And the No. 1 Column for Breaking the List Habit Is . . . This One!

How-to and Best-of Lists are Incomplete and Likely Wrong, Toss Them

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Imagine if doctors posted "The Top Five Angles for Conducting Appendectomies," or accountants filled their chat rooms with "Tips For Speeding Up Depreciation Expenses." Would you want your professional services providers spending their time reading such stuff? Now imagine that those lists were the primary way they shared information with each other, and that the trade press organized its coverage (and bestowed awards) by similarly ranking things like "neatest incisions" or "richest refunds."

You'd wonder if those doctors and accountants were really serious, and you wouldn't necessarily follow the advice they posted online. You'd also question a profession that took itself so un-seriously that it let any presumed practitioner post how-to and pass it off as expertise.

Yet that 's exactly what we marketers do. While the journals of most other professions are filled with discourses about the very nature of their practices, ours are jammed with light-hearted cases and glib best-of rankings. Publications like this one and others that have their roots in "old" media aren't immune to the affliction, but I'm really talking about the digital-only sites and communities. While writers and bloggers in other professions are concerned about peer-review, not to mention the requirements of law, insurance and accountability, ours are either oblivious or consciously defy any such requirements, whether real or self-imposed. If you can make a list, you are qualified to make a marketing how-to list, and the quicker, more blunt and easier it is to read, the better it will be received.

Are we really that dumb?

Through most of history, brevity was associated with an inability to communicate and lack of understanding. People valued detail and nuance so folks who were inarticulate were considered poor communicators. Things that were said fast or bluntly were things that weren't that important (though exceptions like "duck!" or "run, the room is on fire!" always warranted rapt attention). It was considered the height of responsibility to take time to consider things, especially if this could be accomplished in a quiet, undisturbed manner. It took time to be considered smart, and even more time to qualify as being right about things.

Contrast that with our love of quick answers, easy comparisons, and the ever-present lists that reduce the most complex marketing issues of our day into easy-to-follow directions.

We're doing ourselves a disservice. No activity can be reduced to simple how-to steps unless it's excruciatingly simply to begin with (unroll stamp, lick it, place on envelope); every quality beyond the most simply actions comes with a decision-tree of alternatives and reasonable arguments in support of each branch. A how-to list is nothing more than a sample, not an example, of what one tree looked like, one time, in one circumstance, for one person, once. To assign any more veracity to it is just plain stupid.

So I have a suggestion for you: Kick the habit in 2012. Here's your "Top Five Ways to Stop Believing Top Five Marketing Lists" list:
  • It's just not that easy. No matter how much of an exhibitionist a marketer might be, he or she isn't going to reveal the exact way a success was realized or problem overcome. There's also a good chance that the real reasons why something worked remain unknown or unappreciated. So how-to lists are incomplete, at best, and more than likely distractingly wrong. You can't hope to find one that you can follow with any certainty that it will take you where you hope to go.

  • You don't have physics on your side. The problem with modeling your actions on prior successes is that successes are inexorably wedded to particular places, times and an all but infinite litany of variables. I know this flies in the face of what Tony Robbins teaches on his self-help infomercials, but quantum physics states that you create reality when you experience it, which means that no two moments can ever be the same. By definition, what worked last time won't work exactly the same way this time.

  • You can't trust the author. If somebody is successful, it's not likely that he or she will readily share every secret of success with everyone else. So the mere fact that someone creates a list means they're either not as successful as they claim, or altruistic to the point of stupidity. I'm not saying you can't chance on the occasional true giver, but do you want to bank the design of your next social-media campaign on a stranger? Don't believe what you read (except this, of course).

  • Serious people don't implement lists. If you're trying to advance in your career, you shouldn't follow how-to lists any more than you should create them. Both activities are embarrassing because they're overly simplistic; issues like social interaction or trust are woefully complex, and you should try to make your mark contemplating and understanding them, not running to make them answerable with a Facebook page or mobile promotion.

  • Do as list-makers do, not as they say. Chances are that few proponents of how-to lists woke up one morning with the items lined up in their minds (unless they made the lists up, which I think happens more than we'd care to know). Ideally, they arrived at them through hard work, experimentation and not a little failure along the way. You'd be far better served doing the same thing instead of trying to leapfrog all that work and get to the results, because of the prior four points on this list. You want to be famous in marketing? Skip list reading and making, and go make great marketing happen.

Think of the great names in marketing. David Ogilvy. Bill Bernbach. Lee Clow. These folks didn't follow lists, and they didn't write them. They just created advertising that changed the world. No list will tell you how to do that .

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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