The Year We End Clickbait

Metrics like ‘number of clicks’ don’t tell the whole story. In fact, they are ruining web content. Is this content marketing strategy here to stay? As consumers of modern media, we have the power to reverse this evolution.

I fondly remember a wave of relief crashing over me.

It occurred a few days ago, immediately after the moment where I had drawn enough willpower to unlike and unfollow the Twitter and Facebook pages of a few mainstream media companies that were guilty of constant clickbait.

Prior to my unfollowing rampage, I had grown exhausted from their psychological hacks. Like you, I crave meaningful content, analysis, and insights on topics that I care about. So, why does clickbait exist and why is it so wrong? And more importantly, how can we, as content consumers, defeat clickbait once-and-for-all? I am hoping to answer all of these questions in this brief post.

Clickbait is annoying. It is also tarnishing the professional reputations of media companies. To exacerbate the damage done, here’s an experiment: Spend ten short seconds randomly naming companies that are guilty of using clickbait headlines to drive traffic. At the end of those ten seconds, you and I would likely have many common names on our respective lists. If you’re a media firm, would you really want to be remembered for these tactics?

Market Forces

To think about the purpose of clickbait, it helps to understand the motivations of the companies that notoriously use them. The temptation to focus efforts on producing attractive headlines is probably monetarily satisfying. It draws clicks. As a result, companies use clickbait because they believe that clicks correlate to content engagement. Advertisers fall victim to this line of thinking, too — and the cycle repeats itself. The more click that content providers generate to their posts, the more advertising dollars that they collect. This raises important concerns about our true psychological freedom while using the Internet: are we really in control?

Clickbait is a contemporary output of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s “Propaganda Model”. In the Propaganda Model, it is argued that the intentions of media firms lies within the forces spurred by profit-maximizing objectives. To satisfy the demand for news and content, media firms rely on business and government information. This creates an opportunity for firms and governments to influence the output of the media. Worse, most media firms are funded by wealthy individuals who have generated their riches through their capitalist success. The point here is that clickbait is a road that content providers can travel down to achieve its profit targets. Although I am summarizing the model, it is worth reading the hyperlinked article and developing an opinion on market forces and their influence on media operations.

Manufactured Fear

The allure of these media firms and their social legitimacy is dependent on their strategy of blending content that is both clickbait and thoughtful analysis on hard-hitting topics. We fear that by unfollowing these media companies, we will miss out on glimmers of meaningful content.

Not all clickbait-using firms are bad. There’s an important separation. Clickbait is prominently used to catch our attention while we are mindlessly scrolling through our Facebook and Twitter feeds. It rarely works when we are already browsing these sites for content. Qualitatively, it makes sense. When you scroll through a news website or your favourite editorial site, you are intently searching for information, analysis, and thought. Your intentions are less sophisticated when you are numbly wandering through your Facebook Newsfeed. While browsing through your social feeds and you discover a link on the top 10 productivity hacks of 2014, you are probably more prone to click.

Rinse and repeat.

Taking Back the Web

We are the victims of these psychological hacks, and surely we can develop immunity to bad content and headlines that are only focused on getting us to click. If we allow clickbait to die, we will develop better reading sources, more applicable knowledge to pressing issues, and learn important things that apply beyond ourselves.

What can you do to develop this kind of immunity? First, try saving clickbait-laden articles for later. I’ve recently integrated Pocket into my content consumption habits. If I see an article that seems interesting or entertaining but will deter me from my current activities (i.e. clickbait), I’ll save it for later. No harm there. And if I forget about it in the meantime, the opportunity cost of ignoring the article approaches zero.

There’s another solution, too. Refrain. If you refrain from clicking on clickbait, just remind yourself that you have better things you could be reading. Think about the time you just saved. Better yet, think about all of the really good information and analysis that you can now learn about with that saved time. This method is pretty easy to do. Unlike and unfollow all of those accounts that use clickbait.

If you’re a media company fed up with the status quo, start by defining more important metrics that uncover genuine engagement on your content. Some ideas worth considering are the average time a reader spends on articles, quality of reader comments, engagement within the article (such as social sharing, etc.). Ev Williams recently wrote that Medium’s best internal metric to measure engagement is Total Time Reading (TTR). TTR allows the company to understand how the company is giving value to its users. As product features are improved and new content is added to Medium, the assumption is that TTR will increase. Number of clicks can, in this case, decrease, but that doesn’t matter nor does it clearly depict your product’s usefulness. Once you’ve selected internal metrics that will accurately demonstrate how valuable your content is to its readers, the next step is to convince your advertisers that the future returns and leads that they will generate will be higher if true engagement on your content is higher.

Clicks don’t tell the whole story.

It’s now 2015. Let this be the year that we collectively demand to media firms that we want genuine and insightful content. We do not need more productivity hacks, reasons to wake up earlier, and faux-breaking news.

Our time and attention spans are far more valuable than the ad dollars that they collect off clickbait.

If you learned something by reading this, I’d greatly appreciate a share and a recommendation! I also tweet about technology, education, and startups.

Let’s chat: @ChrisGrouchy

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