Death to the Listicle

Posted by Lucy Halliday On May 28, 2014

It’s a truth almost universally accepted that digital content should be short, snappy and to the point. The audience is distracted, attention spans are fleeting and no-one wants to read more than a few hundred words on a mobile phone.

Buzz Feed mastered the art of the social-friendly “listicle” (Example: 17 Baby Elephants Learning How to Use their Trunks) and even serious publishers have adopted this approach as a web-friendly way of explaining everything from the Syrian conflict to the economic downturn. If you’re not writing a list then just about everyone (including the publishers of this blog) will tell you to keep your posts to between 500 and 700 words.

And yet a number of studies suggest that longer articles are actually shared more often shorter ones. BuzzSumo tracked the social trajectory of more than 100 million articles last year and concluded longer pieces got more social shares.

NewsWhip reviewed the top 10 most shared stories on Facebook for a range of publishers including CNN, the Huffington Post and The Guardian late last year and found the average word count was over 1000 words. One of those viral stories was a 3,535 word lecture given by the writer Neil Gaiman titled “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming”posted by The Guardian that has been shared on Facebook 267,000 times.

This is supported by an earlier six-month study of the New York Times’ “most emailed” list by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania that showed that readers were more likely to forward longer articles on more challenging topics.

This makes sense when you consider why we share. Yes, we’ll share cat pictures or quizzes to entertain our friends. But we also share things that present the best version of ourselves; things that make us look smarter, more thoughtful or more empathetic.

Better yet, longer stories get better search results. Keyword software analysis company SERPIQ reviewed the top 10 search results for 20,000 keywords and found longer articles ranked higher. The theory is that longer articles are often better quality and hence favoured by Google especially in the post-Hummingbird age.

Since the web is now awash with listicles and formulaic blog posts it make sense that content that stands out takes a different approach. The founding editor of Quartz, the Atlantic’s mobile-first business news site, has even banned articles between 500 and 700 words arguing that people either want very short digestible content or long-form analytical pieces and nothing in between. (And he should know: he grew Quartz’s audience to 5 million just 18 months after it launched.)

Brands looking to succeed at digital content marketing would do well to heed the lessons from The New York Times’ successful foray into multi-media publishing “Snowfall”. Published in late 2012, this 17,000 word piece about a fatal avalanche with embedded video and graphics went on to win a Pulitizer Prize and attracted 3.5 million page views. It was such a success that Snowfall has become a verb as in “Let’s do a Snowfall”.

That’s not to say online content should be long for the sake of it. As a former editor for Fairfax Media, the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, I can tell you that the best editors set writers word lengths based on the complexity of the topic and their innate understanding of the audience’s appetite for a story. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

So the listicle isn’t exactly dead but marketers should seriously consider killing it off – or at least using it judiciously. And as for the 500-700 word blog post, well, this one is exactly 599 words. Will it be lost in the digital content deluge?

Lauren Quaintance is the head of content for Sydney content marketing agency Storify. She has held senior roles at Fairfax Media and created multi-channel content solutions for major brands. A respected industry commentator, her opinions on how brands can best succeed at content marketing have appeared in Mumbrella, CMO, B&T and Marketing Magazine and she has been sought out as a speaker at industry events including the e-Commerce Conference and Mumbrella 360.


Lucy Halliday