How Listicles are Killing Content Marketing (and Your Brain Cells)

"Fast food" content generally has a catchy click-bait title but lacks actual insight.

"Fast food" content generally has a catchy click-bait title but lacks actual insight.

In the age of social media, short attention spans, and 140 character limits, quality content has been disappearing from our newsfeeds. Long form blogs are being shadowed by short lists that are peppered with funny pictures as opposed to prose or analyses to back their claims.

Listicle-heavy, fodder-fueled websites are actually changing the way we digest reading material by pulling in the majority of their traffic with catchy clickbait titles and a heavy GIF to paragraph ratio. This shift is driving our brains to crave simple, sourceless, “fast food” content as opposed to reputable, thought-provoking, well-developed blogs, articles, eBooks, etc.

Listicles Do the Work for Us

Part of the basic definition of a list is the consolidation of similar ideas into an organized index. When we click on a listicle entitled “Five Foods That Make You Fat,” or “Six Signs You're an Introvert” we already have a pretty good idea of where the article is going.

Our brain makes sense of complex information by separating it into “chunks,” according to the Journal of Consumer Research. Because a listicle is already broken down into numbered, categorized segments, our brain doesn’t need to analyze the information that was just presented to it. Listicles take a step out of content consumption that’s crucial to the reader’s understanding of the subject matter.

If you’re not actively engaging your brain, your memory muscle could deteriorate over time. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, American adults today are reading more poorly than they were a decade ago primarily because they don’t want to read for pleasure. High-quality content stimulates the brain when a person is actively reading and can prevent the brain from going on autopilot, as it tends to do while reading listicles.

Unfortunately, many readers stop reading after the headline.

Unfortunately, many readers stop reading after the headline.

Brain plasticity allows the mind to rewire itself, adapting to our habits and changing on a neurological level. For example, if you’re accustomed to skimming short listicles, your brain will have greater difficulty absorbing a densely written 25-page scientific journal about, say, brain plasticity.  

The Headline Tells the Whole Story

Listicles rely on sensational headlines so readers will not only be inclined to click on the article, but also to share it with others. In fact, according to Wired, for every ten people who click on a native ad, Buzzfeed expects that three of them will share it with their friends.

Interestingly, the bulk of the writing is in the headline, where the subject is explicitly addressed. Listicles are self-explanatory and essentially structured to be skimmed, as there is no argument or thesis made in the piece. This variety of short-form content lacks additional insight apart from the numbered list, thus rendering many listicles of little to no value.

We are fascinated by listicles because we like to prove what we already know. Research from BBC cites confirmation bias as one of the psychological reasons our brains are drawn to this type of content—it helps us feel satisfied with the information we already believe or know to be true. Case in point, the list-style article doesn’t teach us anything novel.

Though our brains like to “chunk” complex information, the material provided in listicles isn’t so much complex as it is common sense. If the brain doesn’t have to think, it doesn’t have to learn either.

When a Picture Doesn’t Paint a Thousand Words

Oftentimes, listicles include pictures that have little to do with the subject at hand.

Oftentimes, listicles include pictures that have little to do with the subject at hand.

Frequently, the bulk of the content in a listicle is not in the written word but rather the GIFs and memes that accompany each number on the list. While images have been an integral element of journalism since its inception, the listicle is often dominated by pictures that are tangentially related, if not completely irrelevant, to the information itself. This overflow of digital imagery impedes our brain’s ability to illustrate its own mental images, thus contributing to a lack of comprehension and a decline in brain plasticity.

Reading is no longer the left to right linear practice we learned in school. The Internet is changing the way we process the written word, incorporating linking, scrolling, clicking, and scanning into the procedure. According to Book Business Magazine, this nonlinear reading is impacting the way we comprehend information, frequently leaving out key bits we might have skimmed past. The heavy emphasis on graphics no longer keeps the reader on track—instead images are the track.

An Inch Deep and a Mile Wide

Lists aren’t meant to tell the whole story, but to create a jumping-off point for the reader to make his or her own conclusions. Moreover, scanning down the numbers on a list isn’t always a bad thing. According to Forbes, using inspectional reading can effectively help to increase understanding, allowing our brains to analyze the blueprint of an idea to more clearly understand the fully illustrated picture.

When done correctly, a listicle can convey organized information more efficiently than a long-form piece. Plus, readers prefer different types and formats of content for different areas of interest.

Credible, High-Quality Content Marketing

Still have a soft spot for list-making? Don’t worry; there are still ways to make listicles engaging. In fact, we’ve written quite a few of them. Lists can be a great way to engage with an audience and increase click-through rates.

However, to set your listicle apart from the run of the mill set of bullet points, make sure you strike the right balance between high-quality copy and pictures (hint: more words than pictures). Get creative with your words so your GIFs don’t do all the work, lest they distort or distract your readers from the actual message you’re trying to convey.

If you want to maximize clicks, comprehension, and conversions without losing any syntax to last month’s stale memes or a GIF of a cute cat, Ethos Copywriting has the solution.