The Painful Addiction of
“Did They Click?”

I recently saw some advice about creating the best attention-grabbing headlines for emails and blog posts. The advice mentions using superlatives to establish distinction (e.g. “best, worst, always, never”) or using a number to identify how many nuggets of gold you’ll give (e.g. “The 3 Ways You Can Improve…”).

Each time I see this kind of advice, I get a bit queasy. This reaction always puzzles me — after all, these recommendations are being shared as proven methods that provide marketers a way to ensure click-throughs so their content can get seen.

So why the queasiness?

When I get overly wrapped up in this kind of thinking, I generally notice myself with a myopic focus on racking up likes on Facebook or retweets on Twitter or visitors to a landing page.

Now I don’t in any way wish to suggest that pursuing these things is by definition wrong. I do want to tell you, however, how easy it has been for me to measure with a 1-dimensional mindset — and how easy it is to forget my deeper humanity in the process.

Instead of nourishing my desire to connect with others, I feel as if I’m feeding a machine.

This machine would love to help me anticipate what works so that it can ensure me with success the next time around — too look at numbers alone and nothing else, like a brain with no heart or body to feel what is true beyond concrete metrics.

From this mindset, it makes sense that we could create content with headlines like “The Best-Kept Secrets of Pope Francis’ Workout Routine”. But only if the measure of success is restricted to “Did they click?”

Feeding the machine is like feeding my ego. My ego wants to be in control and hoard the gold for itself. My ego is the part of me that sees the car wreck on the side of the road and only cares about taking a photo with the slippery intention of securing more attention for myself online.

Get the click.
Get the next click.
And the next.

When it comes to the online world of marketing strategy, the definition of “Does it work?” can easily be boiled down to a self-serving numbers game. It’s like I’m only asking myself, “Did I get what I wanted?” and forgetting to ask “Did I help others get what they needed?”

I’ve seen this in myself: a sort of narcissism that cares only for the attention I can gather, and cares nothing for the psychic pollution I may be creating in the process.

Psychic pollution. It’s actually quite similar to environmental pollution. We can easily label big companies as the problem in both cases because there may be a larger (and more public) collection of evidence. But there’s a more pointed and unsettling question to hold: are we willing to look at our own part in the problem, even if we’re a solo-entrepreneur or a small business owner creating or choosing content to share?

Am I aware of the trash I create and how it may impact others? This is the question I ask myself, and it applies to to my marketing communications as much as it does the physical world around me.

The machine loves trash. The machine cares not a bit about quality or intention.

If I broaden my scope of awareness a bit, I do risk seeing my impact thanks to any trash I’ve disseminated. I risk seeing how I may be feeding the machine with drivel that talks about the best and the worst and encourages overly-polarized thinking just to trigger someone to look my way.

Just because it works. Like giving candy to babies. They may stop crying and be temporarily in a euphoric state — but what is the deeper cost?

And just because it works does not necessarily mean I am in integrity. That’s where my queasiness kicks in — when I’m out of integrity. When I know better and my impulse is saying “Do it anyway.”

What do I mean by integrity?

I believe integrity is not about which side wins. Nor is it about one right way for everyone to act. For me, integrity is when I am listening to the loud voices in me as well as the quiet ones.

The loud voices are loud because I can find them all around me:

  • “Get yourself out there!”
  • “Drum up some list-building marketing!”

The quiet ones are quiet because our culture does not feed them as easily:

  • “I want to create something beautiful.”
  • “Be kind in your choice of words.”

Being in integrity matters most when we feel something is at stake (like the success of our business), and we face making a hard decision — often when the internal voices seem to be in opposition.

However, once I’ve heard them all, I can make a decision to act that will more likely be in alignment with a vision I am here to create, rather than what is pervasive already. Being in integrity means taking the energy of both the loud and quiet voices and alchemizing their wisdom into my own right-action.

As in: being in integrity implies that I am integrated.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suggested headlines and content that come from my desire to control and get attention, and nothing more. I know all too well how easy it is to fall into a trap of feeding the machine (and becoming mechanical myself) without question.

What to do?

For me, what I can do best is pay attention to my own intention and behavior.

When I click on headlines that promise my ego a quick-fix, even when I suspect the content will be devoid of meaning, then I’m feeding the machine. I’m also, with that action, telling myself “That’s how you get clicks” and buying into a programmatic way of thinking that is not fully human. Do I want to keep doing that?

I can notice the way I put people with popular ideas on a pedestal. “Did you see that video? They had 1.3 million views on YouTube which must mean…” Stop right there. It may not mean what I think it means. All that’s true is they got 1.3 million views on YouTube. Nothing more, nothing less. I might instead inquire, “How much meaning do I give to how others define success?”

What I’m sharing here is my practice of deconstructing marketing ideology that no longer feels right for me. I’m attempting to let go of the linear thinking that says “this is how you get numbers” in favor of an unknown path that appreciates how numbers may (or may not) show progress.

I can bring more detachment to the parts of my content that get shared. In other words, the sharing of my ideas does not define their value. I can ask myself, “What is the relationship between someone paying attention to me and the experience of my inherent value?”

I can use the machine in a conscious way. I can create digital content that prioritizes my own depth and potentially moves people to think differently (without pretending that all they need is a list and they’ll be fine). If I dig into some unhealthy stuff, I can admit that I have that same unhealthy tendency as I navigate other ways to behave and think. I can ask, “how can I bring myself to this communication in a way that acknowledges everyone’s shared humanity?”

I can find new ways to measure. At Soulful Brand, one of our key metrics is how many referrals we get each year. And since we do not reward people for referrals, those referrals are generally a reflection of work we did to serve our past clients well. But when it comes to our communications I still wonder:

What (or how) can I measure in such a way that helps me stay connected to the human beings whose lives we are touching in the process?

On this path, of course, I still desire to have a wide-reaching impact. But not at the expense of my soul.

I don’t have all the answers for myself. However, choosing the right questions feels like a great place to start.

To see more articles like this one, you can find my archives on Soulful Brand’s blog.