A brief list of best practices for doing best-list stories.
In an age of marketing overload, readers want information that is processed, not just dropped into place. They want magazines that are edited, not written. Younger readers are especially interested in getting to the best, quickly. When the gurus at Amazon.com launched an online musical retail site in 1998, they asked their 2.2 million customers to describe their dream music store. Some 25,000 responses later, it was overwhelmingly clear that customers want to be told what to buy. The siteâs recommendation center soon included âbest music picksâ for a wide range of moods and occasions, such as âbarbequing,â âcruising the stripâ or âon the Stairmaster.â
In print, and on Web sites, U.S. News & World Report has made a franchise of its Best Colleges style of reporting. (Radar got some buzz recently with a list of âAmericaâs 50 Worst Colleges.â) City magazines compile âTop Docs,â best lawyer lists, and most do an annual âBest of the Cityâ issue, rating everything from restaurants and hair salons to dating services. Working Motherâs list of âBest Companies for Womenâ now includes subsets, such as âBest Companies for Multicultural Women.â Fortune lists best big employers and Business Week has âBest Places to Launch a Career.â
âWhen a magazine lists a marketer or agency as a great place to work, does that really mean anything?â asked Advertising Age reporter Jack Neff in a story on how executive recruiters react to âbestâ lists. One recruiter told Neff, âI donât think Iâve ever heard someone say they were going to work for a company because it was on one of the lists.â
Balancing the Polarity
If listings are based upon reader polls or online surveys, the problem is polarity: You hear from those who are really enthusiastic or who are upset about their experiences. You donât hear from the silent majority. Author John Zogby, who ran a national polling firm for two decades (and who predicted that John Kerry would defeat George W. Bush for president), says, âWe canât state anything with certainty, because anything can happen.â There is also a margin of error to consider.
For magazines to have credibility in their list making, then, it all comes down to how you measure quality, and how you define âbest.â Here are some guidelines that should enable you to do your best in developing and packaging list stories:
â˘ Choose an editorially appropriate topic. If your magazine covers the auto body trade, a list of the best auto-parts distributors makes sense. Donât let the idea of âbrand extensionâ take you off your beat. U.S. News came under fire recently for launching a âRankings and Reviewsâ Web site that featured a âBest Cars & Trucksâ roundup.
â˘ Establish criteria for excellence. AARP: The Magazine does best-ofâs with an active retirement slant. For a story on Americaâs âhealthiest cities,â AARP used unique and specific measurements, such as the average number of sunny days, the percentage of residents who get regular exercise and the number of physicians per 100,000 residents.
â˘ Look for outside expertise. Magazines can enlist data bank suppliers to give their lists solid statistical underpinning. BestPlaces.net, for instance, compiles city demographics and statistics on cost of living, crime, schools, climate, economy, health and quality of living. Castleconnolly.com is a leading source for information on healthcare and Americaâs top doctors.
â˘ Consider the light approach. Some best-ofâs are serious; others are lite. Food fights are usually the latter. Many of these lists are the result of tastings and panel deliberations. The Boston Globe recently ran six brands of vanilla ice cream through the food sectionâs Taste Kitchen, concluding, âThere was no clear winnerâmost brands received compliments. After emptying their mini cups, our tasters piled their personal favorites onto slices of berry pie.â
One way to expand a list (and reader interest) is to run a box inviting readers to send in their own favorites. These can be included in a subsequent issue or on web site updates. When that happens, the best is yet to come.