Podcast: Why Are Rankings and Listicles So Popular?
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Marketing Jul 10, 2017

Pod­cast: Why Are Rank­ings and Lis­ti­cles So Popular?

From Top 10 Beach­es” to Five Ways to Nego­ti­ate a Raise,” the psy­chol­o­gy behind effec­tive lists.

A man reads lists.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research and insights of

Kent Grayson

David Rapp

Rachel Davis Mersey

Listening: Why Rankings and Listicles Are So Popular

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Lists are every­where we look these days. Whether it’s a run­down of the hottest restau­rants down­town or a roundup of the day’s biggest news sto­ries, lists and rank­ings have a way of orga­niz­ing infor­ma­tion so that it sticks with us.

In this month’s Insight pod­cast, Kent Grayson, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, pro­vides rules of thumb for com­pa­nies look­ing to use ranked lists to their advan­tage. David Rapp, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at North­west­ern, describes how peo­ple remem­ber infor­ma­tion in lists. And Rachel Davis Mersey, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Northwestern’s Medill School, dis­cuss­es how social media has seen an explo­sion in the lis­ti­cle” as a way to con­nect to readers.

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Pod­cast Transcript

[music intro]

Jes­si­ca LOVE: David Rapp is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. He’s also a reg­u­lar read­er of Enter­tain­ment Week­ly mag­a­zine. And when he flips through the pages each month, he knows he’ll always find one thing: lists. 

David RAPP: Every issue — I know because I sub­scribe — every issue is like, Top Ten Coun­try Songs That Appeared in Movies.” 

LOVE: To be clear, he’s not com­plain­ing. Lists are fun. You’ve prob­a­bly read at least one today, whether it was Top 10 Eye-Catch­ing Train Sta­tions” or Eight Ways to Orga­nize Your Closet.” 

But there are oth­er rea­sons lists are every­where from Huff­in­g­ton Post to Bloomberg Busi­ness­week. This for­mat is an extreme­ly appeal­ing and effec­tive way of con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion. But you can’t just slap any old list togeth­er. There are rules to this game, and we’re going to teach them to you. 

Wel­come to the Kel­logg Insight pod­cast. I’m your host, Jes­si­ca Love. Stay with us. 

[music inter­lude]

LOVE: To under­stand why lists are so appeal­ing, it helps to think about just how much infor­ma­tion is con­stant­ly com­ing at us. Here’s Kellogg’s Kent Grayson.

Kent GRAYSON: Life is full of tons of data, and our job, is to try to find heuris­tics that nar­row down the data and help us to make decisions. 

LOVE: You can think of heuris­tics like sig­nals or rules of thumb” — some­thing you can rely on in order to make good-enough deci­sions with­out hav­ing to rea­son through every fact every time. 

For exam­ple, when we’re try­ing to decide whether it’s safe to cross a busy street, we might notice that sev­er­al oth­er peo­ple are already cross­ing. So we inter­pret that as a sig­nal that it’s safe for us to do the same. 

GRAYSON: And the rea­son why we’re sit­ting here is because we’ve been rea­son­ably suc­cess­ful with our deci­sions as we go through life. I’m just talk­ing about: we can cross streets pret­ty eas­i­ly. We can dri­ve cars pret­ty eas­i­ly. We make deci­sions that don’t poi­son us pret­ty eas­i­ly. Heuris­tics are very helpful. 

LOVE: Grayson is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kel­logg. He stud­ies the psy­chol­o­gy of trust — name­ly, what caus­es cus­tomers to believe or dis­be­lieve com­pa­nies’ claims. 

Grayson explains that we as cus­tomers devel­op heuris­tics too, about whether or not to trust what com­pa­nies say. 

GRAYSON: How do con­sumers under­stand the tac­tics that mar­keters are imple­ment­ing? Or let me put it in anoth­er way: we’re inter­est­ed in under­stand­ing the knowl­edge that con­sumers have about mar­ket­ing tac­tics and the way in which they employ that knowl­edge when mar­keters use that tactic. 

LOVE: In research with a col­league, Math­ew Isaac, Grayson finds that one of the most trust­ed tac­tics is … you guessed it, a list. 

But not just any old list: a ranked list cre­at­ed by a respect­ed third par­ty, like Con­sumer Reports or Good House­keep­ing. Think Top 5 Beard Trim­mers” or 30 Best Cars of 2017.” 

So why is being on this kind of list so effec­tive? Grayson points to a belief among cus­tomers that mar­keters aren’t dumb enough to lie about being in a ranked list because these lists are checkable. 

GRAYSON: And that check­a­bil­i­ty, peo­ple believe, is a polic­ing mech­a­nism that keeps the mar­keter from lying about that. 

