Clickbait is the snake oil of the digital age, or is it?

Often ridiculed, furtively perused and generally misunderstood, clickbait is as controversial as the tabloid text it often promotes.

Literally, clickbait is content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to get to a particular web page. This is a perfectly reasonable device for communicators to use, and no different in intention from an attractive cover on a book or a trailer for a film.

In practice, however, we tend to define it as anything on the net we find unsatisfactory, whether by its headline, theme, subject, or execution.

Negative user feedback about deceptive clickbait prompted Facebook to begin changing its algorithm and it continues to tweak it. The changes were initially aimed at eliminating clickbait, but the algorithm now also sniffs out “fake news”, following threats from major advertisers such as Unilever after the rise in deceptive stories and other toxic content during the 2016 US election campaign.

An old wolf in new sheep’s clothing

Clickbait is a relatively new term, but an old concept. In 1927, a young copywriter called John Caples created one of the most successful ads in history:

This ad for the US School of Music offered suspense, hope, a story with a happy ending and the opportunity for the reader to follow the same path to success as the protagonist. The structure of this historical ad will be familiar to anyone surfing the net or using social media.

The idea of creating interest and curiosity has always been the backbone of the information-entertainment spectrum. Advertisers following Caples have used the same techniques – only the medium has changed.

We are still subject to the “don’t-touch-that-dial” advertising ploys of television which promise “you won’t believe what happens next…after the break”, especially during current affairs and reality programs. Sadly, Search Engine Optimisation has killed the cringeworthy, but unforgettable, headlines made famous by the New York Post’s Vincent Musetto (eg “Headless body found in topless bar”) and Variety (“Hicks nix sticks pix”) and replaced them with the SEO-friendly key-words of clickbait.

Clicking isn’t the end goal

Digital marketers often claim clickbaiting is a successful way to increase site visits, but many content creators disagree. An enticing link may lure the user through to the next page, but they are unlikely to go further; to return to the site; or, more importantly, to share the link.

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith says his website, contrary to popular opinion,  doesn’t use the technique. According to Smith, clickbait stopped working in 2009.
It was always a flawed concept because it made promises it couldn’t keep and, unlike the TV ads which you couldn’t escape if you wanted to see a full episode of your favourite program, clickbait can’t hold the attention of internet users who give up in disgust when they don’t get what they want after their first click.

The disingenuous link, like the banner ad, harks back to a business model in which clicks were tied directly to dollars — something many people assume is still how all online publishers make their money. But as Smith says: “You can trick someone to click, but you can’t trick someone to share.”

People don’t like to be duped, and they certainly don’t want to let others know (by sharing those clickbait links) that they have been duped. On the other hand, if you produce quality content that lives up to its promise – whether it is “tear-jerking elephant family reunion” or “five ways interest rate rises will affect the value of your home” – your pages are likely to be shared.

Why does sharing matter?

Again, we return to an enduring communications concept – third party endorsement.  When you share a link, you are putting your reputation, or at least your street cred, on the line. You are saying “I think this is” … useful/funny/cool/important, depending on the context. This tacit recommendation means your friends or colleagues, who trust your judgment, are more likely to click through and are, to some degree, primed to respond positively to the content.

How can you get site visitors to share and return?

No new tricks here, either. An interesting or intriguing (but never misleading) headline; a relevant image; a teaser that provides a taste of what’s to come (in both style and content); and a fast-loading page that then delivers on your promise and offers well-written, interesting, relevant, fresh and concise copy.

Budgets allocated between “earned” and “owned” content may need to be re-examined. The changes to the Facebook algorithm will make it harder for brands that have previously seen good organic reach within the News Feed to maintain their performance, so they may have to rely more heavily on paid advertising. A win-win for Facebook on the ethics and economic fronts!

The key takeaway: classic principles of good communication still work. Oh, and don’t use shoddily photo-shopped images of aging women apparently hated by dermatologists – unless of course your snake oil really can work miracles.