You’re familiar with it, even if you don’t know what it’s called. Chances are, if you’re like most internet users, you’ve even been sucked in by it at least once, if not many times.
Your expectations were high, but your hopes were quickly dashed. You’ve been clickbaited.
As marketers and business owners, you want to expose your valuable web content to the largest number of people possible. If you can entice someone to click on a link and visit your website, you can improve the chances of that person eventually becoming a customer. Channeling the power of a creative headline is a fairly easy way to boost web traffic and yield instant results.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with crafting inventive headlines as a method of generating more traffic to an article, blog post, or other online content. However, overusing these gimmicky headlines can do more damage than good when you’re also trying to foster brand loyalty and boost customer engagement.
The problem with clickbait is that the title is often better than the actual article. Provocative headlines manipulate readers into clicking on a link that fails to deliver on the quality or type of content that was promised. Consumers who are disenchanted by content they feel they’ve been duped into viewing will rapidly lose trust in your brand.
While it’s true that clickbait can dramatically improve your company’s visibility, it’s not easy to determine whether an increase in traffic directly results in more sales or greater conversion rates.
Clickbait may garner more page views for your website, but page views aren’t even that important anymore. Audience attention and engagement are steadily becoming the principal measures of content success.
What Is Clickbait?
Lexico defines clickbait as “internet content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular webpage.” Content creators use captivating, sensationalist, and often misleading headlines or thumbnails to pique a viewer’s interest and direct them to “content of dubious value or interest,” as Merriam-Webster puts it.
A Brief History of Clickbait
Though the advancement of the internet has modified its appearance, clickbait-style approaches to content creation have been in existence for quite a while. Comparable ideas can be seen in an old marketing strategy known as “bait-and-switch,” which uses dishonest methods to lure prospective customers.
Many of the techniques now used in clickbait are rooted in “yellow journalism,” a method commonly employed by tabloids in the late-19th century to sell more papers. These publications relied on exaggeration, melodrama, scandal-mongering, and over-the-top news stories to create headlines.
Most of the stories found in tabloids today are neither credible nor well-investigated, because the “journalists” that write them often employ what’s known as “checkbook journalism” – in other words, a source is paid for their story without the facts being authenticated in advance. These types of articles still sell, because people are naturally curious. Whether the publication’s tactics are splashy or subtle makes no difference. Though this practice does still occur, it’s now considered disreputable and unprofessional in the United States and much of the world.
The Psychology of Clickbait
In order to better appreciate how clickbait successfully drives revenue through clicks, it’s important to understand the psychology of the “bait.”
Two things, in particular, make people susceptible to clickbait: the huge role emotion plays in our instinctive judgments and everyday choices, and our lazy brains. The degree of physical response we have to an emotion strongly influences our clicking behavior.
Another factor that affects how we respond to this kind of content is something called the “information gap.” This theory holds that whenever there is a perceived gap between what we know and what we want to know, that gap has emotional consequences. This feeling of deprivation manifests itself as curiosity. A curious individual is highly motivated to obtain the missing information in order to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.
Intermittent reinforcement is another effective way to coax a specific behavior out of a person. Humans are more than willing to put up with massive amounts of disappointment and frustration as long as there’s an occasional payout. Introducing “maybe” into the equation is compelling like nothing else.
People generally recall interrupted tasks in greater detail than uninterrupted tasks. The brain deems clickbait headlines as something presumably important that is unknown. Even if we’re able to disregard the impulse, our compulsion to return to the task of opening and reading the intriguing article is probably still there.
Yet another element which influences our clicking tendencies is our deep-seated dislike of ambiguity. People have an innate fear of the unknown. When we notice something that leaves us wondering, our brain kicks into high gear and pushes us to find an answer to combat what it perceives as a threat.
Many people are also afraid of missing out on something that everyone else knows, or is doing, or has access to. Clickbait headlines that provoke an emotional response leave us feeling like if we don’t click on the article, we’ll literally miss out on whatever the headline promises is on the other side.
In short, even though we’re often aware that we’re being manipulated by an outrageous headline, we’re still helpless to resist the bait. And that’s why clickbait is so effective.
Types of Clickbait
Marketers and content creators employ a number of common types of clickbait in order to persuade users to click – some more subtle than others.
“Newsjacking” is a technique which appropriates topics that are trending in the public eye to give your piece greater recognition, influence, and momentum. It’s effective because it bridges the gap between your subject matter and something that’s top of mind about which people are profoundly concerned.
A “hot topic” is any stimulating subject like race, politics, sex, or religion that’s used to grab people’s attention. Because it’s noteworthy, it merits consideration – people care about it, one way or another. Shrewd marketers can find ingenious ways to tie in a “hot topic” to their piece of content in order to get more eyes on it.
