Number Adjective Contents What Happens When a Formula Dies 543

Posts based on the Number + Adjective + Contents headline formula are probably the most popular form of web content we’ve ever seen. For every one person who loathes them there are one-hundred people who are enchanted by them. For reasons that others have previously explored, this kind of content pushes all the right psychological buttons.

The formula isn’t a secret weapon known only to an elite set of maverick writers. Anyone who reads blogs or uses social media gets it: that the formula is very much in fashion. Blogs that have never used it before are now tapping into spikes of social media traffic with its help. Writers who can stick to the formula are highly sought-after and increasingly well-paid. Blogs that use the formula well are growing at a rapid rate (and so are some that don’t, but I’ll get to that later). The formula works.

But for how long? Trends reach a saturation point and then begin a decline. If the formula hasn’t reached saturation point yet, it must be heading towards it. In this post, I want to talk about what comes after the death of this trend.

One of the best articles I’ve read recently was Derek Sivers (founder of on the action-reaction principle: that change leaves room for its opposite reaction. He argued that once a particular trend reaches saturation point, a market opens up for its opposite. Here are some examples he uses to illustrate this:

More and more and more music to choose from.

More need for tastemakers to tell us what’s good.

Less venues for musicians to play.

House concerts.

Everybody getting too much email.

Increasing effectiveness of using anything-but-email to reach people. (Phone, SMS, snail mail, Facebook message.)

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the ascendency of the formula is creating a similar effect. The counter-trend is still very much in its infancy, just as the formula still has an indefinite stretch at the top (my guess is a year or so before the formula fades or is significantly modified) before the tipping point is reached and it becomes too much.

For bloggers, though, the counter-trend represents and opportunity to pre-empt the tide. Just like tapping into an undiscovered niche can help your blog to grow rapidly, tapping into a newly popular form of content just before it becomes popular is also very desirable.

So, what is the counter-trend? In amongst some of the web’s most popular content (designed to be scanned as much as read, formulaic or high-impact headlines, easily disposable) an anomaly crops up that is the complete opposite of these things. It’s dense and meaty. It requires an intellectual investment and commitment of time–if you want to spend only five minutes with the content you won’t even begin to grasp hold of its main ideas. Its key concepts aren’t served up as take-away sound-bytes, bolded for easy access. In fact, this type of content tends to release its value slowly and surely, in a steady ‘dripping’ rhythm.
Jacques Louis David – The Death of Socrates

Back in late 2007 writer and documentary film-maker Errol Morris’s series of blog posts on whether an image of cannonballs strewn across a road was faked became a viral sensation. Each blog post was thousands of words long, written in full detail, densely researched and slow to unfold. The first post in the series generated 938 thoughtful comments. People were captivated by it, but the post was written like it didn’t matter, and that’s precisely what made it so fascinating. It did everything you’re not supposed to do when trying to garner attention in the age of information over-load, and that’s exactly why it received attention, and loads of it.


Consider also the convincing Digg front-page stint (1625 diggs) of an article about Piotr Wozniak, inventor of SuperMemo, a complicated memory recall computer program first developed in 1985. If you’ve heard of the guy before, kudos to you. I’d guess that most of us haven’t. The profile is seven pages long and takes a winding path through Piotr’s life. It’s a really interesting piece, but it’s a dense, slow burner. It takes more than fifteen minutes to read, paragraphs are infrequent and details are many. It’s not the kind of content that is supposed to work on social media, and that’s exactly why it does.

Dosh Dosh is another example of counter-trend content, and I wonder if the ascendency of the social media formula correlates with the blog’s accelerated growth. A few months ago the blog had leap-frogged the 10,000 subscriber mark. Now it’s knocking on the door of 20k. The content hasn’t changed–if anything it has become denser and its ideas more complicated and abstract (and often more powerful). Post are long and paragraphs are big and chunky. The vocabulary is robust. As a result, readers are as enthusiastic as ever, if not more so, and the blog is growing at a blistering rate.

While I could overload this post with evidence, I’m guessing that you will have had your own encounters with the counter-trend in recent times. It is slowly and steadily becoming more prevalent. We’ve reached a point where lengthy, dense, challenging and time-consuming content is stealing its own novelty away from common formulas for social media optimized content. Though it’s a return to a style of writing influenced by journalism and non-fiction, its scarcity in comparison to ‘the formula’ makes it seem decidedly new.

The counter-trend represents an opportunity, if it appeals to you, for creating content that is more deeply meaningful and multi-layered than you may have been able to create before. After all, if you can simplify a point down to one bolded sentence, perhaps you’re not doing it justice.

One very positive trait of this type of content is that it is incredibly optimistic about reader engagement. It doesn’t assume that readers are incredibly impatient, looking for any excuse to move on the the next article, or the next blog. Instead, it assumes that readers are willing to be patient if they have reason to believe they’ll be rewarded for it. It doesn’t assume that ideas must be presented in their simplest forms or else readers will miss or misinterpret them. Instead, it assumes that readers are fundamentally intelligent and capable of following along with the author, regardless of where they end up (and irrespective of whether they agree).

I also want to suggest that this form of content may be very good at helping readers to feel an intense loyalty and appreciation for you as a blogger.

Imagine that you have two friends–Alex and Kim–who are not quite in your inner circle but are both moving closer. You spend a day with Alex, see a great gig, go running together and swap stories about work. You look back on it as a fun and worthwhile day. The next day you invite Kim to your house for lunch and afterwards, share a few glasses of wine. With the help of slightly lowered inhibitions you end up having a long, vulnerable discussion about things in your life that you would like to change. The result of the conversation is that you feel uplifted and inspired for the rest of the day. Which friend are you more likely to feel closer to?
Photo by freeparking.

The bond formed by engaging in content that challenges the reader intellectually is a powerful one. It probably helps to explain why Steve Pavlina’s book has entered the Top 100 list three months before its release date. Pavlina writes long, dense, multi-faceted posts with almost too-long paragraphs. His subject-matter is often incredibly challenging, and his headlines are written primarily with search terms in mind. He has not hit the front-page of Digg for one and a half years, yet he receives (reportedly) around 2 million visitors per month. This is because his fans evangelize him: they do they job of social media, and they do it better.

If you feel stifled by the formula, there is a strong alternative. Starting now could position you to be well ahead of the curve when the formula starts to fade. At the very least, take this as a cue to experiment, even if only once. If it doesn’t work for you, nobody will make you do it again (and if they do, tell me and I’ll sort ‘em out).

I should end on this note: while I expect the formula to fade in future, it remains very powerful for drawing in new readers to your blog. I’m not advocating that anyone stop using the formula–in fact, I’d suggest that you owe it to yourself to learn how it works and try it at least once.

However, sometimes it can seem like this is the only kind of content any sane blogger should be producing. It isn’t. The success of those who’ve turned their backs on the formula completely is testament to that.