You Won’t Believe What Happens Next… The Dark Arts Of Clickbait

The click trick

If the title of this article had been ‘You’ll never believe what this pop star looks like now’ or ‘10 Hollywood stars who are secretly bees’ the strange truth is that we’d have a lot more people reading it.

Well, in actual fact we’d have a lot more people visit this page, realise instantly that there’s nothing here about Hollywood stars or bees, and angrily click away to something else.

And that’s kind of how clickbait works. Which, when you put it like that, makes you wonder why it’s so popular. After all everyone from huge global websites, to major national newspapers, to the President of the United States is getting involved. Even articles that want to tell you how terrible clickbait is, are using clickbait headlines to get you interested!

Click is king

Clickbait is a form of marketing popularised by sites such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy. Its main purpose is to attract as many page views as it can – and by doing so, make as much money from display ad revenue as possible.

That’s why, in the world of clickbait, nothing is more important than the title of the piece. If you can create an intriguing, irresistible headline then it doesn’t really matter what you actually say in the article.

Rather, it’s actually quite common for the substance of a clickbait article to have nothing, or very little to do with the headline, or even flatly contradict it! Worryingly, a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology even found that people were remembering misleading clickbait headlines as facts, even when information further down in that very article proved the headline to be inaccurate.

Lessons from clickbait

 Now, clickbait has been upsetting a lot of ‘proper’ marketing people for a long time, and you can understand why. While most brands are battling to earn customer trust, clickbaiters are earning attention by being wilfully misleading. And yet, while trust in brands dwindles, millions of people continue to take the clickbait – according to Quantcast, Buzzfeed can attract up to 15 million unique views a day!

So what does this all mean if you’re a brand or a social media influencer? Should you devote all your time and creative energy to crafting tantalising headlines and measuring your success by the number of views you can collect? Er, probably not.

But there are of course great lessons to be learned from the success of the clickbait model. For example, while a blatantly misleading headline is ethically dubious, the ability to write social media posts that make people curious is a craft that all marketing campaigns could benefit from.

And remember, despite what some people say, clickbait isn’t simply crude, tabloid trashiness (ok, sometimes it is) it’s built on a highly analytical model of testing, learning and refining to see what types of content and headline perform best.

And, although they’re probably in the minority, some people are using clickbait in remarkably clever ways to create something more substantial. For example, a book shop in Dallas is using clickbait headlines to trick people into reading the plots of classic novels like ‘The Wizard of Oz’, a tactic they’ve dubbed ‘Litbait’.

The click is just the beginning

But while thinking like a clickbaiter may help you use more compelling language and test and improve your campaigns, there are a few fundamental principles of social media influencing you should never abandon.

The first, and most important, is substance. While clickbait is only ever concerned with page views (and trying to trap people into a ‘clickbait loop’ by nudging you from one story to the next) social media influencing is about the quality of relationships.

The very reason brands turn to social media influencers is to create more personal, more human and more trusting relationships with people who could easily become loyal customers.

And building those relationships requires a combination of an influential voice, the right channel, a relevant message and patience. Sure, you could probably get 1,000 people to click on a juicily presented piece of content tomorrow, but those 1,000 people are never going to listen to anything you have to say after that.

(Even if you do know 10 Hollywood stars who are secretly bees.)