“Cliffhangers” tease the reader just enough to spark their interest, but stop just short of finishing to leave them wanting more. It’s pattern interruption at its finest – there’s no way you can’t click to see more!
“Zen”-style headlines concentrate on delivering solutions to customers’ specific problems and recurring needs. They draw direct comparisons between where you are now and where you want to be, and provide a seemingly simple, pain-free way to get there.
Listicles are probably the most prevalent form of clickbait, and by far one of the most popular. Composed in whole or in part of lists (as the name suggests), listicles focus on compiling industry-specific information from a variety of sources. This type of content saves the audience time and resources, since they don’t have to aggregate this material for themselves.
Attracting readers’ attention to one particular website (yours!), you’re able to target a much larger audience. This eventually improves the site’s presence on search engines, making it beneficial for all parties involved.
A well-constructed listicle is relevant, relatable, and highly readable, as well as very easy on the eyes. People enjoy them so much, they’re much more likely to share listicle-style posts with friends than other types of content.
What’s appealing about lists is that they organize information spatially – often in bullet points – making the content easier to comprehend. This lets the brain focus better and saves it from having to process irrelevant information.
The use of numbers in a headline can really draw in an audience, since they offer the perception of factuality, authority, and grasp-ability. Numbers help quantify a story’s length while hinting at the amount of attention we’ll need to expend to read the story.
The Pros of Clickbait
There are any number of benefits to integrating clickbait into your marketing strategy. Clickbait can help draw attention to your business quickly and profoundly, increase page views to your website or landing page, improve the quality and quantity of your audience, and increase overall brand awareness.
Optimizing headlines and titles for your content generally leads to higher click-through rates. Provoking strong emotional responses encourages sharing on social media networks. Well-planned clickbait headlines and thumbnails are provocative and enticing, yet true to the content of the article.
Memorable content can lead to readers beginning to trust you and establish a relationship with your brand. This often results in them one day converting into customers. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of marketing?
The Cons of Clickbait
On the other hand, unethical clickbait is designed to trick people into consuming your content making them believe it’s better than it actually is. “Bad” clickbait is routinely characterized by headlines that overpromise and stories that underdeliver.
Clickbait may offer a quick, easy payoff but it doesn’t necessarily contribute to achieving your company’s long-term goals. Headlines that are focused on bringing in clicks and increasing advertising revenue are often unconcerned with offering particularly valuable content.
While you will gain more “curiosity clicks” with clickbait, most of these people aren’t really “qualified traffic” – they end up spending very little time on your page, which increases your bounce rate. It’s simply not a good look to have thousands of people visiting your site for five seconds and exiting, unlikely to return again.
As previously mentioned, overuse of clickbait-style techniques can have detrimental effects as well. If you choose to publish or promote clickbait too often, your brand might become toxically synonymous with questionable information or wasted time. This negative perception of your brand will quickly erode trust.
There are other real-world concerns with clickbait as a whole. Google is cracking down on websites and pages suspected of having clickbait-type content by ranking these pages lower in search results. When Facebook identifies a post that it considers “clickbait-y” in nature, the social media platform prevents this post from being featured on people’s news feeds.
Should You Use Clickbait to Promote Your Business?
If you truly believe in what you’re selling, it’s your duty to do whatever it takes to get it into the hands of consumers. If your company has a solid product that can actually help customers, getting people to your site by any means possible isn’t such a bad thing.
You can make ethical use of a sensational headline when you have a sensational story to support it. Focus on developing solid, original material that actually matters to people and doesn’t just con them into clicking on your links.
Integrity and transparency should be at the core of everything you do, including your marketing methods. Don’t try to disguise clickbait as journalism. Use your content to engage, educate, and enlighten your audience.
The main point of content marketing is to build positive memories and relationships with people over time. It’s designed to cultivate trust between a company and its customer base. When done without the intention to deceive, clickbait can be one of the most effective tactics to gain a reader’s valuable attention. When used creatively, it can generate positive traffic to your site that could ultimately bolster your online presence. When used shrewdly and sparingly, clickbait can be extraordinarily effective – but you’ve got to tread carefully.
It’s important to employ some type of analytics software to monitor the sources of your online traffic. This way, you can determine whether the traffic you’re driving to your site is useful or useless. If you’re not attracting the right audience, your content is unlikely to lead to further engagement and future business with your brand.
Relying too heavily on clickbait can harm your SEO in the long run, cost you social media followers, and tarnish trust. Don’t risk devaluing your brand by engaging in unethical clickbait. Long-term stability is always more favorable than short-term success.
