Beyond The Listicle : Inspiring Journalism for Content Marketers

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‘5 Celebrity bachelors who are old and alone’
’16 completely disturbing pictures from the internet that will haunt your dreams’
‘9 times when Elmo taught us how to forgive.’

-courtesy of

You’re likely familiar with similar, numerically-ordered headline gems, sometimes located at the bottom of a seemingly unrelated article you’ve just read online under the header ‘You May Also Like’. They’re the Big Mac Combo of web content: enticing in your weakest moments, producing self-hate shortly after consumption.

‘Listicles’ pervade because of their effectiveness in driving traffic to content through the promise of a clearly stated reward, easily consumed in numerically ordered, bite sized chunks; it’s also why listicles optimize well in Google Search.  

For the same reason, content marketers also rightly employ the listicle (albeit with several degrees less shock value than the above examples) to increase engagement on content they create.

However content marketing strategies that rely heavily on the listicle, run the risk of generating too much formulaic content that lacks a compelling narrative. In the long term, storytelling leads to audiences truly engaging with content in a meaningful way, leading to sustained loyalty.

Listicles aren’t storytelling, they’re lists

That’s why I think on a semi-regular basis, content marketers should toss out some of the tried and true rules of content marketing and swing for the fences. With reasonably competent content creators on hand, clear objectives and planning, there’s no real rocket science involved in creating original, substantive work. The challenge lies in where to start in a field like content marketing with fairly defined sets of rules.

But notice how many ‘aha’ moments tend to happen in the shower, or during a stimulating conversation with someone outside your regular circle? It’s the same thing when looking at new approaches to the content you want to create. For this reason, content marketers should regularly look beyond their own industry.

Luckily, we’re in the midst of a golden age of digital journalism.

Despite the continued struggles of traditional journalism to find a viable economic path forward in the transition from print to digital, the craft itself is in great shape and changing the way non-fiction stories are told beyond the written word.

Take Buzzfeed, for example. Yes, Buzzfeed, the online media juggernaut that built a zillion dollar content empire because of the listicle has also hired talented young journalists, producing some of the very best news content online. Examples include Buzzfeed’s coverage of last year’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following Michael Brown’s fatal police shooting. Buzzfeed staff crowdsourced on-the-ground user photos, videos and tweets of the violent clashes between citizens and police from social media.

By employing multiple mediums and gritty user generated content, Buzzfeed provided what felt like an authentic, live view of what was truly unfolding during the protests. buzzfeed

Takeaway: The literal subject matter isn’t what matters in this example, it’s the approach and tools Buzzfeed staff brought to create a sense of immediacy, and authenticity to their coverage, plus an appetite to break some of the conventional rules of journalism to tailor the story for a millennial audience.

Another news site I love is Quartz. This ‘digital-native’ destination, customized for a mobile readership, regularly produces original, high-quality stories that get to the heart of what really matters in a dizzying global economy.

A winner of a 2015 Webby award for excellence in news, Quartz deftly uses data embedded in their articles to effectively visualize and distill complex economic issues into compelling, discernable stories. quartz

Takeaway: Take a close look at your content subject matter, are you telling the elements of your story in the most effective manner? Look at incorporating data visualization in your content (ie, charts, infographics). Is your ‘voice’ appropriate for your target audience?

Similar to Quartz but covering a more diverse range of subjects, Vox has a deceivingly simple mandate: Explain The News. Reporting on breaking news is hard enough, but Vox goes a step further by connecting the seemingly disparate ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of say, how the current relationship between the U.S. and Iran came to be, or, how did Donald Trump become this Donald Trump we’re currently reading about a lot.

Takeaway: The Vox should provide inspiration for content marketers to ask the question: am I diving deep enough into my content marketing subject matter for my clients or company. Are their interesting, creative connections I can make between two seemingly disparate subject areas or ideas in order to tell my story in a new, interesting way?

Finally, there’s Circa: Circa has mastered the art of clear, concise, hard news writing for mobile. Quartz gets you the facts, in plain english, on a breaking news story at lightning speed, via their cutting edge, real-time analytics database that tracks developing events from around the world. In fact, Circa was the first organization to break the first case of Ebola in the United States last year, well before the CNNs of the world did.  Circa also employs the inverted pyramid, a tried and true  journalistic rule where you write about the most important elements of a story up front in the lead, then fill in supporting content for the rest of the article.

Master the art of writing concisely and quickly, with the most important information up front to increase the quality and quantity of your content output.  Remember the value of analytics, as well as quotes from outside experts to inform the story you’re telling.

Images courtesy of:, Buzzfeed, Quartz


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