1. Skip the introduction.
A lot of content marketers write, like, five paragraphs introducing a listicle before they get to their first list item. But people just want the list. I get it, you wanna have that SEO meat. But you really don’t need to introduce the list with extra copy.
People click a headline because there’s a number of items that they think will benefit them. Unless you’re renowned for your wit, nobody cares about anything other than that list and those benefits.
So skip it. Get your headline straight, then get straight into it.
2. Deliver exactly what the headline promises.
I get frustrated when I click to read an article and find something other than what I expected. It’s like expecting pepperoni pizza but getting tomatoes and corn instead. Whether intentionally duplicitous or not, that’s a bait-and-switch, and it’s pretty hard to appreciate that experience.
Here’s an example of what I mean: you promise exciting new ideas to make your Instagram marketing better, but then you provide basic best practices like “think about the rule of thirds in your photography” and “use hashtags.” These are not exciting new ideas. And you’re not providing anything useful to someone who’s in need of exciting new ideas.
Another example: if I told you to use the numerical characters in your headlines instead of spelling out the whole number, that’s great and all, but that wouldn’t help you improve your articles. It’s just a way to increase click through rates for your headlines. It doesn’t help you write better content, you see?
And when you start to care more about click through rates than you do about the quality of your content, you lose sight of the bigger picture.
So I’m not going to waste any of your time talking about headlines.
3. Provide at least one big image for every single point.
Images are great because you can do at least one of two things: clarify the point you want to make, or enhance the reading experience. Be careful, though — if you miss both of those points, you can easily lose the reader.
The best kind of images to use are charts, graphs, or other data visualizations that emphasize and give specificity to the exact point you’re trying to make. Numbers on a timeline. Trends. Scale. Et cetera.
If you don’t have something of that nature, then at least use an image the sets the right tone. (Stock images are fine if you know how to find ones that aren’t cheesy.)
I say big images specifically to take up more space on purpose. The bigger the image, the more impact it has. That’s just a simple fact. (But optimize them. Nobody likes to wait for images to load.)
A secondary benefit: bigger photos mean readers have to scroll more.
The more scrolling readers do, the more engaged and re-engaged they become.
This helps the individual points of a listicle stick better as standalone good advice, rather than a short, bulleted list that you can read on one screen without scrolling. People will remember the headline but they won’t really get the value, which means they are less likely to take the desired action, and that’s not good for marketers.
4. Stay consistent; don’t contradict yourself just to make another item on your list.
If you’ve got a “but” or an alternative viewpoint that absolutely needs addressing, address it within the context of one item on your numbered list. Don’t break it apart for the sake of looking like you’ve got a longer list.
There are a couple reasons for this. Number one: people skim listicles. If you break apart your points, they are more likely to forget one of them. Number two: you might confuse them and lose your credibility as an author. You definitely don’t want that.
5. Stop before it gets boring.
There’s almost never any need to repeat yourself, and there’s no need to make a list of seven things if you only have six things to say. I don’t care if Joe the Self-Described Marketing Guru says odd numbers outperform even numbers.
Don’t sacrifice your content or your credibility for a headline best-practice you probably read in a listicle.
Just stop when you need to stop. Once you’ve satisfied your headline, it’s time to close it out.
Bonus tip: it doesn't hurt to include a bonus tip.
I didn’t write this because I want your business; on the contrary, I want content marketers to get better at soliciting my business. I read a lot of listicles, and I would love it if we could all adhere to these simple fixes to common problems. Please and thank you.
You can find some really good advice about closing with effective calls to action and creating irresistible headlines elsewhere on the web. If you want more content advice from me — which you shouldn’t, but if you do — you can shoot me a Tweet (@BilGaines) or leave a comment below.