Clickbait is the type of content everyone loves to hate — yet can’t resist clicking on when it pops up in their newsfeeds. Even newcomers to the world of content marketing know that the best strategy, both for attracting more people and for establishing a better online environment, is to create the best content possible — professional, well-researched, in-depth, and informative.
Yet clickbait seems to contradict that, manipulating emotions with cheap gimmicks and little substance, meant as a kind of digital junk food that satisfies a temporary craving but never truly sates.
Fighting back against this low-quality, yet somehow captivating content, multiple powerful online brands have denounced clickbait and made it their mission to eliminate it with algorithmic updates and built-in content flagging features. But is clickbait really dead (or dying)? Or is it becoming stronger than ever?
Why Clickbait Works
There’s no strict definition of what counts as clickbait and what doesn’t, but it calls to mind the Supreme Court’s infamous definition of pornography — you’ll know it when you see it. These are articles that use a catchy headline to present content in an effort to draw in clicks — but not provide much “meat” after you land on their page.
Think of titles like “Can we guess your favorite ice cream based on these X questions?” or “A single mom goes to the park with her pet alligator, and you’ll never guess what happens next.”
You’re probably rolling your eyes at these titles, but you’ve also probably clicked on several like them. So what gives? Why is clickbait so effective?
· Curiosity. First, most clickbait styles capitalize on human curiosity, which is a universally present and strong trait. When a headline gives us the first part of a story, but leaves off the second part, we’re naturally inclined to try and figure out the rest — even if the story’s not that interesting to begin with. It’s why so many of us are willing to sit all the way through terrible movies.
· Emotion. Clickbait also usually taps into strong human emotions, promising tears, laughter, or shock as part of its headlines. Emotions elicit stronger reactions from people, and make us more likely to share things with others.
· Exclusivity. Many clickbait subgenres also imply some degree of exclusivity. They may make claims that “only 1 in 100 people” can do something, or will react to a piece of content in a certain way. Our instinctual longing to feel special compels us to want to learn more.
· Challenge. Clickbait also frequently challenges us, with some dare or assertion that we naturally want to see proven or disproven. For example, claims like “you’ll never guess what happens next,” makes us want to engage in the content — just to see if we guessed correctly.
Google and Facebook Fight
Despite clickbait’s effectiveness at securing clicks, it isn’t making users happy, and it certainly isn’t making the web a “better” place (better in this case meaning more informed or entertained). That’s why major online brands like Google and Facebook have stepped up the fight to rid the online world of clickbait titles.
Google, for example, has stiffened its requirements for headlines in its paid advertising wing. Employing natural language algorithms and studying user behavior, Google has begun to weed out spammy ads that invite users in with empty, promising verbiage.
Similarly, Facebook has committed several updates to its newsfeed algorithm to reduce the appearance rates of clickbait titles. You may or may not have noticed a difference in your personal newsfeed, since the algorithm still prioritizes content shared by your friends, and your friends may be incessantly posting clickbait or avoiding it at all costs.
So is the fight waged by Google, Facebook, and other brands making an impact?
I reviewed a study by BuzzSumo that probed into the effectiveness of various headlines by reviewing click and share rates (among other statistics) for over 100 million articles. One glance at the top article headline phrases, in terms of Facebook engagements, should signal to you the state of modern clickbait. The top three, in order, are:
· Will make you
· This is why
· Can we guess
All of these phrases are clickbait hallmarks, meant to capitalize on curiosity and emotion. These aren’t outliers in the data, either — scroll down the study and you’ll consistently see evidence that the power of clickbait remains, with clickbait-style headlines proving to be the best in almost every category.
So What’s the Deal?
On one hand, we have Facebook, Google, and presumably, an army of angry users all fighting tooth and nail against the development and perpetuation of clickbait. On the other hand, we have data that suggests that clickbait is more powerful than ever.
Clickbait is a subjective term, so it’s tough to generalize, but it seems like clickbait’s power is still fully intact. Google and Facebook may be running interference to dampen some of its viral potential, but anecdotally, you’ve probably personally borne witness to dozens of clickbaity headlines in the past week alone.
Clickbait isn’t going away anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean you have to fall into its trap, either as a consumer or as a producer of content in your own right. Learn from clickbait, and study what makes people drawn to content in the first place, but use that information to create higher-quality, in-depth pieces. Despite the hedonic appeal of clickbait, it’s worth the extra effort.
For more content like this, be sure to check out my podcast, The Entrepreneur Cast!