LOVE: When prod­ucts do earn a spot on a pres­ti­gious list, there are cer­tain rules that mar­keters would be smart to fol­low to pre­serve this trust. 

Let’s say you own a restau­rant. Bön Appetit comes along and ranks your restau­rant num­ber 18 on a list of the 20 best in the Unit­ed States. Log­i­cal­ly, it’s bet­ter to tell your cus­tomers that you made the top 18, not the top 20. Right? 

GRAYSON: So actu­al­ly what we found is that it’s worse. If you’re 18, it’s worse to say that you’re in the top 18 because con­sumers will be like, well they’re not even using the rules right and because of that I think they are prob­a­bly 18.” 

LOVE: That’s because con­sumers have come to expect and pre­fer that mar­keters use num­bers that end in either zero or five — nice, round, com­fort­able” num­bers like 15 or 20

In a series of six stud­ies, Grayson found that if you stick to a num­ber like 20, nobody stops to con­sid­er whether you actu­al­ly came in at 5, 10, 15, what­ev­er. They sim­ply con­clude that the prod­uct must be good. 

But if you devi­ate from that pref­er­ence — by using 14, say, or 18 — it throws peo­ple for a loop and makes them think a lit­tle too close­ly about a product’s place on the list. It makes them think about how your prod­uct came in dead last on that list. 

[musi­cal interlude]

LOVE: When tout­ing your place on a ranked list, the num­bers you use clear­ly mat­ter. But inter­est­ing­ly, for peo­ple just read­ing straight through a list, order is less impor­tant than you might think. 

RAPP: We’ve seen in a lot of research that when peo­ple are giv­en lists of infor­ma­tion, if it’s stuff they’re not famil­iar with, they have a real­ly hard time remem­ber­ing the order of what stuff was pre­sent­ed, where things fell on the list. 

LOVE: That’s David Rapp, the psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor we heard from ear­li­er. When he’s not read­ing Enter­tain­ment Week­ly, Rapp stud­ies how we under­stand and remem­ber information. 

He says there’s not a lot of point in fret­ting that cus­tomers will read the list and remem­ber after­ward that you came in toward the bot­tom. We’re just not that good at remem­ber­ing sequences. 

What cus­tomers are more like­ly to remem­ber is that your prod­uct was on the list at all — and here you’ll actu­al­ly have an edge if it appeared at the very begin­ning or end of the list. 

At the begin­ning of the list, we don’t have much else on our mind. So we’re well-pre­pared to take in new infor­ma­tion and process it on a deep, mean­ing­ful level. 

RAPP: Pre­sum­ably that gets it into long-term mem­o­ry and to per­ma­nent mem­o­ry, and stuff that appears lat­er in the list that you can still retrieve because it’s in short term mem­o­ry, it’s cur­rent­ly acces­si­ble, lends those items bet­ter reten­tion, makes it eas­i­er to recall those items lat­er, and the stuff in the mid­dle just kind of gets lost. 

LOVE: Anoth­er thing to under­stand about lists? The short­er they are, the more like­ly peo­ple are to believe them. 

RAPP: There’s a series of stud­ies that shows when you ask peo­ple to make longer lists, they tend not to think that infor­ma­tion is as true as if they made short­er lists. 

LOVE: So if you ask a group of peo­ple to come up with three rea­sons why the US entered World War II and a sec­ond group to come up with sev­en rea­sons, the group that comes up with sev­en doesn’t believe that list as much as the group that came up with three. 

RAPP: It’s hard­er to come up with sev­en and peo­ple tend to think, Well, if it’s hard­er to come up with sev­en, maybe those things aren’t as true.” 

LOVE: He also stress­es that the more lists a prod­uct appears on, the more like­ly peo­ple are to remem­ber the prod­uct — and believe claims about it. 

RAPP: What we see a lot, in social media, in our lab, is, as you present infor­ma­tion more often, peo­ple think it’s more true. So if you start to see lists with the same items in them, Top Movies of 2017” based on review­ers’ com­ments, based on Rot­ten Toma­toes, you start to see the same movies. You might start to think, Those real­ly are bet­ter movies,” because you’ve seen them repeat­ed and the degree to which they’re repeat­ed makes it eas­i­er to remem­ber them in mem­o­ry and then you think it’s true. Because if you can recall it eas­i­ly, then you believe it’s right. 

LOVE: But there may come a day when no mat­ter how short lists are, and no mat­ter where your prod­uct ranks, lists will stop being seen as cred­i­ble. If com­pa­nies or brands start lying and say­ing that their prod­ucts are on some impres­sive list when they real­ly aren’t.… Well, here’s Kellogg’s Kent Grayson again. 