Engaging in ethical marketing is the long-game strategy that differentiates successful companies from their competitors. Clickbait is often regarded as an “evil art form” in the realm of content marketing. But it does have some worthwhile wisdom to impart.
As marketers and business owners, we can implement some common clickbait tactics in ethical ways to make the most of a consumer’s “must-click” mentality.
How to Use Clickbait for Good
Clickbait executed properly can be an effective marketing tool to increase brand awareness and establish relationships with your audience. The trick is to compose a killer headline with a solid hook, then follow through with an equally exceptional article.
Instead of trying to deceive or ensnare consumers, marketers should exploit the “curiosity gap” – you can do this, ethically, by providing just enough information to intrigue a reader, but not enough to quench their curiosity unless they click through to the associated content.
If your goal is to produce something that’s so new, funny, revealing, or gratifying that readers feel compelled to share it, your content has to deliver on the headline’s promise. It’s one thing to enjoy reading an article, and quite another to actively choose to share it with friends.
Six primary emotions are commonly associated with share-worthy content on social media: fear, anger, sadness, disgust, joy, and surprise. Marketers seeking to create content that audiences want to share can appeal to one (or more) of these strong emotions and pair it with an enticing headline and well-constructed content.
Using clickbait content humorously can also help brands connect with their audiences – in fact, 70% of consumers say humor makes companies more relatable. Play upon the fact that your audience realizes you’re using a clickbait-style headline. Let readers laugh alongside you at how ridiculous the trend can be.
Creating Ethical Clickbait That Actually Works
The headline is the first element that anyone will see of your content. In order to get your audience to click on a link, you have to truly grab their attention. Once the reader is on your webpage, it becomes the duty of your subheadings to make the article “skimmable” so it’s easier for web visitors to consume.
The headline’s promise should be very specific. Audiences don’t want to take a gamble on reading your content only to find out minutes (or even seconds) later that it doesn’t actually contain the information they’re seeking.
Making forceful assertions in a headline is perfectly acceptable, as long as you can back them up with substance. Relying on extraordinary claims to draw attention to your site or products implies that the reality of what’s ahead is so unexciting that you have to exaggerate the truth to get people to take notice.
Writing in the second person (“you”) addresses the reader directly, creating a more personal relationship with them and likely holding their attention longer. Capitalizing words captures attention and emphasizes or sensationalizes the chosen emotion in your headline. Just don’t overuse ALL CAPS or exclamation points if you can help it – doing so makes your content look cheap and tacky, and even hints that what you’re saying is false.
Broaden your audience by using relatable language in the title of your piece – avoid industry-specific jargon, as even some people in the industry will quickly tune you out.
Intriguing questions expand the reader’s perceived information gap, encouraging them to read further to satisfy their curiosity. Leaving your title on a truthful cliffhanger is another way to gain an advantage.
“Challenge”-style headlines are effective because they encourage people to “test their mettle” or flaunt their knowledge. Readers want to know if they measure up and to seek “expert” answers if they don’t.
“Tricks” and “secrets” headlines promise groundbreaking, uncommon, or confidential knowledge that you simply can’t find anywhere else. Everyone wants to know how the pros do it. People like finding “hacks” that will improve their lives in some way.
While it’s suitable to include a call to action within the body of your content, a CTA should never be a part of your headline. Pitching to potential customers from the get-go can significantly decrease the number of your clicks your content receives.
As with all forms of marketing, you should regularly use analytics to see how your clickbait-inspired content is performing with your audience. Understanding your audience and focusing on what appeals to them are key to increasing click-through rates.
Contrary to popular opinion, there’s nothing inherently “evil” about clickbait. At its core, it’s simply the art of writing headlines that pop. They won’t pop for everyone, every time – you’ll have to figure out what works best for your specific audience.
When analyzing your content’s performance, learn to look beyond the clicks. Shift your focus to metrics that provide feedback on how your content is being perceived by viewers.
How many people did your post reach? Did the content inspire others to share it? Did it cause others to voice their opinions? What trending emotions do you see – happiness, sadness, anger, relief?
When you create content that offers real value to your audience, you introduce your brand in a meaningful and beneficial way. In addition, your brand will become preeminent in a customer’s mind when they have another issue or require services that they know you provide.
Clickbait can be extraordinarily annoying, but it works – even when readers recognize it for what it is. Crafting marketing content that generates a response is challenging. You have to be endlessly curious. You have to be able to delve deep into the psyche of your customers and determine what makes them tick. You have to be willing to experiment and fail. But the ultimate outcome will be worth the effort.