How I Write a Listicle

1. Use an odd number

Gilad Lotan, data scientist at Betaworks, researched the benefits of odd-numbered lists compared to even-numbered ones. His findings, looking at Buzzfeed lists: Whenever possible, go with an odd number.

Calculating these tests, I observed a statistically significant difference in the performance of odd-length BuzzFeed listicles versus even ones.

To make a listicle odd, I like to remove the least valuable list item or split one item into two in order to make an even list odd. More on this tactic in #5, below.

2. Use a prime number

There’s no psychological evidence I could find that says our minds prefer prime numbers to non-primes. Though mathematicians do seem to find them fascinating, the Illuminati worships them, and marketers love using them.

On this last point, The Marketing Practice dug into the reasons behind prime number listicles and found that a bit of wordplay could be the draw.

Studies have shown that alliteration actually helps the brain retain information, making your headlines instantly more memorable. And it just so happens that prime numbers work really well with the staples of alliterative listicle headlines:

3 things you need to know…

5 facts about…

7 business secrets…

For quick reference, here are all the prime numbers between 1 and 100:

Prime numbers between 1 and 100

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97

3. Create huge lists, mega lists, ultimate lists

When in doubt and whenever possible, go as big as you can.

I like to call this the “and then” strategy, as in “here are some favorite free blogging tools, oh, and then here are some paid ones people swear by, oh, and then here are some of the coolest ones I personally use.”

Add up all your “and then” lists and you’ve got yourself a huge, mega, ultimate listicle.

(Interesting note: We’ve heard a bit of the opposite from readers of the Buffer blog as we routinely were putting out listicles in the 50s, 60s, and 70s range. Perhaps huge lists published on the regular might be a bit much for an audience to consume.)

4. Add more depth with listicle inception

I write a lot of tools posts for the Buffer blog, huge lists of Twitter tools or marketing tools. And as I’m writing, I often find myself walking the line of wanting to be as complete as possible and also wanting to be succinct.

Listicle inception helps. Basically, you put a list inside a list (yodawg) by grouping items of a similar theme.

yodawg listicles

For instance, you can use the following language:

  • Tools like this
  • More free options
  • Other choices

5. Start with way more than you need

I tend to default to more and then prune things back during the editing stages. This is true for everything I write, listicles included.

When researching a listicle, jot down as many ideas as you can, research them, then cut any that don’t seem to pass muster. It’s helpful to have a big pool to work from if you need to adjust to get to an odd number or prime number (see #1 and #2, above).

6. Number each item within the post

Here’s a quick win if you’re not already doing it: Add the number before the heading of each item.

Numbering each list item in a listicle helps keep things consistent, scannable, and breezable.

7. Write words, too

It’s okay to write lots of words inside a listicle. Buzzfeed has set an awesome standard with its listicles—big numbers, lots of pictures, little text. And it works great for the Buzzfeed audience.

There’s a bit of a difference for us at Buffer. When our audience reads through a tools list, they’re likely to wonder things like, “What’s the best use for this?” or “How much does it cost?” or “What does it do exactly?” And explaining these things takes words.

Further reading:

How Buzzfeed writes a listicle

23 Tools and Resources to Create Images for Social Media (an example of all 7 steps here)

Image source: Live Binders

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I lead the marketing team at Buffer, a SaaS tool with a blog of over 1.2M monthly visits. Let me show you how we got there and how we plan to grow.

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