GRAYSON: Even­tu­al­ly con­sumers will start throw­ing up their hands and say, I used to think that was a sig­nal of cred­i­ble and believ­able mar­ket­ing infor­ma­tion, but now I see peo­ple are kind of screw­ing around with it, and I no longer see it as useful.” 

[musi­cal inter­lude]

LOVE: Okay, so at least for now, ranked lists are a great mar­ket­ing tool for the prod­ucts or com­pa­nies that appear on them. But what hap­pens when the list itself is the product? 

Rachel Davis MERSEY: Now, with the emer­gence of social media, we’ve seen this trend called listicles. 

LOVE: That’s Rachel Davis Mersey, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Northwestern’s Medill School. She’s talk­ing about those high­ly read­able, often sil­ly lists-slash-arti­cles you see on sites like Buz­zfeed. Like 21 Toys You Con­stant­ly Played with if You Were a Kid in the 90s” or 33 Tweets That’ll Make Zero Sense if You’re Not British.” 

These rel­a­tive­ly new diver­sions have old roots, she says. 

MERSEY: Inter­est­ing­ly, lis­ti­cles have become a thing, but the his­to­ry of list-mak­ing in jour­nal­ism is actu­al­ly much longer than the term, lis­ti­cles.”

LOVE: Mersey points out that jour­nal­ists have long used a vari­ety of for­mats to struc­ture and cat­e­go­rize the ideas they’re writ­ing about. 

MERSEY: I just reviewed a mag­a­zine for the Nation­al Mag­a­zine Awards that did the ways to clean your house in the alpha­bet. So it would be, A, how to clean apples. You should use a veg­etable spray. B, how to clean your bath­tub. You should go buy Clorox. C, think about clean­ing your car. You should leave a buck­et off to the side.” That has been used as an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple in the way that the human brain craves orga­niz­ing principles. 

LOVE: But social-media lis­ti­cles do more than just appeal to our desire for organization. 

MERSEY: I think jour­nal­ists are con­stant­ly look­ing for a way to con­nect with people’s iden­ti­ties, which can often take the form of lists. 

LOVE: So when you read a list titled, 20 Infu­ri­at­ing Things That Hap­pen in Every Col­lege Class” or at Every Fam­i­ly Reunion,” or in Every Office,” the point isn’t just to enter­tain you. It’s also to appeal to your iden­ti­ty as a col­lege stu­dent, or fam­i­ly mem­ber, or office work­er. See­ing your­self in those lists gives you a sense of con­nec­tion — and makes it more like­ly you’ll share the list in hopes of increas­ing that connection. 

MERSEY: I think when jour­nal­ists used to think to them­selves, How do we get peo­ple to talk about this in the office around the water cool­er?” the new ver­sion of that is, How do we get some­one to share this on social media?” And then how does that spur a con­ver­sa­tion, and I think lists are entire­ly designed to do that. Oh, my good­ness, did you see num­ber sev­en?” In a list, peo­ple can find lots of dif­fer­ent con­nec­tion points. 

LOVE: In a social-media-soaked world, that desire for con­nec­tion and orga­ni­za­tion is so great that lis­ti­cles have even start­ed pop­ping up in places you might not expect, like main­stream news outlets. 

MERSEY: Morn­ing tele­vi­sion will often end with, The three or five sto­ries you need to know before going out the door.” 

You wouldn’t ordi­nar­i­ly think of The New York Times’ morn­ing brief­ing as a lis­ti­cle, but it is most cer­tain­ly a list. 

I think peo­ple who think neg­a­tive­ly about lis­ti­cles only think about the Buz­zFeed, you know, What Kind of Cat Are You?” I think that, unfor­tu­nate­ly, it bypass­es what’s real­ly impor­tant, which is the orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple in which we frame the world for peo­ple. I think the best news orga­ni­za­tions are using the inspi­ra­tion of lis­ti­cles to tell sto­ries more effectively. 

[music inter­lude]

LOVE: This pro­gram was pro­duced by Jes­si­ca Love, Fred Schmalz, Emi­ly Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was writ­ten by Anne Ford. 

Spe­cial thanks to our guests, Kent Grayson, David Rapp, and Rachel Davis Mersey. 

You can stream or down­load our month­ly pod­cast from iTunes, Google Play, or from our web­site, where you can read more about mar­ket­ing and trust. Vis­it us at insight​.kel​logg​.north​west​ern​.edu. We’ll be back next month with anoth­er Kel­logg Insight podcast. 

Featured Faculty

Kent Grayson

Associate Professor of Marketing; Bernice and Leonard Lavin Professorship

About the Research

Issac, Mathew S., Aaron R. Brough, and Kent Grayson. “Is Top 10 Better Than Top 9? The Role of Expectations in Consumer Response to Imprecise Rank Claims.” Journal of Marketing Research. 53: 338-353.

Read the original

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