A List of Things to Think About When Targeting List-Makers

Jonathan Salem Baskin on Marketing and Leadership

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Ready for another top-10 list of things you're supposed to care about? OK, maybe not, but we've been told that making and following lists is one of the emergent ways folks make decisions about what news stories to read, websites to visit and products to buy. Only I don't think it's such novel behavior. I think we need to realize how central it has always been to our consumers' experience.

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin is the author of "Branding Only Works on Cattle" and blogs about marketing at Dim Bulb.
Lists are as old as language and numbers themselves. When human civilization first emerged from the haze of prehistory, what did we feel compelled to communicate? Checklists of commodities. Debts. The earliest obelisks and stelae didn't celebrate some spiritual insight from the beginning of time, but rather allowed kings to declare "this is my stuff." Those hieroglyphics on the walls of temples from Egypt to Central America? Accounting ledgers intended for use in the afterlife.

Lists aren't a technology thing, and there's no obvious rhyme or reason to what gets ranked (or who does the ranking). It's still uselessly fun to know that 1,203 bottles of wine were drunk at Jefferson's Monticello between 1822 and 1824, while the weather patterns that Horatio Nelson and James Cook recorded have since helped us reconstruct global climate models. Midlevel cretins in the Nazi and Baath parties got hung for the atrocities they immortalized in their notes, while many more personal diaries full of "picks and pans" are forever lost to history.

So there's a good chance that your consumers aren't just following the popularity lists teed up by news aggregators or citizen movie reviewers; they're also making lists themselves. That's what blogs are, ultimately ... stele for the Chattering Age. Signposts representing by prioritization the things people care about in real-time, all the time. You might see your brand as some idealized image, but your consumers are likely testing it in an ongoing popularity contest.

Questions to ask about lists

INCLUSION: What criteria prompt to-do lists, and are you addressing them all?

PRIORITIZATION: How are items moved up or down, and does your brand matter?

AFFIRMATION: If you can't get your brand added to a list, who can?

VARIATION: Can you top today's referral list just like you did yesterday?

What would happen if you saw your brands less as creative, mental constructs, and more as triggers for this genetic list-making-and-following behavior? Here are three ideas from MY list:

First, you'd find more ways to prompt and force rankings. If you're not providing the context and tools for comparison, it's still happening, only not necessarily on criteria you care about. Second, why not invent more ways to sample and review? Spend money getting traction more often with people, instead of trying to attach esoteric attributes to your image. Finally, build communities that can share meaningful recommendations and referrals. The bigger the social network, the smaller the value of the lists shared (and the more common-denominator, and thus irrelevant to your purposes, the prioritization must be).

You don't have to wait for an internet search algorithm to participate in list behavior, and it would be a shame to get ranked at the top of someone's favorites, only to wait for it to matter someday (just like your current branding strategy, most probably). If you're not actively and aggressively helping your consumers make and share lists, you're probably not on them.

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