For the past few weeks, I've been interviewing Fool analysts and advisors to find out the stocks on their watchlists. It turns out many of them share a common secret.

In trying to uncover a broad range of promising stock ideas along with the catalysts that would signal the leap from watch to buy, many of our best investors are looking at one key piece of information: the dividend. Like many smart investors, they are keeping a close eye on the companies that pay you to invest while also offering the potential for rising share prices.

The 18 Foolish investors I've had the opportunity to interview this month focus on an array of industries, market caps, and investing styles, so it's not surprising that there was little overlap in the businesses they shared from their watchlists. But I was surprised that three of them called out Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT). Global Gains advisor Tim Hanson is encouraged by the retailer's recent international expansion efforts into South Africa and India, among other locales. Joe Magyer, advisor of Inside Value, thinks the company is a bargain with very little downside risk. And analyst Jim Royal likes the fact that it trades at roughly 14 times earnings. All three pointed to its dividend, now at 2.3%, which is above what seven-year Treasury notes pay these days, and an investment here has a whole lot more upside potential.

What else do they like?
Although it's nice to get paid to invest, it's not just the fact that Wal-Mart and the other analysts' suggestions pay a dividend, it's what that often indicates. As Income Investor advisor James Early said, he's trying to make his readers as much money as possible, "and study after study proves that dividends make that happen -- and give you the option of reinvesting to pursue bigger gains or taking the money as it comes. One study from Ned Davis Research shows that from 1972 to 2006, S&P 500 stocks not paying a dividend returned a measly 4.1% annualized. Dividend payers, meanwhile, returned a whopping 10.1% annually!"

A dividend is often a sign of a company's overall health. Wal-Mart and the others mentioned below certainly don't have the highest yields on the market, but they are all strong businesses that are well-positioned for steady growth and seem poised to increase their dividends. It's not a ranking nor a definitive, exhaustive list, but these are a handful of companies that make Foolish investors smile, either as investments right now or to keep an eye on (and you can create a watchlist all your own – for free – by going to the Fool's new service at www.MyWatchlist.com) . The companies are:

Company for Your Watchlist Dividend Yield Analyst
Vulcan Materials (NYSE: VMC) 2.6% Motley Fool Special Ops senior analyst Mike Olsen
Spectra Energy (NYSE: SE) 4.2% Million Dollar Portfolio advisor Ron Gross
Jinpan International (NYSE: JST) 1.2% Ron again
Altria (NYSE: MO) 6.2% Motley Fool analyst Anand Chokkavelu
L-3 Communications (NYSE: LLL) 2.3% Motley Fool Pro and Motley Fool Options analyst Bryan Hinmon
Wal-Mart 2.3% Tim, Joe, and Jim
Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) 3% Million Dollar Portfolio associate advisor David Meier

Why do we like dividends so much?
Clearly we've entered an era in which dividends are no longer an afterthought. As my colleague Morgan Housel eloquently and insightfully wrote a couple months ago, "[T]he reason so many investors are suddenly enthralled with dividends is not just because they need a bond substitute, but because their perceptions of stocks have been fundamentally altered.... Since the crash of 2008, which sank markets back to levels not seen since 1996, talking about capital appreciation has become a sore subject, if not a sick joke.... That, I think, is why dividends are suddenly so popular. Return expectations have become so depressed that dividends are the only scraps of hope left to cling to."

Our analysts are bullish on the seven companies above, all strong and growing companies that, not coincidentally, pay a dividend. And while those are some great businesses to dig into, there's a world more. Thousands of our readers have requested access to a special dividend report created by Motley Fool analysts, and you can download it today for free. In this report, Fool analysts cover several more outstanding dividend-paying companies, including the stock Fool analyst Jim Royal calls the "dividend play of a lifetime." To get instant access to the names of these 13 high-yielders, click here – it's free.

Roger Friedman doesn't own shares of any companies mentioned, but they're all now on his watchlist. Intel, Vulcan Materials, and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Global Gains pick. Jinpan International is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. Spectra Energy is a Motley Fool Income Investor choice. The Fool owns shares of and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel. The Fool owns shares of Altria Group, L-3 Communications, and Wal-Mart. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.