If the age of social media and native advertising has taught us anything, it's that people love lists:
Those aren't real lists but they aren't so far off from native advertising articles (my favorite native ad headline of the day: "Warren Buffett Tells You How to Turn $40 Into $10 Million." Native ads are so prevalent, that The Onion recently launched a spinoff site called Clickhole that serves up faux native ad-like headlines and stories. The main problem is that the blurred line between Clickhole stories and real, unironic native ads.)
- "15 ways to waste more time on the Internet."
- "10 useless facts that will bore your friends at cocktail parties."
- "10 secrets to reduce procrastination."
No business publication "gets" the importance of lists than Forbes, which researches, compiles and publishes dozens of lists each year, beyond the iconic Forbes 400 of the wealthiest Americans (by which Forbes tends to mean U.S. citizens or residents).
Here's our own list based on Forbes' range of lists.
- You can never have too many different flavors of lists. In addition to the Forbes 400, Forbes also publishes the Worlds Richest Billionaires issue; "Richest Families in the U.S."; as well as the "Best & Worst Cities for Jobs," "The Best Cities for Business"; "The World's Most Powerful Celebrities" and "The Top Earning Actors" and "The Highest Paid Athletes" and don't forget: "Superheroes of the Celeb 100" and the "Richest Fictional Characters." (Seriously -- Mr. Monopoly ranked #13.) Several lists seem like variations of another list; the most powerful celebs includes top earning actors and athletes.
- Publishing lists as a slideshow can be great because each click improves the traffic counts on your website. Instead of printing the top 10 of a list on one page, which generates only one click, slides of the top 10 whatevers generates 10 clicks.
- Lists work best when they are quantifiable, which is why Forbes allocates resources to compile these lists. But there is a lot that can be hard to pin down, even when it comes to net worth. A lot of other lists are subjective, even as they try to apply some framework to the list. For example, Forbes ranks author John Green at 79 on the Most Powerful List, with JK Rowling at 84 -- really? Perhaps it's a nuance of power, but I would think Rowling still has more "power" to get published and movies made than John Green (not to take away from Green) but perhaps Forbes has a different definition of "power."
- Realize that most rankings are designed to generate a barroom discussion and are not scientific. Most rankings should be taken with a grain of salt. What stars earn each year can be variable, with payouts dependent on sponsorships and multi-album deals. Same for CEOs and stock options.
- Even if Forbes provides some quantifiable numbers, there's a lot of guesswork and sometimes those numbers don't really matter. On the "Most Powerful Celebrities" list, which looks at earnings, money rank, press rank and social rank, LeBron James is ranked number 2 (after Beyonce). But King James' scored 19 on the money rank and 22 on the social rank; his highest ranking was the press rank at 9 -- so how can Forbes justify his top-two ranking? Well Forbes adds a "cultural figure," which is not clearly defined.
- There are always questionable selections. Some of the stars on the Most Powerful list certainly deserve to be there -- Beyonce, LeBron, Dr. Dre, Oprah, Ellen, Jay Z, people known by their first names. But some of the rankings are questionable: Does Floyd Mayweather belong at #7? Roger Federer at #16, the Eagles at #36, One Direction at #28, Justin Bieber at #33? That doesn't include some folks I haven't heard of (because that may say more about me than them). Then there are celebs who don't seem particularly powerful like Avicci (#47), Kate Upton (#94), Kaley Cuoco (#99) and therefore don't belong on the list at all.
- The teams that compile these lists do not always read the rest of the magazine -- and vice versa. On the very next page of the printed edition, Forbes reported that Michael Jordan is now a billionaire. Here's the news blurb in its entirety from Forbes' "Scorecard" column: "Jordan never retired. Still earning $90 million a year selling shoes, he ups his stake in the NBA Charlotte Hornets and becomes the first NBA star worth a billion." If I were compiling a list of "Most Powerful Celebrities," I would have included Michael Jordan.
I don't mean to pick on Forbes or that particular list. I like lists as much as the next person but at some point, most are subjective, and that's okay. Cases in point: People's "Most Beautiful" and "Sexiest Man Alive" lists, various magazine's Best (and Worst) Dressed lists, and hundreds more. I think it is helpful to understand how the lists are compiled and why publications rely on them as long as readers take most of them with a grain of salt.