Okay, maybe this post won’t change your life. But this blog post does reveal the one weird trick to paying off your mortgage by the end of the year.
All right, so that’s not true, either. Would you believe that you’ll discover how one woman made millions from the privacy of her living room, without spending a dime of her own money? Or meet the man whom health club owners HATE?
If you’re skeptical, you should be. We’re talking about one of the more peculiar phenomena of the Internet era, the thing that’s conceived when greed combines with obsessive data analysis in a quest for the most possible page views for a website.
What is clickbait, exactly? And what’s wrong with it? Well, some definitions are a bit murky, and that’s part of the issue. Google defines clickbait as content “of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page.”
Hmm. Can you see the problem? There is no clear line in that definition between clickbait and headlines or subject lines that are merely clever. Shouldn’t they all be provocative in some way? Aren’t they all intended to attract attention and draw visitors? As my colleague Yvonne Lyons has noted, “Your content might be remarkable, but no one will continue to read if the headline isn’t enticing.”
So a headline that inspires clicks isn’t just acceptable; it’s imperative. And the use of cheeky wordplay in a headline to drive interest has been common in media since long before the Internet came along. What’s wrong with that?
Fact or fiction
For me, the difference between a clever headline and clickbait is the difference between true and false. Deception is a necessary ingredient of clickbait. Is the headline intended to earn my click with an honest (if witty) account of what I’ll read, or is it intended to trick me into clicking by misleading me? Is it just trying to sell me a mortgage refinance by claiming to have some “secret” debt reduction strategy?
“I look at the Internet,” comedian Jon Stewart once said, and “I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island. It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.” That’s clickbait.
But what about those articles like the kind Buzzfeed lives on: trite listicles on shallow subjects or stories of little import intended only to tug at your heartstrings? Content like “15 Animal Vines That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Or “11 Reasons Why an Open-Office Floor Plan Ruins Your Life.” Are those clickbait?
I don’t think so. First, people want that content. Those animal Vines are pretty darn cute. (Probably. I’m not saying I know.) And people who work in open-office floor plans want to know those 11 reasons so they can gripe to their friends and bosses.
More important, the content behind the headlines is the content promised by the headlines. The headlines are intended to titillate, perhaps, but not deceive.
That’s why for all we hear about clickbait, we actually don’t see much of it these days, except in those “outsourced sponsored content” teasers that you’ll often see sitting at the bottom of web pages. True clickbait is being relegated to that corner of the Internet because it’s the one place left where the only thing that matters is the click.
For everyone else who uses the web to connect with audiences, what’s important is creating content that’s relevant and remarkable enough to build the audience’s confidence in its author, and possibly to share that content on their own social networks, which is how content goes viral.
Of course, for that to happen, people have to first read what you’ve written.
Clever or clear
Does that mean you need to deliver clever, must-click-but-not-clickbait headlines on every piece of content you produce? No. On the contrary, I think it’s more common for publishers to undermine their great content with headlines that try to do too much or try to be too clever, and end up with headlines that just confuse readers.
I worked for a time with a company that did much of its marketing via e-newsletters. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to drive up open rates; subject lines were king. And we were good at what we did. Our conclusion: simple, concise straightforward subject lines that conveyed the essential message of the content almost always worked best, provided that content was itself compelling.
Still, there are a few tactics you can use to pull yourself out of a headline or subject line rut if you think (or if evidence shows) that what you’re doing is not working:
- Highlight whatever it is in your content that people will find surprising or counterintuitive. That counterintuitive nugget may not be the main point of the article, but you can use it in your headline.
- Use numbers. There’s a reason listicles have become so popular: people love them. But you can use a headline like “7 Ways to Make a Better Sandwich” even if the article itself isn’t a listicle, per se. As long as you can identify seven discrete ideas, you’re good.
- Make a promise — and make it good. Your headline’s purpose is not merely to tell people what your content is about; its main purpose is to tell your readers what they’ll get if they read your article.
The most important thing, though, is to remember to never break faith with your audience. If you ever see one of those “one weird trick” teasers in your Facebook or Twitter feed, it’s because someone paid to put it there. It certainly wasn’t shared by any actual humans. That’s because there is, of course, no “weird trick.” It’s bogus, and anyone who’s clicked on one of those teasers knows immediately that he’s been had.
He feels foolish enough. He’s not going to have warm feelings toward whoever tricked him, and he’s certainly not going to share it on Facebook.
Because it is deceptive by definition, clickbait undermines the audience’s confidence in you and reduces their interest in sharing your content with others. It is the exact opposite of good content, or good content marketing.
Don’t do it.