If you’re a social media user, you’ve no doubt come across clickbait – those articles that beg you to click with headlines like ‘You Won’t Believe What Happened Next’ and ‘This Picture Will Blow Your Mind’…
Love them or hate them, some sites have thrived on producing and publishing clickbait content. So, should you be doing the same?
What is clickbait?
In a nutshell, the word ‘clickbait’ is a derogatory term for poor-quality content which nevertheless attracts click-throughs and social virality with the use of sensationalist and exploitative tactics. Clickbait literally ‘baits’ users into clicking by using hyperbolic and/or misleading headlines that appeal to their curiosity and emotions.
Clickbait is usually produced with the intention of generating revenue from web advertising; since the sites which publish it are earning money from pageviews, there’s not a lot of incentive to craft content which is of real value to readers.
Clickbait articles (or videos, as the case may be) are often thin on information, low on accuracy, and they don’t live up to the promise of the title that suckered readers in. They often take the form of lists, quizzes and photo compilations, which are engaging and easy to digest.
There’s been much derision of clickbait in recent years, both for manipulating users and for supposedly taking attention away from real journalism. Regardless of the bad press it gets, clickbait works; research has shown we can’t resist clicking, even if we recognise the deception.
As a result, even big name publishers and media institutions such as the BBC have started using clickbait techniques for their own stories. If you get it right, the results can be extremely lucrative.
Pro: It gets pageviews
The propriety of clickbait for your particular business depends very much on the kind of website you run. We’ve already talked about online advertising revenue, and how some sites survive solely on the money they earn from click-throughs and pageviews.
If that’s all you’re looking for, clickbait content is definitely a viable tool. As long as you can get links to your content out there via social media, search and other channels, you can start bringing in the traffic. Once you’ve got the user hooked, you can get more pageviews from them by directing them to other stories (via a ‘most read stories’ bar or a ‘suggested stories’ footer at the end of the post).
Even if your site is a more traditional e-commerce or lead generation affair, clickbait shouldn’t be entirely discounted. Once you’ve got the reader into your site, you may be able to guide them to a conversion via the design of your site or via a call-to-action at the end of the article.
Con: It can bring in the wrong type of traffic
Whether you’re getting your revenue from ads, sales or leads, it’s never just about traffic numbers – it’s about ensuring the traffic you get represents value to your business.
If you rely on conversions, will clickbait bring in the kind of traffic that’s likely to convert? In most cases, the answer is probably no.
Unlike advice/how-to articles (where users will be looking for a trustworthy source with the knowledge to help them), clickbait doesn’t often attract the kind of users who are in the frame of mind to buy – they’re usually there to be entertained.
Nevertheless, it’s possible to use clickbait in a way that generates interest in your products or services. For example, you could put together a list of ‘life hacks’ which demonstrate how your products can ‘change your life’. You might be able to drive impulse purchasing by linking to product pages throughout the article.
Pro: Emotion engages readers
If you’ve read our blog on brand storytelling, you’ll know that provoking an emotional response from your reader is a good way to get them engaged in your content. It also helps to ensure your content – and hopefully by extension, your brand – sticks in their mind long after they’ve closed the tab.
Clickbait articles often use emotional tactics very well – they can get readers outraged over a particular issue, or warm their hearts with inspirational stories. These tactics also help to drive social sharing and push these kinds of posts to the heights of virality – readers want to share their anger, disgust, joy or excitement with their friends and family.
Con: Misaimed and exploitative stories alienate readers
Be aware that not all readers will experience the kinds of emotions you expect them to feel. People may take an oppositional view to the point you’re presenting, particularly if you’re clearly forcing them into a way of thinking and/or you haven’t considered the alternative interpretations of the story.
What’s more, if readers believe you’re exploiting their emotions for your own clicks and shares, they’ll be unwilling to support you (and may even call you out on your behaviour, leading to a PR nightmare).
While unrelated to clickbait, this is a lesson that Youtube content creators The Fine Bros learned very recently. Their announcement of a licensing programme for their React series (which they thought would excite fellow Youtubers and encourage collaborations) actually resulted in a major backlash, with fans angry that they were trying to claim the concept of reaction videos as their own. The pair lost over 2 million subscribers and were forced to abandon their licensing plans.
Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your readers – they don’t like being manipulated, and they don’t like being told how to feel. The alternative is to present stories objectively, giving users the freedom to make their own minds up. If the content is good and the story still has emotional weight, you should still get an emotional response from your readers.
Pro: It’s great for building links
Since clickbait publishers focus on social media sharing to boost their visibility and readership, they’re effectively letting their users do their linkbuilding for them – and of course, the bigger and more natural your backlink profile is, the more visibility and traffic you can expect from search.
While the exact impact of social media on search rankings isn’t really known, it has been confirmed that Google crawls Facebook, Twitter and other networking sites just as it does for other websites – hence, the links your readers are posting to your content will likely help to boost your SEO.
Con: You run the risk of Google penalties
If the words ‘Google Panda and Penguin’ mean anything to you, you’ll know Google values the quality of your content far more than the quantity you’re posting. Previous algorithm updates have proven that they’re committed to providing high quality search results for their users, even if that means handing out ranking penalties for thin content.
The point is, Google is smart enough to know if you’re purposefully duping people into reading and sharing content which doesn’t serve their needs. Throwaway content might help you build links and social buzz, but don’t expect it to help your SEO performance in the long run.
Pro: Clickbait works well for social
We’ve already gone over how the emotional impact of clickbait, and the need of users to have shared emotional experiences, helps to drive sharing on social media (thereby boosting its visibility and helping out with your SEO).
Another big part of the appeal of sharing clickbait is its bite-sized nature. Content is engaging but easy to consume – just as the brevity of Twitter updates helps you catch up with your followers fairly quickly (and encourages you to seek out more), clickbait manages to capture the attention of users because they know they won’t have to invest much time to enjoy it.
Con: Or does it? Networking sites are the gatekeepers
In November 2014, Facebook changed its News Feed algorithm to give less visibility to poor-quality clickbait – a move which hit the notorious Upworthy with a 48% drop in traffic over the next two months. Other clickbait publishers (including Distractify and ViralNova) saw similar traffic declines.
Like search engines, social networking sites want to ensure their users only see high-quality, valuable content. If they become known for delivering spammy content, there goes their value to their users.
Just as website owners have always been at the mercy of Google when it comes to their search rankings and traffic, content publishers have to be aware that social networks have the final say over the visibility of their content. You either have to ensure your content has the quality to be considered valuable to social users, or keep churning out weaker content and keep your fingers crossed that you won’t be found out.
The bottom line: clickbait can be an effective tool in the right circumstances, but ultimately, you’ll have more success in the long run with well-researched, well-written and highly relevant content.
That’s not to say you can’t use the same techniques to your advantage, though. For example, as long as you can avoid the cliches, a title which sparks the user’s curiosity will bring in more traffic.
Above all else, have respect for your visitors and customers, and always serve up content which serves their needs before your own.