Friday, February 19

Organizing Lists: Retention Psychology & Branding


Almost everyone involved with online content creation knows it. Lists can be powerful tools for traffic attraction. Search for "3 tips" on Google and it will return 80 million results. Type in "5 tips" for 74 million. Ten tips returns 84 million. So on and so forth.

Okay, people like lists. So what?

Lists can be excellent resources, which is why we like them. But lists can also interfere with retention. In fact, most memory studies conducted by psychologists reveal that the power to retrieve information from our memories decreases with every new bullet item associated with those clues.

In one study (Anderson, 1980), participants were given a list that associated two professional titles with five actions. For example:

• The banker was asked to address the crowd.
• The banker broke the bottle.
• The banker did not delay the ship.
• The lawyer realized the seam was split.
• The lawyer painted an old barn.

When the participants were tested later, they took longer to remember any facts about the banker. Subsequent studies demonstrated that the more facts provided about someone or something, the less likely they were to retain facts unless those facts were well organized and grouped together to form other associations.

For example, if all the banker facts were related to a ship and all the lawyer facts were related to a barn, participants had no trouble retrieving facts about the banker or lawyer. Why? Because the lists were effectively reduced to manageable memories.

The link to retention becomes: banker + ship: three details; lawyer + barn: two details. It becomes a powerful memory.

Creating Organized Context Associations Drives Content Retention

Think about how this applies to branding. In Tiger Woods' statement today, media headlines focused on that he admitted to having affairs and apologized. Afterward, the stories all opined whether or not the apology should be accepted.

On the other hand, a word cloud reveals his focus was on his wife, family, friends, and children as it relates to his behavior.

So why didn't most media pick up on these central points? In looking at the full transcript, the organization of his apology was muddled, leaving the media construct simpler associations that set the tone for the apology regardless of what Woods said. For most people, they are more likely to remember the news snip than the statement.

Think about the last few posts or news stories you read that contained a list. Can you remember most of the bulleted items? Probably not. More than likely, unlike posts that tell a story or have one central theme, you might remember the topic but none of the details.

The good news for the list builder is that people will have to revisit the site to retrieve the information again. The bad news for readers is that the lessons and the author are less likely to be remembered over the long term. This doesn't just apply to posts. It applies to education in general.

In my course material on writing, students frequently tell me that they are more successful retaining my five elements on writing and Ike Pigott's three element on writing than those offered by Don Gale or Ogilvy and Mather.

Although all of the four sets lend value, the difference is in the presentation. Pigott links three frequently associated attributes to his writing, underscored by a kung fu analogy. I employ organized association, reinforcing those points with alliteration.

Why is it important? It's important for bloggers and journalists because while increasing retention might not spike traffic, it will help readers retain information and associate the content with you. Otherwise, they will be more likely to forget the content and the source, eventually conducting a new search based on the headline they remember. Will they find your post again? Maybe.

In closing, I'm adding a related psychology study to my watch list. Richard Elliot Wener, professor of environmental psychology at Polytechnic Institute of New York University, is studying whether highly visible recycling bins remind people to not only recycle but to also be more environmentally conscious in general.

How it that related? The study might have findings that cross over into understanding organized associated content, and whether those associations affect behavior.

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