's perfectly possible to use the format to great effect, delivering worthwhile content that educates, inspires and influences. We need more of it. In many ways, the internet is in the hands of content marketers and I think we need to be more responsible about what we publish. If you're working for an agency or business who want you to churn out keyword-stuffed articles 10 at a time, try educating them on why it's perhaps a very bad idea. It's not 2003.
Content Marketing is dead. Long live Content Marketing.
What are your thoughts on the issues raised here? Am I alone in my despair? Overreacting? I do that sometimes. Tell me about your content experiences in the comments below and what you think the future holds for content marketing. Don't forget to follow me on Twitter (@pro_copywriter) for updates.