The Power of Listicles and How To Make Yours Better

Journalists have known it for years and they’ve become a staple of headline writers and bloggers in recent years. But what’s the science behind the listicle’s remarkable success?

For the uninitiated, listicle is a derived from the words list and article. It describes a ranked list of items with a snappy title like “10 Fun Ways to Eat Bananas” or “12 Strangest Sights on Google Earth“.

Now, if you’ve somehow resisted the urge to click on either of those intriguing articles, well done! It turns out we feel an almost instinctive attraction to neatly ordered lists.  Newly published research in the Journal of Consumer Research explains exactly how we react to ranked lists and how lists of varying lengths are perceived.

Listicles Item Count Graph

Unsurprisingly, simple analysis of Google Search results reveals that most indexed listicles comprise a nicely rounded number of items. As this graph illustrates, the most popular lists contain 10 or 20 items, while those list counts ending in 5 (5, 15, 25…) are also very common.

While the research doesn’t draw many conclusions from this analysis, it’s fairly safe to assume that any “Top 10” or “Top 20” lists we create are now instantly recognisable and accepted, but may also compete with lots of similar content online. Conversely, a “Top 3” or “Top 19” list may perform well by benefiting from greater standout and distinctiveness.

Where the research gets more interesting is in examining the effect of an item’s ranking order relative to neighbouring items on the list. It turns out that in a list of top 20 colleges, the perceived quality gap between colleges 10 and 11 is far greater than, say between colleges 6 and 7 on the list.

The science suggests that what’s happening here is that readers mentally subdivide ranked lists into a smaller set of categories and then exaggerate differences between consecutive items adjacent to category boundaries (like items 10 or 20 on the list).

The implications for businesses and organisations are significant. No matter what you do, it’s far better to be 10th best, than 11th best, and the gains from being 9th best are minimal compared to being in tenth position. Psychologists know this as the “Top Ten Effect,” and it occurs because round numbers are cognitively more accessible to readers due to the prevalence of their use in everyday life.

So, if you are planning to create listicles for your blog or press releases there are, perhaps, two crucial things to keen in mind:

  1. The number of items in your list may have a profound effect on the way it is perceived and the amount of content it may have to compete against
  2. In ranked lists, the relative position of items on the list adjacent to round numbers like 5 and 10 is crucial and can greatly influence perceptions of each items relative worth

With thanks to Mathew Isaac and Robert Schindler for conducting the original research and to NeuroscienceMarketing for bringing this to my attention.

Read more:
Research paper:
Power of Ten article: