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The Top 10 Reasons Why Marketers Should Forsake Top-10 Lists

They're So Oversimplified, They Can't Possibly Help Anyone but the Compiler

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There's a top-10 list for just about anything. Personal health. Tax returns. The greatest events in history. Favorite bands. Reasons why the other political party stinks.

As a communicator, I'm particularly interested in the prevalence of top-10 lists in the marketing world. I can't pick up a book or attend a conference that doesn't present the most thorny and complex issues distilled into a how-to checklist. It's assumed that if a Big Idea can't be expressed in a list of actionable little ideas, it's not worth knowing. There are how-to lists on how to write how-to lists.

Marketers have always struggled for credibility and a voice within their organizations and at their clients' organizations. We compete these days with technologists for control of the basic tools of our craft. Yet we busy ourselves with telling one another how to reduce our strategic aspirations into neat little daily calendar entries. And then we bemoan the fact that we're treated like tacticians by those around us.

We could improve this situation, and not only better understand ideas but actually acquire new ones. Marketing conferences could involve experts other than marketers, and get us thinking and talking about science, philosophy and art. Our trade associations could finally establish standards, as accountants, lawyers and other professions have done. Isn't it odd that it's 2014 and there's still no agreed-upon way to measure or value brands? Our schools could yank future marketers and communicators out of business classes, and make sure they return to being liberal-arts majors, as some universities are doing by placing budding PR people in journalism schools.

We could also stop lecturing each other with top-10 lists. But if you can't resist them, here are 10 reasons why we need to quit this:

#1 A list is just a list. This first point may be more important than the next, or not.

#2 Achieving understanding is not a priority. Top-10 lists are popular because they come in bite-sized doses. This makes being pithy easy, but understanding hard.

#3 A list ignores intricate connections. Communicating successfully is a lot like building a solid house. Lists are merely baskets of construction materials.

#4 A list ignores nuance. A bullet item like "understand your customer" requires lots of detail to explain, but a list makes it seem easy.

#5 Lists are reduced to one-size-fits-all. Sorry, but the keys to marketing thumbscrews and perfume are not the same, unless you make the points generic, like "understand your customer."

#6 A list appears expert when it is merely a subjective ranking. Now that every being on the planet is a curator of content, we're all perceived as experts at everything. Especially making lists.

#7 Lists don't give options for failure. When an item on a list proves ineffective (or you fail in implementing it), lists don't provide fix-it how-to.

#8 Lists come with no prerequisites. Most folks will screw up following "top 10 ways to build a spaceship," but they'll all want to try.

#9 A list plays to your weaknesses, as it appears to encapsulate what you had worried was unfathomable. It makes you feel good, like eating potato chips or chocolate cake.

#10 Lists invariably enrich the list-makers. The only success they guarantee is for the well promoted creator, but not necessarily the follower. Thank you very much for your business.

Chances are that the issues and opportunities that you face in your job aren't the ones that can be simplified into a top-10 list. The time you spend with them is time you could have dedicated to actually understanding something important. Marketing is harder, and full of more potential, than any list could ever hope to suggest, let alone dictate.

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