‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the Internet, content marketers’ inboxes and social feeds became full of articles about “The best content marketing of 2017,” “The top 5 influencers of 2017,” and “The biggest content faux-pas of 2017.” There were also some of these for good measure: “What does 2018 hold for content marketing?” and “The 5 marketing tech trends to watch in 2018.”
Everyone’s doing it, trying to make themselves look like thought leaders by reviewing and future-gazing. It’s basic content strategy these days; has been for years. But does it work? And who are we writing these for, anyway?
Make Way for the Opinion-Leaders
So it was, when I pitched this to our esteemed leaders at the Content Standard, I was sure I was about to stumble upon a massive story. I was about to blow the lid: content strategy exposé! Content marketers get lazy for no reason at the end of the year! Because I, your humble correspondent, am rather cynical about these things. As soon as December rolls around and I start to see these year-in-review things, I groan. I literally groan. I rant and rave: Surely people have something more useful and interesting to write about? I know ’tis the season of Christmas parties and hangovers, but really. Really? That’s the best we can do in this day and age of futuretech and innovation at every turn?
I struck it lucky: Our esteemed leader agreed. Spake Rachel Haberman, managing editor: “The end-of-year listicles leave me feeling conflicted. This is a gross over-simplification, but I see it falling into a quantity–quality trap. On one hand, they drive traffic. Audiences love a listicle; audiences love predictions. They’re consistently top performers in terms of page views and social reach. You can depend on them to hoist up some very important KPIs.
“But on the other hand, it’s very easy to bang out a low-quality listicle when you’re low on posts, especially at the end of the year. Listicles in general don’t demand a cohesive argument, which makes them easier to write, and when you’re doing a prediction article, you can also get away with doing less research, because it hasn’t happened yet and no one can tell you you’re wrong.”
Image attribution: Joshua Earle
You tell ’em, boss lady. And so I embarked upon my odyssey, canvassing peers and doing my best festive investigative journalism. Surely we don’t all want to be gazing out to the horizon, thinking about the year that was and what is to come? But . . .
“I don’t mind them; it’s easy, cheap attention. I tend to write one for my blog every year anyway,” said one copywriter. “Not everything has to be groundbreaking. As long as it’s getting attention, it’s doing the job.”
Indeed, in one of my patented Incredibly Scientific Twitter Polls™, 67 percent of respondents simply replied “meh.” Could it be that I just underestimated the force of opinion, assuming everyone was like me with the “ugh, not again” feels?
OK, so it turns out some people do love the end-of-year wrap. April Doty, founder of Red Tricycle, waxed lyrical about the value of end-of-year reviews and predictions: “Everybody is busy predicting the marketing trends that will dominate in 2018, how the Internet of things will immerse us in digital content, how live video will continue to rise in popularity and how AI will apparently make marketing more human. It’s impossible to master the torrent of storytelling tools that are flooding the marketplace today.
“I find the ‘look back at what you might have missed in 2017’ more useful than the ‘look ahead to what’s coming.’ The world is moving so fast, chances are, yes, I did miss that! Thank you for telling me!”
Likewise, communications specialist Rhian Burgess balked at the idea these posts were a way for content marketers to get by in a quiet period. “What quiet period?!” she exclaimed, before continuing: “I like the reflection stuff because, given the pace of things, it’s all too easy to forget about some of the really exciting and even groundbreaking stuff to come out of the last 12 months. We should all take time to look back, feel proud of our achievements, and chew over what we could have done better.”
The Review Versus Prediction Battle
Yet Burgess’s love for the end-of-year listicle stops at the review: “I find that the short-term forecasts only tend to draw upon enhancements of what we already know and do, whereas truly innovative ideas pretty much defy prediction and just come out of left field and hit you right between the eyes. Much longer-ranging prophecies are best—the more outlandish and thought-provoking, the better.”
I wasn’t alone in my cynicism, though. One contact was forthright in his wrap-up: “Easy content,” he said. “On the prestige hierarchy, the New Year’s resolution story rates just above listicles. And now, click this link to learn the ten best ways to avoid writing listicles.”
Writes Philip Bump for the Washington Post: “Next week is peak ‘of the year’ article week. We recommend not visiting any sites (besides ours) for that period. For those of us who write for the web every day, bless our hearts, the end-of-year listicle is a hallowed tradition, because thinking of 10 things and then remembering the correct order for the digits 1 through 10 means that we can dispatch articles quickly and then go have a drink at a holiday party. In today’s modern get-more-traffic media environment, the end-of-year listicle has become part of the nuclear arsenal of attention-grabbing—but this is partly your fault. As it turns out, people actually search for end-of-year listicles for some reason.”
He’s right, ya know. A quick consultation with Google Trends shows people actually do search for this stuff. Here’s a comparison of the terms “in review” and “of the year”—see those spikes every December? Maybe there’s an SEO reason to this stuff after all.
(By the way, Australia loves a “2017 in review” title, scoring top marks on the trendometer—take from that what you will, brands Down Under.)
The Top 5 Reasons This Content Won’t Go Away
“Some argue the listicle is not just a passing fad but a reaction to the demands of younger audiences and the rise of mobile media consumption,” writes Jack Marshall for Digiday. Younger readers have grown up in an environment where short-form content is the norm, the thinking goes, and prefer to consume content in short, structured bursts.
“Plenty of users now complain about their social news feeds being clogged with lists, but the same people also admit they often click on and read those lists, and that’s the key. As long as listicles keep performing, publishers will keep churning them out. Until the data says otherwise, there’s a backlash against them, or a better alternative comes along, that’s not going to change any time soon. In fact, we probably should have made this piece a listicle.”
It seems perhaps there is a general malaise, but only to the point where no one has a strong opinion. You can bet we’ll all click on those links in the next few weeks and file them under “must read at some point.”
Image attribution: Austin Chan
What it comes down to is this: It’s a busy time of year, both for readers and content marketers, and the end-of-year article is a fantastic opportunity to recycle old content and bolster vanity metrics. Plus, people love sharing them—a way of showing they have their finger on the pulse, and so are trusted thought leaders themselves. Then there’s the ego involvement on behalf of the writer: Hey, look at how good I am at what I do—I know what works and what doesn’t!
“I don’t have a problem with listicles or predictions per se,” says Rachel Haberman. “I’ve written them and I will continue to write them and I will continue to accept them as pitches from our writers and to publish them. What I do have a problem with is the excuse they give us to be lazy as content creators. If we’re going to write them, we should hold them to the same standards that we hold the rest of our content to in terms of research, quality of analysis, and original point of view.”
So whether it’s the future-gazing piece, the “we asked X leaders for their views” piece, or the simple recap article or podcast, end-of-year content is not going away any time soon. Even though we all know they’re not our best content, we’ll still publish them this year. And next year. And the one after that. Just promise me one thing: Try to be a little original in how you do it next time. Otherwise you’ll probably hear my 2018 end-of-year groan all the way across the Atlantic.
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Featured image attribution: Mike Enerio