7 reasons why you're probably going to read this list

Lists are everywhere online these days — the 14 best of this, the 21 most of that. It seems as if every subject can be reduced to a list, from the most serious stories to the most frivolous. But why are lists so popular?
Buzzfeed's Katie Natopolous says research shows what works and what doesn't online. "A black and white image doesn't do as well as a colour image, a cartoon face will not do as well as a human face. There's one person who's figured out a secret, that Jennifer Lawrence in a thumbnail will always do great." (John Rieti/CBC)

Lists are everywhere online these days — the 14 best of this, the 21 most of that. It seems as if every subject can be reduced to a list, from the most serious stories to the most frivolous.

One site,, has become one of the most popular sites on the web (about 130 million monthly unique visitors), largely on the strength of its weird and wacky "listicals." Headlines such as "65 Feelings Kids Today Will Never Understand," and "32 Problems All Tall Girls Will Understand" – they are guaranteed clickbait.

But why are lists so popular?  Here are seven reasons why you’ll probably want to read this list:  

1. It Can Make Your Brain Happy

In a New Yorker article published last year, writer Maria Konnikova points out that when our brain encounters new information it immediately tries to make sense of it, and the most effective way of processing  information is spatially. 

The Sunday Edition

On CBC radio's The Sunday Edition on May 18, starting at 9 a.m. EDT:

  • Michael Enright on the Harper vs. McLachlin controversy.
  • Justice for Residential School Survivors: Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has finished its hearings, two aboriginal scholars - writer Lee Maracle and the University of Victoria's Taiaiake Alfred - discuss what should come next.
  • An Ode to the Oboe: Sarah Jeffrey defends her much-maligned, but essential, orchestral instrument.
  • Vancouver - the "most Asian" city outside of Asia: Interview with businessman Farid Rohani.

In other words, it's easier for us to understand and recall information when it’s presented in a list than in a paragraph.

That’s why we can often remember what’s on our grocery list, even if we’ve forgotten the list at home. We can visualize the list in a way that we can’t visualize information written in a paragraph. So you might say your brain is hardwired to enjoy this list.

2. There are Seven Items

There’s good news and bad news here. The good news for this list is that seven is an odd number, and although there’s no science to support this, list makers have long believed that odd-number lists generate more traffic that even numbers.

The most common number of items on BuzzFeed lists are 10, 15, 21, and 25. Three of those are odd numbers.    

On the other hand, Katie Natopolous, a BuzzFeed list writer in New York, acknowledges that while there’s no magic number when it comes to how long a list should be, she believes the more items the better. 

"I like to think that something in the 20s is just more satisfying," she explained in an interview.  "If it’s less than 20, it’s just not as fun to read. It’s too short."   

Oh well.

3. It’s Easy to Read on Your Phone

On a purely practical level, it’s easier to read vertical content on a smartphone than horizontal content. So lists are perfect for mobile technology.

That’s why your favourite news site will offer up more lists in the morning than later in the day. Audience data shows that people are more likely to read news on their phones in the morning when they wake up and while they’re getting ready to leave the house. They want the quick hit that lists provide with their coffee and corn flakes. 

Later in the day, when they’re reading on their computers or tablets, lists aren’t quite as highly valued.  

4. It Can Simplify Your Life

Psychologists call this the "paradox of choice."  In a study that appeared in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2011, researchers Claude Messner and Michaela Wanke concluded that consumers get more satisfaction when choosing a product from a limited sample than from a larger one.

 It turns out that even though we think we like to be presented with lots of choices, too many options can make us uneasy.  "Information overload causes decreased satisfaction," the authors concluded, "and reducing information overload would increase satisfaction." 

Lists are a great antidote to information overload. They take the guess work out of reading.  You don’t have to scroll down to see how long the story is and then calculate whether you have enough time to finish it. You know what you’re getting and roughly how long it will take you, even before you start.

5. The Headline Tells It Like It Really Is

People don’t like to be fooled, and they especially don’t like to be misled by headlines that promise one thing and deliver another.

Chartbeat, a data analytics company based in New York City, has analyzed what keywords get the most reads per clicks in a headline, and which get the least. The results are surprising. Headlines with words like "Obama," "Snowden" and "Syria" get well read, while the kinds of adjectives you commonly find on lists — like "top," "best," and "richest" — get the least. 

The reason, according to Joe Alicata of Chartbeat, is that the former "are legitimate words that are clear descriptors of the actual content."  The latter tend to be there simply to trick people into clicking, and don’t deliver as promised. With this list, you knew what you were getting right off the top.

6. It Can Turn Snackers into Lovers

According to Marissa Nelson, who’s in charge of all things digital at the CBC, there are two kinds of online news consumers; snackers, who are just looking for a quick read as they’re breezing through the web, and lovers, who keep coming back because they see you as a trusted source. 

"For news brands, it's a cycle." Nelson argues. "You have to catch them as snackers and then turn them into lovers."

Lists are an excellent way to attract snackers looking for a drive-by hit, and once you’ve got them on your site, you can capture their hearts and minds.  Come for the lists, stay for the stories.

7. There’s a Picture of Jennifer Lawrence

Thumbnails – those little pictures that sit next to headlines and on search pages — are major drivers of traffic. Katie Natopolous of BuzzFeed says her data science team has done the research and found that colour images do better than black and white, and human faces do better than cartoons.

But the most important finding involved actress Jennifer Lawrence.

"Jennifer Lawrence in a thumbnail will always do great," Natopolous explained. "People love clicking on Jennifer Lawrence's face."       

[Listen to Ira Basen's audio documentary, "13 Fascinating Things You Probably Didn't Know About Online News," on The Sunday Edition's website or in the link at the top-left of this page.]


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