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Curiosity Killed the Content Marketing

Do you know what animal you were in a past life? Or what member of the Spice Girls you are? Or perhaps, that one secret trick Doctors swear by to lose weight? If so, you may have fallen prey to clickbait. And just FYI: Elephant; Posh; and if Doctors had one trick that would help people lose weight, it probably wouldn’t be a secret. Our innate curiosity as human beings allows us to fall into the clickbait trap – we are tantalised by explosive, emotive language and the withholding of information that requires a click to reveal what’s within. Or else we are lured by the siren’s call of hypothetical phrased headlines and find ourselves thrown against the rocks of whatever useless link we have clicked on. Spiralling down various internet wormholes through clicks is all too common, and when free time is transient, articles that waste the time of the user are considered by some to a scourge upon our browsing liberty. However, the rise of clickbait has provided marketers with an interesting opportunity. In an environment where clicks are king, attention grabbing, emotive headlines are a sure fire way to pull an audience in.

Clickbait can be defined as, ‘something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest’. Along with invaluable memes (the thought of browsing the web without Evil Kermit and Salt Bae memes is a horror to heinous to bare thinking about) and trending topics, Twitter is also a provider of breaking news for millions. But with a limit on characters, 140 to be precise, Tweets often have to be punchy and succinct to draw people in, and what better way than a hypothetical question?


Websites such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy have been accused of employing clickbait tactics to increase clicks and drive interaction. A claim which, incidentally, Buzzfeed vociferously deny: One person’s clickbait is apparently another’s clever creative content marketing. ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’, so states Newton’s Third Law of Motion; and thus sites such as The Onion and Clickhole are satirical websites that have emerged as a response to the attempts to make content viral and shareable. The Onion’s headlines have been taken seriously by unwitting victims; in fact, The New York Times had to issue a correction after erroneously including a parody cover of President Obama in one of their articles.

Clickbait Jargon

An over-riding, consistent theme of sensational language pervades clickbait headlines. In fact, one can play clickbait bingo when browsing the web, such is the prevalence of phrases: ‘quick hacks’; ‘one little trick’; ‘…you won’t believe what happens next’; ’10 signs you’re actually a …’ Over used clichés have infiltrated web copy, however, this practise has arguably evolved from sensational tabloid headlines that aim to grab the attention of passers-by and pique their interest. David Ogilvy, often referred to as the ‘Father of Advertising’, realised early on the importance of headlines that titillate the reader, ‘On the average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy’. Clickbait headlines may be degrading the integrity of content, however, they are producing interesting results. As of 2013, Upworthy was generating an average of 75,000 Facebook likes per article, which is huge.

Fighting Clickbait

In August 2016, Facebook announced that they would be making an effort to tackle clickbait, ‘We’ve heard from people that they specifically want to see fewer stories with clickbait headlines or link titles. These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer’. On Twitter, one noble warrior with the handle @savedyouaclick is fighting the good fight and revealing the information being withheld through clickbait headlines. However, the yin and the yang of the universe, and thus the internet, means that there has been a backlash to the backlash; Buzzfeed wrote an article asking the internet to stop saving them a click (the motivations behind producing such an article given the accusations of clickbait thrown at Buzzfeed are not all that ambiguous).

How do marketers use clickbait? The answer will shock you!

In the ever evolving landscape of marketing, clickbait is being employed by marketers to drive consumers towards content. When click-through rate is used as a measure for success, then some marketers try to achieve clicks by any means which can lead to clickbait. You can lead a consumer to a website, but you can’t make them engage; effective marketing relies on engagement and not merely visibility, getting consumers to click on headlines are half the battle. Given the notoriously short attention span of humans, less than a goldfish at eight seconds, attention is a valuable commodity. Tony Haille, CEO of Chartbeat, an online service measuring the reader attention and thus the value of content, wrote a piece for Time Magazine challenging misconceptions related to engagement on the web. Chartbeat’s research found that 55% of users who arrive on a page leave after 15 seconds. This would suggest that in although clickbait headlines may work in driving users towards a page, engaging content is still needed for interaction. Haille notes, ‘Research across the Chartbeat network has shown that if you can hold a visitor’s attention for just three minutes they are twice as likely to return than if you only hold them for one minute’. He argues that those marketers who are using snappy, grabbing headlines in order to entice consumers are ultimately not producing effective results.

So perhaps clickbait is merely a phrase the internet must endure before we herald in a new era of content. But at the moment, at least, clickbait seems to be hanging on.