Originally posted December 2011
If you were lured in by the headline I’m sorry but there isn’t a seven-part list anywhere in this post; that would hardly be a convincing argument for abandoning tried and tested formats.
Writing to a formula certainly has its place. It’s predictable, which in this day of short attention spans and search-driven reading, is generally a bonus. Give the reader what they are expecting or risk a quick bounce, is the accepted maxim.
Add to this the vast amount of information that target groups need to battle through every day and the cost of producing content, and logic dictates replicating any format that generates a reasonable hit rate.
Lists are a typical example. Having an accepted template – intro, context para, list, summary – to follow makes them fairly straightforward to produce and easy to adapt. Readers know immediately what to expect (unless the writer lied in the headline like I did) and have a fair idea of the time they are about to invest. It’s no surprise then that in a 15-minute scan of my online channels* I encountered 17 of them.
I have no doubt that the content is vastly different, but by weight of numbers alone, the longer the format persists the more they will sound the same, and the fewer I actually read.
The same can be said for these other trendy formats, which I tallied up during my informal survey of the online word:
- Questions directed specifically at the reader (you, we), 11
- Infographics, 7
- Calls to action, 6
- How to guides, 3
Not every piece of prose you create can be award winning. And the vast majority doesn’t need to be. But when you really need your point to stand out, when success rests on inspiring your reader to act, when your announcement has real strategic importance, dare to break the mould.
*1 hour each of my twitter and Google + timelines; personalised headlines on LinkedIn; and front pages of two traditional online news sources and two blogs. I also added two randomly selected, big name brand sites for balance. I don’t have a Facebook account but I assume the pattern would be consistent.