List post headlines – should we stop playing the numbers game?

Effective headlines for blog posts and articles are ever-increasingly important now that so many of us are writing publicly.

List post headlines - should we stop playing the numbers game?

Numbered lists for blog posts? Clever or cliché?

Your headline is the only chance you’ve got to grab your readers by the hair as they flick past, say, the alarmingly busy list of LinkedIn Pulse articles, a timeline on Facebook, or the home page on Google Plus.

(For a list of the top 10 most helpful articles on blogging for business as chosen by our readers, click here)

One of the most popular headline formats and one which has long been considered effective, is the numbered list approach – e.g. “10 Ways To Write Great Blog Posts,”
“7 Hot Tips On How To Win The Lottery,” etc.

The psychology of numbered list posts

According to Courtney Seiter on Buffer in April last year

Numbers work well in headlines because humans like predictability and dislike uncertainty. 

A study on the psychology of waiting in line found that when we don’t know how long something is going to take, we experience that time differently. If a patient in a waiting room is told that the doctor is running 30 minutes late, he might be annoyed at first but he’ll eventually relax into the wait. But if the patient is told the doctor will be free soon, he spends the whole time nervous and unable to settle down because his expectations are being managed poorly. When we’re in this situation, time actually feels like it’s going slower for us.

Numbers can help by providing that expectation management for us, so we know exactly what we’re getting into. Those might be some of the reasons that a Conductor study found that audiences prefer number headlines to almost any other type.

Certainly, these numbered list posts seem to work for me and many of my blogging clients. But it’s true to say that the sameness of seeing such headlines over and over again is beginning to irritate some readers – even me.

Not another numbered list headline … groan

UK businessman Mark Orr, a regular contributor to HTWB, was scathing about these beasts in his recent article on LinkedIn Pulse…

You will hear self proclaimed gurus tell you that one of the most effective headline strategies is simply using numbers. Do you believe it is that easy? 

I think this is a little old fashioned. It may have worked in the past but now it is completely over used. When I see 10 top tips for this or 5 secrets of that or 7 mistakes or whatever number I know the article is really a promotional lead generation advert. I don’t think I am going to read any genuinely useful information.

Mark has a point when he says that the numbered list post and headline are over used and have become clichés, but we can’t really argue in the face of the evidence some of which I have outlined above. Here is what I replied to Mark, on LinkedIn…

[ctt tweet=”If you want Grandpa Google to be attracted to your headline, the closer to its beginning your keywords are the better.” coverup=”1zdmD”]

Much as these number-led headlines irk me too, Mark, for the same reasons you state, there is endless evidence that they still work. I’m not sure of the psychology here; maybe in – as you say – all the “noise” of the internet readers are subconsciously drawn to a headline that suggests the information is partially digested for them already.

One point that numbers merchants should remember is that if you want Grandpa Google to be attracted to your headline, the closer to its beginning your keywords are the better. That’s why my current Friday series on my site has the keywords first, e.g. “Business writing mistakes you can’t afford to make – 10 Quick Tips.” This series is very popular, probably because the headlines suggest that you get useful information without having to read a lot of words. So let’s not dismiss the numbers game just yet … it has its uses, especially if you move them around!

OK. What do you think of numbered list posts and their headlines?

Do they turn you right off, as they do to Mark?

Do they make you think you’re going to get a hard sales pitch?

Are you someone who when waiting in line/queuing (as the psychologists said), finds a number comforting?

Do you think they suggest you’re going to get well ordered and easily absorbed information?

Please share your views!

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  1. Interesting read Suzan. I think the numbers game works because in a world where we are absorbing so much data each day we like to read bite-sized chunks of info and these types of posts are (generally) pretty short. But I like the way you put the keywords first. Makes the headline more compelling

    • Thank you Michelle. If you scroll back up you’ll see some interesting comments emerging from Google Plus and it looks like we’re going to have a consensus that numbered list posts are part of the “fast food” online text culture … would you agree with that?